And why being cultured — finally — has mass-market appeal
When it comes to music, I have a split personality: I am a lead singer for a blues band and a closet classical pianist. The former could have been a by-product of the latter, while the latter stayed despite a long hiatus from formal training that ended at age 12. It just sat there, somewhere in my subconscious, the fruit of years of endless frustration during my childhood. Both paths remain divergent from one another but are deep personal passions nevertheless. They never crossed for one reason: singing and playing the piano is hard. It requires total commitment normally reserved for professionals which I am not, and hours of practice I could never have.
That is, until the pandemic struck.
The widespread clamor for self-care brought me back to my musical roots — the piano. It would seem unthinkable to my 5-year old self, who detested playing, but I didn’t know any better then. And in the 80s, there was no YouTube. No free masterclasses. No Spotify. Heck, even the G. Schirmer sheet music had to be imported. So practicing, as you can imagine, was terrifying. Now that I owe much of my professional success to my musical upbringing, I had to use this quarantine well, and devote most, if not all, of my newfound free time to music.
Since the first lockdown, I have been reviewing my limited repertoire, learning new pieces, and swimming in uncharted waters: Sergei Rachmaninoff and Franz Liszt (since dreams are free anyway, might as well make them big). They are every classical pianist’s favorite pianists, and they are killing my hands. To mitigate this self-imposed torture, I would do a lot of research: read their bios, listen to their body of work (not just the piece I am learning) watch their documentaries, and devour YouTube videos of people interpreting their work. Good thing they both seemed to have reincarnated in Lang Lang, who has generously uploaded his free masterclasses on his channel. I watch them religiously, including his performances and interviews, to complement and reinforce my practice.
Alas, my frequent visits to his channel prompted the algo to show TwoSet Violin, a classical music channel on YouTube that has a whopping 3.05 M subscribers. That is no mean feat for the underrated realm of classical music. So I watched a few videos and soon found myself enthralled, and admittedly, quite addicted.
TwoSet Violin is a comedy duo featuring Brett Yang and Eddy Chen, both professional violinists from Australia. According to their website, their dream is “to bring classical music to more people and to continue to inspire the next generation.” No wonder Lang Lang has made a cameo appearance on at least one episode — he shares the same goal, but these guys have a much wider reach.
They seem to be making significant inroads, given the unusually high quality of the public discourse they have enabled on YouTube (and other social media platforms). Just have a quick look at the comments section of this and their other videos to see what I mean. I am not one to track artists’ channels regularly, but TwoSet stood out because the hook is humor about, what to most people, is arguably the nerdiest and most boring subject on the planet: classical music.
Obviously, as a classically trained musician, I know what it is like to be uncool. I was that Asian kid who started playing the piano at 5, who spent her afternoons practicing rather than playing outside and spent her Saturdays at a school for older people learning music theory. I am TwoSet, who, together with millions of their followers worldwide, is finally putting the spotlight on classical music, on the working musician (regardless of genre), and on the pains and rewards of rigorous practice. Discovering them is like reuniting with a family I never knew I had.
What I have so far discovered after watching the top videos on the channel is that this community of the bright and the bullied built by TwoSet now has their day in the sun. They have found their voice. And the gloves are off, in the most facetious way. Brett and Eddy usually poke fun at violists, fake violinists, and useless violin accouterments, but if you are a pretentious musician, or violate classical music in some way, you will be in their crosshairs. As soon as they go off, their followers take the cudgels for them through the comments section, with their own hilarious and true-to-life anecdotes.
I am happily hooked, and honestly, quite relieved, that a channel of, by, and for young people has taken the Internet by storm. But what is Brett and Eddy’s secret sauce, and why is their formula working?
They are genuinely talented professional musicians.
Both Brett and Eddy are graduates of the Queensland Conservatorium and are orchestral musicians. This means they are good. They can speak with authority on anything related to the violin, and classical music. World-class musicianship is accessible on YouTube, but truly knowledgeable young people talking about classical music is atypical on the interwebs. That is not surprising, given the amount of practice the craft demands. This is a reality not lost on Brett, who in true self-deprecating form, refers to their YouTube antics as the result of losing one’s potential, especially when getting crushed by videos of violin prodigies.
