Lionel Yu on his music and his YouTube success

In this age of YouTube and social media, many classical musicians are heard and discovered on YouTube. Pianist Valentina Lisitsa is one such example who was discovered on YouTube, and was able to launch a successful concert and recording career.  YouTube can help musicians get noticed, but it is indeed not as easy as it seems, nor is it a shortcut to fame. It’s just as competitive as a traditional route of winning piano competitions because it requires a particular set of skills and talent. 

Lionel Yu who runs a YouTube channel, MUSICALBASICS was no overnight success. It took him ten years to amass a following with over 72,000 subscribers and over nineteen million combined views on his videos. On his website, he states that each one of his videos is “made with utmost passion and love for piano and classical music.” In this interview, Mr. Yu shares his insight into his music, his inspiration, his upcoming debut at Carnegie Hall, and more.

"I use the piano to express the music in my head, tell a fundamental human story and take the listener through a transcendental journey."

Can you tell us about your musical background?

     I started learning classical piano at age 6 and started writing music at age 11, which is when I truly fell in love with music and with the piano. I remember spending endless days as a teenager writing sheet music and dreaming of becoming a professional composer one day, to the point where my parents signed me up for weekly composition lessons at the Peabody School of Music at John’s Hopkins, when I was in high school. I also played clarinet in high school marching band and I was the piano accompanist for church performances. At NYU I studied composition and jazz, writing short scores for my film student friends. Ten years ago, during the summer after my freshman year, I started my YouTube channel MUSICALBASICS for my original piano music.

Do you come from a musical family?

    No one in my family is in music professionally, however my mom is a naturally talented opera singer and my uncle and grandfather both play the Chinese Erhu.

When did you decide to become a professional pianist?

    I decided to become a professional pianist just this year. Over the years I have recorded countless original compositions and improvisations, often sacrificing weekends and nights out. I didn’t make nearly enough money as a musician to survive life in NYC without a day job. But over the past 10 years, so many fans have told me they have felt touched by the deep meaning and emotion within my music. That support and knowing how I’ve moved so many has satisfied me more than any amount of money could ever move me.

    This has been my dream since I was 11 and finally this year, I realized that I can’t be living a life where I am not performing piano professionally. The courage to launch my professional career came from the encouragement from the countless number of fans who always supported me to pursue music full time.

Are there any individuals who have influenced you musically?

    My biggest influences are Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, both composers whom I deeply admire for their passion and depth in their music. They both sought to write powerful and deep music, to discover the limits of the music and create something that transcends normal human existence. That is also the same thing I aim to do with my music.

Who are some pianists whom you admire?

   Pianists I admire are Horowitz and Solokov, two pianists who played with beautiful yet deep feeling and tremendous skill.

You compose and play your own music. Does composing come naturally to you?  What inspires you to compose and how would you describe your music?

    For me, writing music is as natural as walking. There’s a non-stop record player in my head creating new music every second, and it keeps pouring out like a waterfall. I would describe my music as a language, one easily understood by every person, that if one listens carefully enough, they’ll hear a fundamental story of happiness and cleansing. And, I hope that every person in the world hears the story for themselves.

What are your thoughts on the current state of classical music?

I personally think that classical music is not connecting with enough people, especially given thedigital revolution. Everyone keeps listening to the old composers who have been played endlessly. Classical music is losing out to other genres which have new and upcoming songwriters who are able to create new, exciting sounds and songs.

It also seems that all the instrumental composers are going into film scoring or video game scoring, but those are different art forms and the music is not meant to be experienced by itself. Classical music needs to reclaim its throne as the final destination for people who want to experience the essence of music.

Can you tell us more about your YouTube channel MUSICAL BASICS?  What does MUSICALBASICS mean?

    MUSICALBASICS has a core concept which is: Basic melodies and harmonies, performed correctly, have the power to impact the soul and change lives. 
    I use the piano to express the music in my head, tell a fundamental human story and take the listener through a transcendental journey.

You have over 70,000 subscribers and over 19 million views on your YouTube channel. How were you able to grow a large following on YouTube?

    I think what people crave more than anything is genuineness. Someone who does something because they love it, not for money or attention or anything else. Every video on my channel is uploaded because, at the time of writing, I felt like that was the story I wanted to tell the world but lacked the eloquence to speak it in writing.
    Music is my way of telling the world who I am. With so many of my compositions, I became overjoyed with the story I created musically and just wanted to share it with the world. I found that as more and more people subscribed, I was reaching fans who know that I am genuine, that I share my music to tell stories and move people. 

Can you tell us about the concert program that you will presenting at Carnegie Hall on December 27th?

    At Carnegie Hall I’m performing twelve original pieces. Most of them are from my first album, MUSICALSTORIES. I also have a few recent songs which are very personal to me. For one of the songs “Dreams of a Violin” I will be performing with the amazingly talented Christina Bouey who has won international awards for her playing.

What do you wish to accomplish from your live concert?

    I want to make my debut on to the classical music scene as a pianist-composer who is not afraid to play original classical music and what  better place to do it than Carnegie Hall. This has been my dream for so long and it is ten years in the making. But, it is also for the fans who want to have the opportunity to see me live.  I hope this will be the start of many more concerts and music to come.

Do you have any current or future projects that you wish to share?

     At the moment, all of my attention is focused onto the upcoming concert. However, I am planning to do a west coast concert and Europe next year for my west coast and European fans.

Lionel Yu performs on Thursday, December 27, 2018 at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. For tickets, click here. Lionel Yu’s original compositions are available on his website here.