The Piano Guys are the brilliant and creative group of musicians bridging the gap between classical and contemporary music. With more than 4.5 million YouTube subscribers and more than a billion (that’s billion with a “B” folks!) views on the same, they are an international force in the music industry. We sat down with Al van der Beek -- music producer, songwriter, vocalist and self appointed fashion police of The Piano Guys and Steve Sharp Nelson -- cellist, songwriter, video producer, and businessman -- to talk about their music careers, their families, and their viewpoint on fatherhood.
I was lucky to get an interview with these two. As Steve pointed out when we were wrapping up, “We don’t do these interviews. In fact, we say no to 90% of these interviews. But your subject matter is so important to us that we could not deny the opportunity of bearing the burden with you in asserting that the sitcom father should not be the norm. We should stand up and be better fathers. It would take down crime, hunger and war. It would do so much for our world if fathers stood up and took responsibility for what their role is; and loved it, and took joy in it. Not just doing it out of duty, but finding joy in it. So thank you for doing this interview with us.”
A NOTE FROM THE PIANO GUYS
Talking with these two dads, you wouldn’t readily assume their worldwide success. They didn’t have handlers and they weren’t constantly checking their phones or urging us to get to the next question. They don’t wear their success on their sleeves. Instead they were inviting, kind, happy and thoughtful. It was like when you’re going door-to-door selling vacuums or knives and after knocking on what seems like a thousand unanswered doors, someone invites you in out of the blistering hot day and pours you a glass of fresh, cool lemonade. As much as we wanted to talk about them, they were genuinely interested in us. Together we discussed what it’s like being a dad: the difficulties, the joys, the humor, the respect, and the responsibility. The conversation was as easy as it was inspiring. Goodness radiates through their hopeful message and thoughtful insights.
So with that as a precursor, we invite you to spend some time with the very wonderful and wise fathers of The Piano Guys.
Q: What's your background with music?
Al: I grew up in a family of seven. We were all required to play an instrument. Although I initially wanted to play the saxophone, it was my father who introduced me to the violin. With four girls and three boys in the family, we sang together often. I loved singing together in four-part harmonies. It wasn’t until later on in life that I got into the producing side of things. I collected recording equipment just as a hobby to get the ideas out of my head. In 2005 I opened a recording studio.
About 5-6 years ago, Steven was moving into a home on the same street where I was living. In fact, I helped him move in and we immediately hit it off. Despite different styles, I could tell that he had natural abilities to create beautiful music. So I told Steve that I had a recording studio at my house and that we should get together to jam out and make some music together. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Steve: I grew up in a home with freedom of choice. I was given two choices: play cello and eat or not play the cello and not eat. My dad was very, very benevolent, but had a bit of a dictator in him. He had a requirement that each of us pay an instrument, but we chose the instrument. I tried violin and it didn’t take, so I tried cello. I struggled and struggled to practice. My father should get the Congressional Medal of Honor and a purple heart for helping me focus and practice. I didn’t give up, because he didn’t give up on me. Any legacy I could claim is because of him and his resolute ability to stay committed to me as his son and as a musician. My mom gave up a career as an opera singer to stay at home and help me with my music. So music was always playing in the home. The melodies of my home were stitched into my soul. That’s where my music comes from.
I played in alternative groups starting at 15, learning to improvise to play with bands and rock groups. I played the drums and other various instruments along the way. I received a college degree in music and then two Masters degrees in other topics. After school, I fell into venture capital for a while and was moonlighting as a musician. I started playing with Jon Schmidt who introduced me to Paul Anderson and I introduced them to Al. The four of us make up The Piano Guys. We believe there is a divine purpose in all of us meeting, and we’re so grateful to unite as brothers who put being a father first, and put God first.
Q: Are any of your kiddos following in your musical footsteps?
