Why I'm Tired of ThePianoGuys

Quite a few of my students are fans of the pop cover group, ThePianoGuys. The group became popular on YouTube with their acoustic-ish covers and mashups of famous pop music songs and they have since toured the country (and, I'm sure, the world). They have some entertainment value, to be sure, and there's no doubt in my mind that they make playing the piano and cello seem "cool" to young children, which should (in theory) increase the interest in classical instruments. But, when it comes to The Piano Guys, themselves, I have to tell you: I'm tired of them. 

A friend of mine once told me, "When it comes to taste in music, you are definitely a Republican," and in some sense he is correct. I don't enjoy popular, "Top 40" music (henceforth: pop) in the same way that I enjoy western art music (henceforth: classical). In my car, I listen to NPR and various podcasts. When I run, I prefer to listen to the sounds of nature. So, I don't spend much time with the music that ThePianoGuys play. But no, it's not the music that has soured me on this unique group, though that's certainly why I was never interested in the first place. I'm tired of them because they set a bad example for students learning to play musical instruments. 

In my teaching studio, I spend an inordinate amount of time - especially with younger students - on technique, everything from posture, to the placement of fingers on the bow, to the process of shifting the hand up and down the fingerboard. These technical considerations (and many, many others) are initially difficult to grasp and take many hours of practice to master. As I've written before, today's students are already a bit more inclined to expect instantaneous results and, when they don't see them, quit prematurely. I believe this is exacerbated by groups like ThePianoGuys. 

Make no mistake, Steven Sharp Nelson (ThePianoGuys' cellist) is not what one might call a "good" cello player but, like most in pop music, he puts on a nice show. My students come to their lessons with some of Mr. Nelson's most notorious habits (improper left hand setup, known in my studio as "violin fingers"; slouching posture with excessive shoulder tension; collapsed left hand fingers; a bow arm that does not allow for variances in weight, speed or contact point due to a drooping elbow; etc.). Those students of mine who are the biggest fans of ThePianoGuys are the same students who do not fix these problems when I address them in the lesson. I can only imagine - because as a precocious youngster, I sought to imitate Yo Yo Ma's sometimes-imperfect left hand - that my students hear me instruct them one way, but mentally point to the popular success of Mr. Nelson as proof that I'm crazy, and that my instruction is not worth considering.

Learning a musical instrument is hard work, and requires hours, months, years(!) of detailed practice. The difficulty of learning an instrument, and the critical thinking needed to practice and improve upon one's technical and musical skills are the reason that so many scientific papers tout the benefits of musical study. When my students watch ThePianoGuys, they are witnessing a cellist who has not worked hard to break basic habits. Instead, they see a cellist with the same problems that they have ("He's just like me!!") who, unlike them, has achieved commercial success despite his relative mediocrity. (Political aside: If that isn't the modern American Way, I don't know what is.)

Success, as I see it, is the result of some mysterious combination of luck and hard work. Success is also defined differently by each individual. Personally, great financial gain and broad renown are not necessarily how I define my own success. Sadly, many of my students see the millions of views on YouTube, the record deals, and the concert tour as success for ThePianoGuys, and it's hard to argue with that. However, because of that mysterious combination of luck and hard work, the group's success should not be considered an indication of their instrumental expertise (Mr. Nelson wasn't practicing 30 hours each week before their big break; he was selling real estate, and playing cello on the side.) On the other hand, the group 2Cellos (who play music that I am just as uninterested in as The Piano Guys) is made up of two legit, virtuosic (ugh, I hate that word) cellists, whose pedigrees include names like "Rostropovich," and "Royal Academy of Music." While they play it up for cameras, their technique is sound. Sadly, they'd be relative unknowns were it not for a music video they made to raise some needed capital. If my students insist on ignoring me, and taking their influence from these YouTube sensations, I'd much prefer that they emulate the technique of those fellas in 2Cellos than Mr. Nelson's. 

Anecdotally speaking, the students of mine who listen to or watch ThePianoGuys are - more or less - the most technically deficient, slow learning, I-didn't-practice-this-week students in my studio. Whether it is Mr. Nelson's and ThePianoGuys' influence of mediocrity, or just a strange coincidence (after all, I only have 18 students; a pretty small sample size) doesn't so much matter to me. I will continue to promote good techniques and intelligent, critical practicing during lessons. In my car, however, I won't be listening to ThePianoGuys. I'm tired of them.