The Piano Guys – Then and Now

The Piano Guys - Bryce Canyon

We were scouting canyon overlooks, trying to find locations where a grand piano could be rolled on a dolly to the edge of a precipice. Flying a piano via helicopter can get expensive you know. We searched several canyon areas in south central Utah, but didn't confirm a location until we stood on the rim of Bryce Point at Bryce Canyon National Park. Of course there was the small detail of getting permission from the national park service.

The Piano Guys at Bryce Canyon National Park
The Piano Guys

I had contacted the world famous Piano Guys looking for a way to help promote interest in Bryce Canyon National Park and the surrounding area. My work in tourism consulting was always leading me to find new and creative ways to help my clients, in this case the local tourism office, and it seemed that a viral video on Youtube was one excellent option to consider. But it's one thing to create a video, and another thing entirely to have it go viral. The Piano Guys had recently established themselves as a group that could get significant viral attention on the Internet.

When I first made contact with Paul Anderson, the originator of The Piano Guys YouTube channel, I pitched the idea of shooting their next video near Bryce Canyon while also offering to cover the hard costs of that video shoot. Paul was already in the midst of negotiating to shoot in one other very interesting location, and we found ourselves having to play the waiting game to see how this other option panned out.

Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon National Park

As with most decisions for The Piano Guys, we got a last minute call from Paul indicating they were ready to work with us, if we could pin down the details within a matter of days. The tourism office for the Bryce Canyon area, Bruce Fullmer and Falyn Owens, went to work on the approvals for the locations, and I ventured out with Paul and others to firm up the location scouting.

Everyone was pleased when approval from the NPS was received, and final scouting was done the night before the video production was to begin. In addition to the Bryce Point location, Paul was anxious to stage some scenes in a section of recently burned forest, and in one other location that had formations similar to the Hoodoos found in Bryce Canyon.

It was pitch black and chilly at 8,300 feet on this September morning when we pulled the grand piano from a trailer at the Bryce Point overlook. Four of us rolled the well-padded piano on a large soft-wheel dolly along an initial paved path and then out onto a dirt track on top of hoodoo formations that dropped off both edges into a charcoal chasm. It definitely helped that it was still too dark to see the bottom of the canyon.

The crew went to work piecing the piano together and musicians Jon Schmidt (piano) and Steven Sharp Nelson (Cello) prepared to play their roles. Al van der Beek, the man behind the music recording, set up the audio systems for Schmidt and Sharp to synchronize their performances to, while video production crews set up a jib to obtain some of the moving shots that are the hallmark of The Piano Guys video style.

As the sun crested the eastern rim of the distant mountains, the video shoot began in earnest, and the main amphitheater of Bryce Canyon gently reverberated with the sounds of David Guetta's Titanium mashed up with the classical sounds of Pavane by Gabriel Fauré. Throughout the morning and subsequent evening, as we shot at this location, significant numbers of Bryce Canyon visitors lined the canyon rim to catch glimpses of the proceedings. During mid-day we ventured off to the other settings to capture different scenes, and the day of shooting went off flawlessly.

My 15-year-old son Eli accompanied me on this trip, and the highlight for he and I both was when Jon Schmidt offered to play a song for Eli just after sunset. Eli was already familiar with Jon Schmidt's music from long before Jon had become part of The Piano Guys. In fact Eli had, on his iPod, a recording of Jon's song All Of Me. Jon turned to Eli and asked him if he'd like to hear it LIVE. Imagine Jon playing his grand piano in the afterglow of sunset, on the edge of a precipice in Bryce Canyon National Park.

Listen to Jon play this amazing song here, and you can imagine the scene. Eli's has rarely exhibited more sheer joy than at that moment. I don't exaggerate when I say it was one of the most magical moments of Eli's young life, and a remarkable experience for us both.

Scores of park visitors reported to us, and to the National Park Service, that they'd heard beautiful music echoing through the hoodoo formations of the main amphitheater. Some discovered the source of the music as they ventured out on Bryce Point and observed the video production taking place.

Months later I documented the behind-the-scenes view of this day, piecing together some of the video I had shot while on location.

The Piano Guys: Where are they today?

Soon after shooting the Bryce Canyon video The Piano Guys signed a recording deal with Sony Music Masterworks and soon thereafter they were hosted on some major television talk shows. PBS recorded and broadcast a performance from Utah's Red Butted Garden and, since then, their lives have been consumed with traveling the world to perform. In September of 2012, The Piano Guys had 750,000 YouTube followers and 134 million views of their videos. Now they've far exceeded a total of one billion views on YouTube and have nearly six million YouTube followers. Five of their six albums have reached #1 on the charts in the US Classical category and all six have hit #1 in US New Age.

Al van der Beek has recently expanded his role from recording maestro to also include at least one significant vocal performance in last year's release of “Okay” that has garnered over six million views. Paul continues to manage much of the video production, while Steven and Jon continue as the main performers, and collaborators in composing with Al.

Recently Paul gave me a call. He was in Seattle doing a concert with Jon, Steven, and Al, and he was once again looking for locations for another music video. He indicated that they had been traveling and performing so much, that their time for creating new location videos had been severely limited. This next location shoot is for their upcoming Christmas video, and will certainly contribute to the body of work that has made The Piano Guys household names in the far corners of the world.