How a dorm-room phenom went on tour with Madonna, and got to play on ‘Glee’
Just as Los Angeles-based electric violinist Jason Yang was about to step onstage with a beat-boxing collaborator for a Paul Mitchell corporate gig in Las Vegas, a cryptic email made its way to his phone. “All it said was: ‘Hi Jason, please call me if you can. Thanks, Kevin.’” says Yang, whose pop-music mashups of Daft Punk’s ubiquitous “Get Lucky” and cinematic arrangements of TV and videogame themes have earned him a formidable 26.1 million views (and counting) on YouTube. “I put my contact info on my YouTube channel so I get emails like that pretty often and they get ignored. But then I scrolled down a tiny bit and saw his email signature: Kevin Antunes, music director—Madonna, Rihanna, Justin Timberlake.’”

Before he could say “vogue,” Yang was globetrotting for seven months on Madonna’s 2012 MDNA Tour. He had certainly come a long way from being the kid with a toothy grin and high-fashion haircut shooting YouTube videos and using a stack of cereal boxes as a tripod in his cramped dorm room at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

“From the beginning, my entire approach to my YouTube channel was using it as my own personal creative outlet—whatever inspired me to make any specific video, I would put out there,” says Yang, who mixes his music videos with vlogs about life, videogames, and the occasional holiday shout outs. “I’ve never used it to get a specific kind of gig. A lot of this is luck—my channel isn’t huge compared to a lot of other YouTubers [his subscription base is just north of 166,000]. My videos just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and Kevin and Madonna happened to run into them.”

Yang’s first claim to fame was his 2011 “Game of Thrones Violin Cover,” in which he loops himself playing all parts of the theme to the hit HBO series Game of Thrones, which is based on George R. R. Martin’s popular fantasy books. Today, Yang’s cover has more than 7.2 million views.

“I posted it, and all the sudden NBC in Philadelphia wanted to interview me about my ‘viral video,’ and after that it hit a million views,” Yang says. During the second season of Game of Thrones, he was tapped by HBO to arrange a 20-minute piece based on various GOT themes for a chamber orchestra, which he was also to assemble and conduct during a Blu-ray release party in New York.

It was a tall order, but Yang pulled it together by learning Sibelius software though tutorials and trusting his gut instinct. Also during that time, he was performing on an episode of the Fox-TV musical-comedyGlee. “I was in a scratchy green sweater on the set ofGlee, and then all the sudden I was conducting and playing this epic Game of Thrones music for all these people in public,” Yang says.

B-sideorn and raised in New Jersey, Yang begin classical violin studies when he was six years old, and he later studied under violinist Arnold Grossi (formerly of the Philadelphia Orchestra) and Juilliard School faculty Naoko Tanaka and Elizabeth Chang.

While Yang was studying at USC for a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a minor in music industry (which he earned in 2010), a friend passed along a flier—Panasonic was seeking an electric violinist to wow the crowd at its Consumer Electronics Show.

So, Yang picked up a NS Design CR4 four-string electric violin, took the deep dive into nonclassical, and he hasn’t looked back since. Since then he has played charity events as well as corporate gigs hosted by Adidas, Ford, Warner Brothers, and Hilton, and many others.

Yang’s also amassed a collection of instruments and gear to allow him to loop and record whenever he pleases—a YouTube vlog shows his twin bed crammed in the corner while video and audio equipment, a backdrop, studio-grade lights take up the majority of the room. “The order of priorities is pretty clear,” Yang jokes.

His advice to those seeking to expand into nonclassical? “Start improvising! Find backing tracks to popular pop songs or rock songs that you’re into. Play around with those songs, and don’t be worried about what comes out,” he says. “One of the fun things that I’ve come to realize is that there isn’t a wrong note. Sometimes it can sound dissonant, but it’s not wrong.

“You can flourish around it, use it in the middle of your riff, and end somewhere else. You just need to be courageous enough to not care about playing wrong notes because once you start hitting notes thatdosound good, that’s when you start to believe you can improvise.

“Once you have that, no one can stop you.”

And if you need a touring partner after you’ve hit it big with Yang’s advice, you know whom to email.

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