How do you go from being a talented, but underappreciated new age, instrumentalist to a YouTube phenomenon whose videos have been viewed more than a quarter of a billion times?

“It all started in 2009,” replies pianist Jon Schmidt, speaking from his home in Bountiful, Utah. “I wanted to record a cover tune, so I asked my little daughter, ‘What’s a great tune on the radio right now?’ She loved Taylor Swift, whose song ‘Love Story’ had just come out. I decided to combine it with Coldplay’s ‘Viva la Vida.’ I had cellist Steven Sharp Nelson come in and play on it. And I really wanted to have him play a kick drum, because I knew the sight of a cellist playing that way would hook people in.”

Schmidt posted a video of the performance to YouTube, expecting a few thousand hits. “But it just exploded,” he recalls. “After a month or so it was at a million hits. Perez Hilton posted it on his gossip site, and we got 300,000 hits from that alone.” At that point in his career, Schmidt had released a string of solo piano albums, but none had drawn anything approaching this level of interest.

Eventually Swift’s record label forced Schmidt to take down the video—but not before he’d learned how a fresh treatment of a familiar tune plus some clever videography could spawn a viral hit. “I realized that all I needed to do was keep coming up with stuff like that,” he says. “We’d opened the YouTube portal.”

Meanwhile, Schmidt’s friend Paul Anderson, who owned a piano store in St. George, Utah, saw the “Love Story Meets La Vida” clip and made a bold proposal. “He suggested that we go into business together,’ recalls Schmidt. “He said, ‘I’ve got the money. I’ve got a store full of pianos. I’m way into film. I’ve got a YouTube Channel.’ One thing led to another: Steven, the cellist, got pulled in. Al ven der Beek, who owns the studio we use, lives on Steven’s street. And all of a sudden, the four of us were in business together.”

The new project took its name from Anderson’s shop: The Piano Guys. Now their YouTube channel features dozens of videos, each of which has been viewed many millions of times. The appeal isn’t merely musical—the videos often boast stunning natural settings. The Piano Guys make the most of Utah’s immense natural beauty. From bucolic fields to rocky red cliff-tops, you won’t believe some of the places they’ve hauled those nine-foot Yamaha grand pianos.

“That’s a crazy passion for Paul,” says Schmidt. “He’s always had the idea of putting pianos in the most unusual spots.”

all access7Schmidt plays a variety of Yamaha pianos in the group’s videos. “Paul has a store full of them, and they’re great instruments,” says Schmidt. “I’ve always recorded on Yamahas.” He’s particularly fond of working with a Disklavier Pro because it permits him to fine-tune performances after the fact. “The Disklavier makes it so much easier to arrive at the final perfection you need,” he explains.

While Schmidt speaks, keys click softly in the background. He makes a point of practicing his Hanon piano exercises every day, often playing silently on his Yamaha Clavinova. He learned that sort of diligence early in life from his parents, German immigrants who took music studies seriously. “With a German mom, there’s no arguing about practice,” Schmidt laughs. “It’s more like, ‘You will practice, and you will like it!’”

Jon received formal classical training from his sister, Rose-Anne, a virtuoso pianist 11 years his senior. “She was my idol,” says Jon. “Everyone idolized her. We all thought she just walked on water.” But tragically, Rose-Anne succumbed to a heart attack at age 30.

Jon also credits his sister with inspiring him to compose. “She always expressed the opinion that Beethoven was deliberately pranking the audience at the end of his symphonies, faking them out with those eternal endings. She perceived a sense of humor behind it. That concept really appealed to me as an elementary school kid. I started to get a sense of how the tonic chord feels like home, and that you can rip the listener away from home using the dominant chord, which sets up a great anticipation for a return to the tonic. After that it was easy to get a feel for how the other chords worked.”

For all his technical skill, Schmidt doesn’t fear musical simplicity—in fact, he seeks it out. “I like to stick with a pop accessibility,” he says. ”If it gets too complex, you lose people. I’ve shied away from jazz for that reason—people just don’t like it as much. I think it’s a little too heady for people. I prefer to make the maximum connection with people.”