The Piano Guys

After airing the LDS General Conference, KSL-TV figures people may stick around and keep watching.  They generally follow conference with other LDS-themed material.  Yesterday, it was a show about The Piano Guys, interviews, excerpts from their videos, footage of the Guys interacting with their kids.

If you’ve never heard of The Piano Guys, check out their website.  Basically, they make music videos, which they release on YouTube. The music mostly features a pianist and a cellist, and the music ranges from classical to pop to movie themes.  They’re all LDS, and they’ve become a YouTube sensation.  And should, because they’re really good.

When I think of The Piano Guys, I generally think of the pianist and the cellist featured on their videos.  In fact, to me, one of the enduring mysteries of their work is why they call themselves ‘The Piano Guys.’  Wouldn’t ‘The Piano Guy and the Cello Guy’ be more accurate?  But it turns out, there are five Guys all told, the Pianist (Jon Schmidt) and the Cellist (Steven Sharp Nelson) , and three other people in the studio and shooting and editing the videos.  That’s their partnership, and the KSL feature gave all five equal time.

They seem like great guys.  Very family oriented, happily married, great kids that they really seem to enjoy playing with.  Focused on their faith and their values.  In fact, after awhile, the KSL feature got a bit boring.  The Guys kept bearing their testimonies, and talking about how many miracles have made awesome video moments possible, and for me, it got a little dull.  Heck, I’d way rather they just showed a bunch of Piano Guys videos.  But it raised a really interesting point, a point I can’t make unless I link to a bunch of Piano Guys videos.  So bear with me.

Check out this one. It’s a Mission Impossible thing they did with Lindsay Stirling.  If you don’t know who Lindsay Stirling is, she’s this amazing prodigy, a BYU student–I actually think she’s now graduated–who on her website says she combines ‘violin, modern dance, and The Legend of Zelda’ in her art.  She’s astoundingly talented, also a YouTube sensation, and cute as can be (I personally know five LDS RM-type guys who confess to having massive crushes on her.)  Anyway, check out the video.  It’s really fun, sort of goofy, with amazing, kind of toss-it-off casual musical virtuosity; it’s a trademark Piano Guys joint.

Then there’s this video. Steven Sharp Nelson playing a love song, the Turtles “Happy Together,” to his cello, in a video featuring him taking the cello grocery shopping, and playing volleyball together, also golf, also soccer. Also skydiving.  Or there’s their Pachelbel riff, amazing, funny, fun, astonishing, and a sly acknowledgement that the cello part in the Pachelbel canon is kinda boring.

Their most popular video ever is a medley of Lord of Rings themes.  But they’ve also done riffs based on Vivaldi (which they combine with the music from the Bourne movies), Beethoven (via One Republic), Mozart (though they make Mozart seem very rock and roll).  The Guys, in other words, are classical musicians, with a great love for the music of the past.  But they also enjoy a pop sensibility.  They are, in fact, musical deconstructionists.  And their music has the richness and sensitivity and invention and imagination of an essentially reverent irreverence.

And man, do they love pop music.  My favorite of their videos, is an Africanized version of Coldplay’s “Paradise.”  But that’s probably just because I really like that song, and like what Alex Boye does with it here.  But I think Taylor Swift’s “Begin Again” is insipid, except in their arrangement.  I would face the gallows rather than attend a One Direction concert, but all Five Guys join in to make “What Makes you Beautiful” amazing.  Christina Perri, or Bruno Mars; they’re really kind of shameless.

And of course, there’s a tradition here.  Classically trained musicians doing pop songs; Ferrante and Teicher.  The Boston Pops.  Andrea Bocelli.  Ah Giorgio, that one horrible movie Pavarotti made.  Sure.

But in that KSL special, the Guys talked over and over about how they hope their music promotes spirituality, how they want to touch people with it. One of their videos begins with this quote:

Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine. Beethoven.

And they pray before every video, and while making them, and they are devoted to their God and His gospel.  All that.

And one would think that that would result in music that’s overtly pious, that’s staid and obtrusively reverential.  Slow and quiet and funereal, like every hymn sung in nearly every sacrament meeting in Utah.  Art that never once strays from a standard of (I loathe this word) ‘appropriateness.’

And that’s not what they.  The Piano Guys music is, wow, wildly, insanely inventive and fun.  Goofy and silly and fun.  And also, yes, deeply reverent at times.  But so incredibly virtuosic, even maybe a little show-offy–Jon Schmidt and Steve Nelson are really incredibly proficient musicians.

But is it possible that The Piano Guys are expanding our vision of spirituality in art?  Is it possible that their music is showing us the multitude of ways in which the Spirit manifests itself artistically.  For if the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal, and therefore to one is given by the Spirit, wisdom, and to another knowledge, and to another faith, and to others healing and miracles and prophecy and discerning of spirits and tongues, why then, isn’t it possible that to these five Guys, the spirit manifests itself in musical goofiness?  In giddy musical pleasure?  In incredible virtuosity and an unlimited musical imagination and in videography of extraordinary inventiveness?  And that the Spirit manifests just as much when riffing on Mission Impossible themes as when performing “Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel?”  That creative insight, fearlessness and wit and energy and drive and passion–and fun, and goofy humor–can somehow reveal God too?

3 thoughts on “The Piano Guys

  1. WhiteEyebrows

    For me, feeling the Spirit != crying and sentimentality. Feeling the Spirit = joy, happiness, levity – a quickening of the heart – all of which I feel when I watch the Piano Guys.

  2. Ted Bushman

    ooh! What nice links!

    I really agree with these thoughts. I once heard something to the effect of “Mormons are the best collaborators in the world, but they lack individual geniuses to create a cultural literature.” Somethin like that. It’s perplexed me since, and I do see a fear of self-promotion among LDS artists. But I see here a nice example of what might become a trend: very faithful, very talented LDS people doing the stuff they Really Want to Do, not stepping into some mouldy EFY-esque, Desert-Book-intended style. Not sure if we’ll ever step out of being pop music junkies…eh. maybe that’s okay.


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