From time to time, I like to feature artists on here that may not be as familiar to the average listener, but that a music nut like me knows well. Today, I want to do the only thing better than a feature… a double feature! I’d like to look at two artists who beautifully fuse classical and pop music in their work: Lindsey Stirling & The Piano Guys. Stirling and TPG have a fair amount in common: both are YouTube sensations who eventually recorded and sold commercial albums, and both feature classical-style covers of pop songs (in fact, they have covered some of the same songs). I love talking about artists like these two, because they show how the Internet has democratized music. In this day and age, anyone with some instruments and some talent can become a star. The two groups took slightly different routes to where they are now, however.
Lindsey Stirling first appeared on the scene in season five of America’s Got Talent, where she made it all the way to the quarterfinals, but was voted off the show amid criticism that her fusion of violin playing and dance was not marketable on its own. In the wake of her setback, she set out with a renewed focus on her music and wrote several original songs, collaborating with choreographer Devin Graham to produce music videos for them. She slowly started to gain attention until her video for her song “Crystallize,” garnered over 42 million views and became the eighth-most watched video on YouTube in 2012.
Since she began making YouTube videos, Stirling has tended to focus more on fusing classical music with dubstep and electronic music, as demonstrated in “Crystallize” and other videos. As a former violinist myself, I was skeptical when one of my coworkers showed me video of the “dubstep violinist.” But her violin playing blends very well with dubstep dance beats. Her violin parts are made up largely of sixteenth and thirty-second notes, and they provide a nice contrast to the strong half and quarter note downbeats of the electronic parts. More examples of this can be seen in the music video for her song “Spontaneous Me.”
Stirling has also recorded many interesting covers of popular songs and medleys of movie soundtracks. I think my favorite of these is her medley of songs from the hit Broadway musical The Phantom of the Opera. This cover is less dubstep and more rock, as she employs a full band of electric guitars and drums. The video builds to a face-melting climax at around the four-minute mark (that is currently my ringtone), where she does an epic solo and melds “Think of Me” and “The Music of the Night” into an amazing concoction of pure rock epicness.
Stirling released her eponymous debut album last year, and as a middle finger to those who told her that her talents weren’t marketable, proceeded to sell over 250,000 copies in the US and climbed to #23 on the Billboard 200. The album attained several sales certifications worldwide, and she is embarking on a North American tour this summer.
The Piano Guys, on the other hand, took more of a pure grassroots approach to stardom. Like many YouTube success stories, the group started simply as a bunch of guys messing around on their instruments and posting videos of it to YouTube. Their videos went viral, and before they knew it, several of them had hit the 20 million view mark. Sony signed them to a record deal, and they released their eponymous first album in 2012, with two follow-ups in 2013. The group consists of Jon Schmidt (piano) and Steven Sharp Nelson (cello). Paul Anderson and Al van der Beek provide support behind the scenes.
TPG’s music leans more toward the classical end of the spectrum, featuring many poppy adaptations of classical music standards, such as “Rockelbel’s Canon” their arrangement of my favorite classical piece, “Canon in D” by Johann Pachelbel. Cellist Nelson turns the traditional piece on its head by plucking his cello like a guitar and turning the Canon into a rollicking dance song.
Schmidt’s piano playing drips with classical elegance and passion, such as on this cover of “All of Me.” I love how into the music he gets. Like a true artist, he lets the music flow though him, and invites the audience to participate in the listening experience with him. His playing is also very precise and technically sound as well.
TPG also injects a healthy dose of pop culture into their videos as well, such as the two above. I personally love their Star Wars medley, which puts a poppy spin on John Williams’ masterpieces, with a funny video to go with it (I know I always wanted my bow to turn into a lightsaber back in my orchestra days). They also have been known to fuse pop and classical songs together within the same video, such as in the second one here, titled “Michael Meets Mozart,” which brings together Mozart and Michael Jackson’s melodies. Fusions like these illustrate to the listener how much of an influence classical music has on modern chord progressions and melodies.