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24 Dec 2019

Preparation, Prayers and Popularity: The Piano Guys Bring Viral-Video Success to the McCallum Theatre

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The Piano Guys. The Piano Guys.

Imagine this: You’re at a concert. It’s finally time for the curtains to roll back, and you see … four middle-age dudes, with a piano and a cello?

Yep. Before you can turn away, you’re hit with the piano melody of one of your favorite songs. One man is playing the piano while the other guys are making drum beats on the sides, or even pulling the strings of the piano, to create all the parts of that song.

The Piano Guys are doing what they do best—and you just can’t help but be amazed. See them for yourself on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 17 and 18, when they perform three shows at the McCallum Theatre.

Jon Schmidt, Steven Sharp Nelson, Paul Anderson and Al van der Beek are four Utah dads who—with a little charm, luck and what they call blessings from God—have been winning the hearts of audiences as The Piano Guys since 2010. Their unique approach to creating music—performing covers of modern hits in a classical style—as well as their astonishing filming locations, including the Great Wall of China and the Christ the Redeemer statue, have made them viral-video sensations, resulting in more than 6.6 million YouTube subscribers and close to 2 billion views.

“It’s kind of serendipity, one of those happy accidents,” Schmidt said during a recent phone interview. “God brought us together. I really don’t know how else to explain it. Paul was doing his piano store, and had an interest in videography. I was doing a solo piano act and had eight albums of my own piano compositions, with a small following. Steve was doing music, and Al had his own recording studio that he was producing stuff in.

“Steve played a song with me at a gig one day, which turned into more songs, and collaborations in the studio. Then we gave him a microphone—which was one of the greatest decisions that I ever made: He’s got a world-class sense of humor, seriously a comic genius, and that added this sort of Smothers Brothers element to our show that was really cool and unforeseen. I would act like a goofball at my shows before, but when he joined, we were just put on a whole new level, and audiences love it. My favorite thing is when someone in the audience yells something random, and he’ll turn it into something so hilarious in a flash.”

Schmidt and I discussed the mysterious ways in which musical inspiration occurs.

“I think the music chooses us,” Schmidt said. “We’ve tried to work on stuff that makes (logical) sense, but you just don’t feel it. You know within an hour that something will never work. I’ve heard it compared to sculpting, where sculptors just have to look at the marble and can tell if it will be worth it to go in that direction or not. Concepts are rarely introduced; they just kind of hit you, and you know it’s worth it just by how it feels.”

The Piano Guys’ distinct creative process helps make them unique. You probably never knew you needed to hear “Let It Go” from Frozen in the style of classical music—yet you adore it once you hear it.

“When I was a teenager, I had a brother—12 years older than me—who was always trying to find music to show me,” said Schmidt. “It didn’t matter the genre—classical, Janis Joplin or choral music. But one day, he showed me this new album from a group called Mannheim Steamroller. It wasn’t their Christmas covers; it was their early originals. They mixed classical and rock ’n’ roll, and that captivated me, because growing up, my German immigrant parents would always be playing classical music. I was immersed in classical music at home, and when I was with my friends, I’d listen to the radio—so this Mannheim Steamroller group brought both those worlds together in such a cool way. When I started writing my own original music, it was in that style. I tried to rock-ify and modernize my classical piano training. Steve, our cellist, had the same sensibility, so we sprinkle classical all over our originals and even our covers. … People are intrigued when you mash up two appealing elements into one work.”

If The Piano Guys’ music wasn’t intriguing enough, each of their videos also features a beautiful backdrop. The guys have gone everywhere from various wonders of the world to Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

“Paul really has a great mind for this project,” Schmidt said. “… He has a piano store, friends with helicopters and a great can-do attitude. My favorite place to film was the Iguazu Falls in Brazil. … Pretty much everywhere you look, you’ll see waterfalls and green. It was such an amazing place to make music. Another great place was the Lincoln Memorial. It’s one of those moments when I’m glad my parents made me practice.”

The Piano Guys first found success on YouTube—but weren’t sure their songs would translate in a live, theater setting. But they’ve been taking chances their whole career, and going out on tour was just another leap of faith.

“The thing that blows me away is that booking managers will tell us that we’ve been the greatest show they’ve ever seen,” Schmidt said. “It always fills me with wonder. Steve and I will walk out onstage and think, ‘Do these people realize this is a piano and cello concert?’ I really don’t understand it; it’s not a likely scenario. We’re not shredders by any means, but we just pray that we can put on a show where people can feel the love of God—and somehow, it just works.”

The Piano Guys will perform at 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 17; and 2 and 8 p.m., and Saturday, Jan. 18, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $65 to $125. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787 or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.

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