When they hit 3 million subscribers, they live-streamed their performance of the Violin Concerto in D Minor by Jean Sibelius for their fans. It was a good show, which had at least 46,000+ viewers, far more than the usual 2,000+ that can be seated in the world’s greatest concert halls. Not a bad trade, given the force majeure that was COVID-19 canceling their world tour slated last year. The community is now abuzz on what they should play when they hit 4 M.
They are nerds and that is cool.
It takes one to know one, and unfortunately for me, who had to hide my classical music training for fear of isolation from the cool kids while growing up in the 90s, there was no TwoSet to look up to. No Brett nor Eddy who knows what an arpeggio is, why the F# Major key signature with 6 sharps sucks, and how such hardships can be solved by practice. No TwoSet community whose familiar views on recital horrors and not being able to play outdoors could have reminded me that I am not alone. That Tchaikovsky wrote something else that isn’t called Swan Lake. That there are nerds like me everywhere and that it is cool.
Fast forward to 2014 when TwoSet was formed — the same year that the CDC released this pamphlet on bullying and suicides among young people, which by then have increased at a worrying rate. Brett and Eddy represent what would be easy targets for bullies (Brett in one episode mentioned that he was bullied) and yet here they are on a YouTube channel, endearing audiences all over the world because
a) they are just being their nerdy selves, and
b) they know their stuff
When you see two people who are obviously not pretending to be cool, you are reminded of who you have always wanted to become — your true self. When you hear knowledgeable people talk so passionately about their chosen field of endeavor, you hold off judgment and show them respect. In that sense, Brett and Eddy’s nerdiness is what makes them cool which I hope their young audience can find solace in whenever someone tries to bully them or know someone who faces that ordeal.
They are sincere in their desire to educate.
Not only do I now know more about the violin, but my classical music library has also expanded ten-fold. Violin virtuosos such as Niccolo Paganini, Eugene Ysaye, Jascha Heifetz, and Pablo de Sarasate are now part of my vocabulary. Their modern counterparts like Hilary Hahn and Ray Chen made it to my playlists, as did the Bach, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius concertos. Brett and Eddy’s “school of music” is not limited to just the violin either. Both can play the piano, so they know and have recommended that if you want to witness a pianist par excellence, Liszt is your man. They know too that if you want to level up your culture, you listen to Mahler, whose works are exceptional but not for the faint of heart.
When I discovered TwoSet, I was (still am) working on the 18th variation of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninoff, that famous score I first heard in the movie Somewhere in Time. I remember researching Paganini when I embarked on this quarantine adventure but never did dive deep enough to find out what he meant to Rachmaninoff. That is, until I listened to all the variations again after TwoSet waxed poetic about the Paganini caprices. I soon found that Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody consisted of his variations of the Paganini caprice no. 24, and was one of his later works that he composed at his idyllic retreat, Villa Senar (short for Sergei and Natalya Rachmaninoff) on the shores of Lake Lucerne, Switzerland (Note: The mellifluous 18th variation is off the beaten track — Paganini’s imprint seemed to be missing. Apparently, it was inverted, from the A minor Paganini theme to D flat major.).
I probably would not have gone that far into my research without these guys providing inspiration.
Here is a sample of a typical TwoSet musical walk-off:
This intent to familiarize their audience about their craft spans a broad spectrum that includes proper violin technique, the usefulness of having perfect pitch, musicality vs accuracy, what it is like to work in an orchestra, and so on. The more I watch their hilarious instructional videos, the more I cry and die inside for feeling so incompetent as a musician. Eddy’s perfect pitch skills alone are incredible.
They created a meme that could have launched a new generation of musicians.
Ling Ling, a figment of TwoSet’s imagination, is a fictional violinist virtuoso who “practices 40 hours a day” and who they described in an interview as the “Chuck Norris of violinists.” Thanks to that meme, the Internet is now flooded with evidence of people practicing music through #LingLing40hours on Reddit.