Al: With my kids, they don’t have a choice but they don’t know they don’t have a choice. Having a studio in the home, they came in and saw how much fun Steve and I were having in the studio, and so they get excited about it and they see the fun side of music. They don’t have to take it as seriously, because it’s so much fun. For me growing up, practicing violin for two hours every day was not much fun, certainly by comparison to my friends playing outside. I’ve really tried to focus on how much fun playing music is for my kids and so they’ve loved it.
Steve: Everyone also has to play an instrument in the home. The empathy I have for the pain of practicing has helped me with my kids. It’s really hard to teach our kids how to work these days. In the culture that we’re in, everything is so convenient that we don’t value hard work and knowledge and progression and goal-seeking like we used to. That’s part of the reason music is so important for our children. They are utilizing the gifts in themselves. It’s also great at exercising both sides of your brain. This is why I love music education. My son plays the piano and my daughter is a brilliant violinist. I’m grooming my five-year-old son into cellist. My youngest daughter knows hundreds of songs, so I think there’s a budding vocalist there. There is always music in the home. My kids help with ideas, song selection, and videos.
Q: What has your kids’ response to having such well-known and famous dads been?
Al: Our manager said it very well one time, we’re the biggest band that no one has heard of! We’re not the typical pop stars, you know, that everyone just clamors over and gets rowdy crowds. Our crowds are families. I don’t think our kids are even aware of the success. One day there was a career day at school where the kids were asked what their parents do. My son said, “My dad doesn’t have a job!” The teacher asked him well what does your mom do for work and he responded, “She doesn’t work either. But my uncle works at Walmart. My dad just sits at home all day and plays music with his friends!” To be honest, we don’t think we’re really famous, and so we keep ourselves grounded.
Steve: I think our kids think of us as just normal dads. When we are with our kids, we try to be completely with them: mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally. We’re not on our phones half ignoring them. I don’t want my kids to aspire to fame, it’s an empty glory. My son came to me one day and said, “Kids are telling me at school that you’re famous. Are you famous?” I responded, “No not really.” The next day he went up to his friend and said, “See I told you my dad isn’t famous!” Our music is famous not us. No one is pinning a photo of us up in their locker!
Q: What was the best piece of advice you got from your dad?
Al: My dad was a truck driver. He woke up on Monday mornings and he wouldn’t be home till Friday nights. His work ethic was incredible. When he got home, he continued to have chores for us but he always made time to have fun, and he always made time for family. He had seven kids to provide for and he had to do what he had to do to provide. But at the end of the day, I always knew that he loved me. He did everything he did out of love. I am constantly applying his work ethic into what I love. Every time I’m back in the studio I’m ready to work hard. Work hard at something you love. When you do, you will get more satisfaction at it than just treating it like a job.
Steve: My father could have preached a thousand sermons to me, but what was more valuable to me was his example. My mother was very sick for a long time with a brain tumor. What I took from him was loving my mom only the way someone who loved with an eternal perspective could bring. So now I love my wife the way my father loved my mother. Seeing that example of charity and sacrifice for one’s spouse was really meaningful, especially in today’s world. Self-interest is the new-elevated love. I’m so glad I had a father who put his wife first no matter what hardship she had in her life. As hard as it was for him to raise six kids and the business he was running and to literally feed my mother dinner, to see how self-sacrificing he was instead of self-interested he was an inspiration to me. If I am half the husband he was, I will be a happy man.
Q: What do you think is your most important job as a dad and what’s the hardest part about being a dad?
Al: When you have your family away from all the distractions of television, video games, school, piano lessons, and all that stuff, to be with them and share undivided attention feels like heaven. The greatest joy as a father is just that: being a father. The responsibility is overwhelming at times; these little people we’re influencing for good or bad -- it is truly remarkable. When you see their personalities beginning to develop and grow, it is something that is no feeling being in front of an 8,000-seat concert hall can’t even touch. Family is the source of all my joy, of all my strength. What I respect about my fellow “Piano Guys” is their focus on being a father. I love that they give me strength to live up to being a dad and they hold me accountable. That’s what we’re missing in society; being held accountable for our shortcomings in being fathers.
