By Patrick Sullivan | From the January/February 2020 issue of Strings Magazine
There he is, one of the best violinists of his generation, sitting right across from you. He’s cracking jokes, sampling dim sum, and nearly choking on a hot pepper. A little later, Ray Chen will take you busking on a San Francisco street corner. Then he’ll patiently show you how to master the upbow staccato.
The fact that Chen is doing all this on YouTube, instead of in person, hardly detracts from the intimate look you’re getting into his life and artistry.
That intimacy helps explain the massive success experienced by violinists from Lindsey Stirling to TwoSetViolin who have embraced YouTube performance videos. For fans, YouTube offers front-row access to their favorite string players. For musicians, it’s a powerful way to connect with audiences. Teens, for example, now spend almost an hour a day watching online videos, mostly on YouTube, according to a recent Common Sense Media survey.
“Five years ago, there were questions about how useful videos were,” Chen says. “Now, undeniably, they are useful. But you have to have imagination. And it’s not the kind that musicians typically use. It’s that kind of outside imagination.”
Indeed, if making awesome YouTube videos was easy, everybody would do it. But string players who have found success on the platform have suggestions for how to get started. Here are a few of their tips.
The first rule of YouTube: Don’t be boring. “Create content that you find fun, that activates you,” advises violist Drew Alexander Forde, known online as ThatViolaKid. “Look at what other people are doing,” says Forde, whose videos consistently rack up tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of views. “Use that research to set yourself apart. Nobody wants to watch a carbon copy.” Even playful new takes on a well-known piece of music can be compelling, he notes, pointing to Andrew Huang’s “4 Producers Flip the Same Sample,” a video in which four music producers work the same project—with incredibly different results.
Story is king, says cellist and composer Dana Leong. A storyboard using simple sketches or photos taken on a smartphone can help lay out your vision—before you start shooting.
Performance videos need not be elaborate to be successful. “Ray Chen Plays Bach Sarabande” racked up more than 160,000 views with one long, locked-down shot of the violinist performing against a backdrop of beautifully composed leading lines created by concert hall seating.
Don’t Spend Big on Equipment
When Tessa Lark and her collaborator Michael Thurber set out to shoot a video about the making of their genre-bending new album, Invention, they weren’t exactly working with a big budget. “We bought a used Canon for about $600, and it took beautiful video,” Lark says. Even with the audio gear, they came in under a grand.Yet the result is a compelling performance video that also explores their biographies and influences. “Whenever we went on trips, we recorded little bits of our lives,” Lark says. “We tried to make a documentary that encompassed who we are as people and artists.”
Even a camera is optional.
“Anyone can make a YouTube video with their phone,” Forde says. “Phones generally have a good mic because they’re used for speech.”
But audio equipment—like cheap lavalier mics—is worth the investment, especially if you’re using a digital camera. “It’s surprising to me how many musicians may have a good-looking video, but their audio is not mixed well or they use a low-quality recording,” says Leong. Forde notes that people are much less likely to watch a video that sounds bad than one that looks bad. “They’re just more forgiving of bad visuals,” says the violist, who makes his entire list of video equipment available online at kit.com/thatviolakid.
Watch the Clock
Short is the YouTube norm: The average video is a little over four minutes, and excessive length can turn people off. But YouTube’s algorithm gives improved visibility to longer videos that keep people on the platform longer (and watching more ads). “I would suggest making videos around ten minutes long—as long as they don’t meander and they keep the viewer entertained throughout,” Forde says.
Edit, Then Edit Some More
Thoughtful editing is crucial. The good news is that editing programs are easier to use than ever, and you might already have one on your phone or iPad. Windows Movie Maker and iMovie are serviceable free programs. “They’re a great way to get started,” says Forde, who made most of his first 40 or 50 videos using iMovie. To go up a step, buy software like Final Cut Pro. While Adobe Premiere Pro is packed with features, it’s fairly expensive.
But money isn’t the biggest cost of editing. “Editing takes time,” Chen says. “For one minute of video it takes roughly four hours of editing.” One of his videos, “Ray Chen Tries Chinese Food in San Francisco,” took five hours to shoot—and 25 hours to edit.
One alternative: hire a professional editor. That generally costs between $75 and $150 an hour, and, as Chen notes, you’ll still need to direct and script.
Consider the Tradeoffs
Focus is finite, notes Lark, so be judicious about the time you spend on YouTube. “Being present and able to access the moment in the very intense way musicians need to for performance is a practice,” she says. “Spending a lot of time on making videos or doing social media can inhibit it.”
Forde says the biggest thing holding most string players back from making performance videos or other YouTube offerings is a fear of imperfection. And that’s a shame, he says. “I’ve learned so much by doing,” says Forde, who recently branched out again with the Faking Notes podcast. “You’ve got to start somewhere. You’ve got to make bad videos before you can make your good ones.” That can be scary, he acknowledges.
“But that’s where growth is,” Forde says. “When was the last time you learned something when you were feeling comfortable?”