Will the Real Piano Guys Please Stand Up?

The other day I was on Facebook looking through my newsfeed, and I came across a link to a video that said something like “If you don't think this is the most amazing thing you have ever seen, then you should check your pulse, because you might be dead!”

I took the bait (needless to say) and in a few seconds found myself watching the latest Christmas video from The Piano Guys. I am positive many of you have seen these videos too: there are usually a couple (or more) smiling middle-aged nerdy white guys playing a piano (and sometimes, cello?) arrangement of anything from Coldplay to Pachelbel to Christmas favorites ('tis the season!). And did I mention, they are always smiling? They are GREAT! I LOOOOOOVE THEM! Especially when someone in my Facebook community POSTS THEM ON MY WALL! These videos are the syrup and coolwhip for my pancakes, the five lumps of sugar for my tea, the three generous pumps of chocolate for my venti-nonfat-nolac-caramel latte, the butter for my oreos…Oh! I could go on and on!

I hate them.

But I must say, I am thankful for that fantastically false claim that was made on the link to the video, for otherwise I may never have truly come to terms with my strong feelings (update: someone has just now–Thurs. Dec 5–tagged me on facebook in this video. I love it. It really doesn't get any better than this).

Now, let me be clear, if you like these videos, I understand, and I don't want to pour cold coffee over your warm breakfast. Not at all. Enjoy your breakfast. But I don't want to eat it–instead, I will share a few words here about why these same videos that bring you joy, are for me like a lyme-disease-infested-tick under my skin.

They are NOT musically interesting, amazing, complex, edifying, artistic… No. No. No. They are not. I realize it “looks” like they are, and I will say that the men playing in the video have been trained, some probably very well. But they are not selling that training, and they have watered it down for the masses as much as they can. Take for example the Kung-Fu Panda video (DID THEY REALLY DO THAT? ARE THEY REALLY WEARING WHAT APPEARS TO BE TRADITIONAL CHINESE CLOTHING? yes, and yes): the music here is simpler than most pop-songs–lots of repetition, pentatonic scales (more on this later), and yes, lots of smiling. The ONE INTERESTING MOMENT (at 1:20 if you want to find it) is borrowed from none other than…Chopin! (Op. 28, no. 20, if you care to check) I have no problem with musical borrowing, especially when it enhances the greatness of what is already present in the music. But when it is the ONLY great thing in the music?

And what about these “pentatonic scales” you mentioned, Matt? Oh ho! I'm glad you asked. They are fantastic five-note scales that are frequently used (in all types of music) because they are beautiful and basically without dissonance. But when they are used ALL THE TIME? well, yes, you are correct, they can become a bit monotonous. And, on the piano, they are SIMPLE. Go ahead, try it for yourself. Sit at the piano, even if you know nothing, and play something using only the black keys. Isn't it beautiful? and easy? Yes it is! In fact, anyone can do it. Now, these Piano Guys are adding some complex rhythms at times, and overdubbing all sorts of harmonies, and even standing around an open piano and plucking strings, playing them with hair, beating on the sides with paper to make rhythms…there was some thought put into it. But not too much, because the core of the music is VERY simple, so much so that almost ANY tune can be adapted to function within pentatonicism.

“But, Matt,” you say, “What is wrong with simplicity in music? Can't I like it? Isn't most pop-music pretty simple?” There is nothing wrong with simplicity. Many times it can be beautiful. And I love me a good pop-song that is well-sung and produced. But I feel like this is different: this is simplicity in complexity's clothing. This is slight of hand, tricks of the eye, the stuff of side shows. I say call a spade, a spade, and PLEASE don't call this the most amazing heart-stopping thing you have ever seen. Because, when it comes to greatness, complexity, artistry, jaw-dropping amazing-ness, this does not even come close.

But here's a catch: The Piano Guys are extremely popular. Millions of views on YouTube. They tour, and they sell CDs on iTunes. Are all of those fans wrong? Doesn't popularity count for something? Well, I think the video content is possibly the best thing they do: they are well produced (from my non-professional vantage point), and they keep you interested and close to the action, all of which is important for them because the video is the first place we encounter their music. But the video experience is far more interesting than the music, and since we are always looking for that next cool video to share with our friends, we click and share and feel somewhat happy and maybe even “creative” as we post it on our wall.

And that is what concerns me: everywhere I look, I see the depth of our culture lessening, the experience we have with art waining, and our ability to create thinning. I understand that it may be different for me–music is my profession and my passion, and as such I am always looking to discover new things, improve my technique, and deepen my experiences. But aren't we all looking for that too? Are we settling for too little? I suppose it's possible that these videos are inspiring folks to seek out more music in their lives, but for the majority I don't think so. Like I said above, it's a side show, it's one minute of fireworks, a three minute YouTube high, and then we go on our way. It's not enough. No, it's not.

We all need to seek out more excellence in our lives, and we need not be afraid of it: excellence is not the same as elitism, and just because you enjoy listening to classical music doesn't make you better (or worse) than anyone else. So PLEASE, don't stop with The Piano Guys–seek something deeper because it's out there. You may just start on YouTube, but don't stop there! Go to a concert! Start to paint! Learn to play an instrument, or pick up that one you used to play! Sing in a choir! Start a blog! Learn a new dance! And do all of this with other people too!!!! Why? Why should you do this? Because participating in the arts teaches us something that nothing else can, something that we need to keep learning every day, something that we were made to do but isn't so easy to do when we are out of practice, something that can feed the world and fill it with immeasurable happiness and joy…

The arts teach us how to create–how to be creative.

You should need no better reason than that. Need a place to start? I can't speak for all the arts, but I can give you some new musical ideas, and for me, if you want pyrotechnics, complexity, people working together to make something beautiful and amazing, it just doesn't get any better than the Symphony Orchestra. There's 80 or more people on the same stage, playing all sorts of different instruments, and somehow it all fits together so beautifully!! If that doesn't knock your socks off… well, you get the picture. And how about this for a suggestion: Try listening to some of Gustav Mahler's symphonies–they are truly amazing, and for those of you in the US, they are all on spotify, and many video performances are on YouTube as well. The beginning of Mahler's first symphony is otherworldly, and after some poking and prodding from the clarinets, it evolves into one of the most beautiful and festive melodies that you can imagine. Heck, you probably have already heard it before, and maybe when you listen, you will rediscover something that you already knew! And Mahler always reminds me of Christmas–it's so festive and warm and sentimental. But a whole symphony is too much for you? Not enough time for Mahler? Okay, then why not start with those Chopin Preludes that you already heard part of in the Kung Fu Panda video? They are short! Listen to one a day! But don't stop there! Go to a concert! Get in close! Experience it, let it change you, teach you, inspire you to create something of your own.

Maybe that's why those Piano Guys are so happy–there's a lot of simplicity and immitation, but in the end they did create something together. And that's a good feeling–at least for them.