Last year we were in the studio and Steve shared a melody with me that he had in his head. He had to run an errand and I joked around with him and said I’m going to write the entire song, lyrics and melody, by the time he got back. And I was joking at first, but it was one of those things where I really believe God just put a song right in our lap: a song that had a message that needed to be heard. It’s a song about being a father called “Father’s Eyes.” It’s basically when you think about times when you’re putting children to sleep at night and you’re running your hand through their hair and they’re falling asleep and you have a flood of emotions run over you; all the responsibility, the love, the joy, and everything you want for them, and everything you want to do for them so they don’t have pain or sorrow. So just trying to look at them through a father’s eyes and recognizing one day you’ll have to accept that you’ve given them all you can. And the ultimate perspective in that is the belief in a Father in Heaven who wants the same thing for us. Those types of lessons are what being a dad is all about. I love being a father.
Steve: I echo Al in everything that he’s said thus far. There are many more best parts than cons! Being able to empathize with them, in an eternally profound but infinitely small way, think about the bond that it’s created between you and God. When you struggle with your kids to influence their choices for good, how often does God do that with us- trying to tell us that He loves us despite our mistakes? So how much more profound can our connection with God be when we try to see fatherhood through a “Father’s Eyes”?! Fatherhood has made me closer to God.
Seeing yourself in your children’s eyes and coming home from a long tour and getting a hug from a three year old that could squeeze the stuffing out of you makes you want to just live in that moment. Having one on one time with each of your children is so important. Each of your children could be a best friend, you can feel so much joy from that relationship. Being a father is a sublime experience. Fatherhood is lots of experiments but forgive yourself when you fall. Strive each day to be better. What greater thing than trying to progress?!
The impulse we have as humans to be selfish is a difficult tendency to deny yourself of, but being a father greatly helps! At the beginning of the Piano Guys it was tough! The temptation was to stay glued to your phone and hear the acclamation of people from all over the world with millions of views and thousands of comments, while your children could be bickering with each other in the very same room as you. However, you should never abandon your role as father. Your children pull you back to Earth, they keep you unselfish, they keep you altruistic if you give your hearts to them.
Q: What is the hardest thing about being a dad?
Al: I think as the Piano Guys we’re pulled in so many different directions and full steam on the creative side and we put so much energy into what we do because we love it. But at the end of the day we’re tapped out, off a tour tapped out, show after show at 2:00 AM, with meet and greets, and sound checks; over and over, when we get home we just want to jump on a couch and veg. We have to learn how to put that same energy, or more, of the creativity and work into our families. They couldn't care less about what we did when we were away. They only hear that we don’t have time for them. As the Piano Guys we put each other in check. We help each other recognize that we need to go home with energy and put the same energy and creativity and enthusiasm as we did with the song and tour into our families. We cannot let the burdens of work or the exhaustion of work carry over into our families.
Steve: The temptation of the world is to spend everything you have outside the home so we have nothing left when we get home. I think that’s a hard one. God is so interested in the details of our lives, but nothing more than our Fatherhood, because that’s exactly what He is to us. So prayer has been a powerful tool for us in accessing extra energy when we feel there’s nothing left to give. I do what’s called a garage prayer. I pull in to the garage and I say a heartfelt prayer. “I have nothing left God, but I need it ALL now God, because when I walk into this door it’s where it really counts. I need that fun, that smile, that energy to wrestle with my kids, and to be able to hug them and sincerely tell them that all I wanted to do all day was to come home.” Everyone reading this can have the same thing if they ask for it. Everyone can have that same gift. Heavenly Father is willing to give that energy if you pray for it.
Q: Describe fatherhood in three words:
Al : No. Greater. Calling.
Steve: Friend. Mentor. Example.