There are no downsides, only upsides. What this meme has successfully done is what many music foundations have been trying but struggling to do: rouse interest in classical music among the masses, especially young people. (Note: Ideally, musical talent should be detected early as it requires many years of tutelage and practice to harness, so early exposure to classical music is essential.) Brett and Eddy make classical music fun, and in each episode, they never fail to remind their viewers to practice, to pursue their journey of becoming the next Ling Ling. So Ling Ling has evolved from a meme to a secret handshake in the bright underworld of TwoSet Violin: to get in, you have to be practicing. You have to know who Ling Ling is. Otherwise, you are just looking around and not really “cool” like real TwoSet fans.
That secret society, as of last count, has almost 4 million followers who are musicians and non-musicians alike, some of whom are picking up an instrument for the first time (Note: Playing an instrument or singing has been proven by countless studies to instantly create a positive effect on a person’s psyche. It is anodyne for the soul, a panacea for hate. This is why wider access to music education is and will always be a cause worth fighting for.) These uncool nerds managed to make classical music cool to a huge audience. No traditional music collective could have accomplished that. If anything, music education, while kids are still hunkering down and learning from home, was buoyed by the global reach of TwoSet’s positive influence. And Brett and Eddy did that without the traditional endowments generously awarded by music philanthropists. It is a unique case study on music education in the digital age, which is worth examining more rigorously given how the pandemic has paralyzed the livelihoods of working musicians, concert organizers, and venue owners around the world.
They share my ignorance of pop music.
Once at a karaoke bar in China, I sang a song by Alicia Keys and managed to get a crowd going. They even asked for an encore. The problem was, I didn’t know enough pop songs. One guy asked me to sing Born This Way, and I said I didn’t know it. He couldn’t hide his shock, so I slowly walked away from the stage and rushed to the nearest exit before they could try to kick me out.
I do not know enough pop songs because I just think the older tunes are better. There is much to love and learn from them – strange chords, complex riffs, and lyrical lyrics. Real poetry with melody, not just a bunch of words stitched together by rhyme and a few beats. Eddy was spot on when he said in one episode that most pop songs are just four chords on repeat. I agree. When TwoSet made an analysis of Cardi B’s WAP video, arguably their funniest video to date, they proffered that WAP stood for Wagner And Prokofiev when the truth was much closer to the gutter (WAP means wet a** p***y). I never even knew a Cardi B song until then. Thank you TwoSet for the introduction, and for commenting on the impossibility of her long polished nails in an off-chance that she plays the violin. You spoke for all serious women instrumentalists around the world.
TwoSet’s twin ignorance and innocence are absolute bliss. People like them are still made apparently. I hope they keep it that way.
This fandom is somewhat unbecoming of me because I am quite averse to this modern social epidemic called “influencer” culture. But for TwoSet, I am making an exception. While on face value, TwoSet Violin seems to have all the essential influencer elements — top YouTube channel, massive reach, viral content, community engagement — they stand out because of the purpose of what they are doing.
They are not on social media to draw crowds and get endorsement deals. Quite the opposite — they will roast you or your product if it undermines in any way real musicianship. They are honest but fair enough to scare any brand.
They do not have this mass-market appeal because they fit the stereotype of a typical influencer: celebrity, hot, hunky, adored by legions. They are the antithesis, so they are released too from the exhausting effort at pretense. No need to fix the background and make it look more professional or exotic. Their background is a set of white vertical blinds. No fuss. But they do have awesome merch — Two Set Apparel — to inspire a new generation of Ling Ling wannabes who they think should look the part, just like athletes who train in their Lululemons.
And they are nice people. It is easy to tell. How else are they able to appeal to their fans, from all walks of life, who like me, are strangely attracted to them?
Classical music has changed, with TwoSet at the forefront of the upheaval. We need to sustain that momentum by supporting their work. Perhaps a world in crisis and in flux is merely ushering in a post-pandemic reality where society is more cultured and supportive of the arts. Perhaps in the new normal, learning an instrument supersedes youth addiction or teen suicides. Perhaps musicians will finally get their fair due, as policymakers learn from this pandemic’s aftermath how to better assist and cultivate them.
What TwoSet has given us is just a sketch of the world we want to live in. They have done their job well. It is now up to us to build on their example by making music and the arts a top priority, at home in quarantine, and beyond.