By Nadia Jo
Yannie Tan ’23 is a multi-dimensional artist and YouTuber. She is a recipient of a coveted YouTube Silver Creator Award for channels with at least 100,000 subscribers. With nearly 180,000 subscribers and more than 31 million total views on her YouTube channel, Tan makes videos of piano performances, original compositions, music lessons and comedy skits beloved by fans around the world. I recently interviewed her over everyone’s favorite video call app, Zoom, about her classical pianist roots, lifelong love for composing classical and electronic music and insights on managing an influential YouTube channel.
This transcript has been lightly edited.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): Let’s talk about your first YouTube video. What’s the story behind that “Tom and Jerry”-inspired performance of the “Hungarian Rhapsody”?
Yannie Tan (YT): It was kind of a miracle. Actually, my YouTube channel started off a long time ago. I made it in seventh grade and I just started off posting piano performances to show my progress on classical music. Then in junior year [of high school], I started intertwining my interests in visual art, animation, and piano together. “Tom and Jerry” was one of my favorite childhood cartoon shows and I was like, “Why not combine classical music with Tom and Jerry music?” because “Tom and Jerry” uses a lot of classical music and no one really pays attention to the music. They just watch the video and find it funny, but they don’t realize that music plays a very important part in making the show funny.
The performance was in June. When I went back to school the next year, I just told my friend that I posted the video, out of pure boredom. I was like, “Yo, share this with your friends.” But the next time my friends watched the video, they said, “Whoa, you’re famous.” It was very sudden. My friends never really thought of me as a famous person, so it was such a funny dynamic at school. And the views just started exponentially growing. It started from around 1000 views. And then 7000, then 10,000. That was the first time I’ve ever gotten to 10,000. Then it grew to the six digits and then we were like, wow, this is really exponential. Then my subscribers started adding up too, and from that video on I was able to get the YouTube Silver Play Button for 100,000 subscribers. It’s stashed somewhere else – I didn’t want to bring it to college. I am really thankful for this incredible experience. I feel like just understanding that my music can be appreciated by a larger audience other than those from my community is very, very interesting.
TSD: When you realized that a lot of strangers all around the world are watching your videos, how did that change your approach towards your channel? Did it influence your thoughts about what kind of content you want to make?
YT: Contrary to what YouTubers usually do, I didn’t really want to do what the audience wanted me to produce. So if they wanted more “Tom and Jerry” videos, I was reluctant because I wanted to expand my horizons and find other audiences who might also be interested.
I did look at the comments and a lot of them said, “Make more of these videos.” I made three or four “Tom and Jerry” videos, and I think that was good enough for a period of time. But I thought that if I wanted to expand my creativity, I would have to move on. And if I had a loyal fan base, then I’m pretty sure they would like whatever I make. But I also wanted to just test out different types of videos to see what reactions I would get.
But there are some comments that I’ve actually taken into account. Some of them are like, “Oh, teach me how to play piano.” I made a series to show people how to learn and understand classical music, which I think is also one of my main goals from at least a couple years ago.
TSD: So what inspired your more recent videos that are related to teaching and composing, whether it be classical or lo-fi like non-classical original music? What inspired you to move away from the performance videos?
YT: I guess after 14 years of playing classical piano, I was slightly tired. I just wanted to take a pivot and test out new things, especially in a college environment. There’s so many new things that you can learn, and that inspired me to try composing and doing things that were considered unconventional for me, and to try to apply my techniques and skills from my foundation of classical music into different genres.
YT: It’s interesting to say this because a lot of people don’t believe me, but I think I was more of a composer than a classical musician, even from the beginning. I remember that when I was very young, I’d just go to a piano store and make my own music and play my own compositions. But I feel like I never took that seriously. And I regret that because I feel like I was always a composer from the beginning. But I definitely want to touch base with that skill and try to use whatever I have in my mind, or like whatever skills I have, like on LogicPro and GarageBand. I use those programs to test out what I can do. I know how to use those softwares because I played around with them as a little kid. So, now that I’m older, it’s like second nature to me.
This quarter I’m also taking a film scoring class, where you write music for certain films. That’s a potential interest that I might want to do as a serious hobby. Listening to other genres like lo-fi and a lot of Kpop recently made me realize that I enjoy creating music outside the realm of classical music.
TSD: Do you want to talk a little more about that film scoring class?
YT: It is a recorded lecture series by our professor, John Wineglass. He is an Emmy Award winner for a TV show series. It’s really interesting to have the opportunity to work alongside such an esteemed film scorer. He’s teaching us a lot about how music can be a narrative for a story. I’ve learned so much about how to intertwine music into storytelling for visual productions, which is essentially what I wanted to do on my YouTube channel. It’s been a fun experience.
TSD: So I guess that’s really going back to where it all started. Your interest in “Tom and Jerry,” and the role that the music plays in making that cartoon so fun to watch.
YT: Yeah, exactly. I guess it’s all film scoring on a certain level.
TSD: So with COVID-19 I’m sure your daily schedule changed, so maybe you have more free time. How would you say that COVID-19 has affected your creative projects or your YouTube channel?
YT: Before COVID-19, I was working on a couple of collaborations on campus. But unfortunately, they didn’t happen. I had to take a major turn on my goals for my channel. So I started to make comedy skits like Zoomba University. I think that also reaches out to a totally different audience. I just found the right occasion of using Zoom as a theme, which is what everyone has been using, so it’s directed at a wider audience. But I did make the music behind that skit, so I am still trying to combine my interests in music and in video production together.
I created “Wink” and “Zoomba University” during quarantine times. When school started, I didn’t have any more time. But yeah, but before then I had two solid weeks to just work on my music and art. It was fascinating to see on Instagram that people were focusing on their drawing and painting skills, and it was so cool to see how everyone was so much more involved in the arts when they were back home and they had free time. So that showed me, at the end of the day, if we were to do one thing that made us happy, it’d be art.
TSD: You already talked a little bit about the YouTube creator community. What is it like to be a YouTube partner and to be in a community of creators?
YT: So actually, I found one of my friends on NowThis on Snapchat. His name is Sebastian Kulwanowski, and he’s from Belgium. I reached out to him, and he said, “Sure, let’s make a collaboration.” And that worked out. It was my first collaboration online, and I learned a lot about how to combine videos together. I’ve also been able to go to the YouTube New York Space, which is like essentially a studio for YouTubers. Sometimes you can see YouTubers trying to make their videos there.
TSD: So you’re really getting that insider’s look.
YT: Yeah, it’s pretty fun. I wish I could go back. I’ve only been there once.
TSD: Cool. So what are some short-term goals and long-term goals that you have as a musician, an artist and a YouTuber?
YT: I’m going to make an album on Soundcloud and hopefully Spotify, too. I’ll be trying to put my music on different platforms. It could be any genre – honestly, I don’t really have a pattern.
I’ve been talking to a couple of my YouTuber friends, and we chat often about how we always want to have a purpose of having a channel. We always boil down to the point that the channel is more for enjoyment than anything. So regardless of how many millions of views we have for a video or how viral we go, we still do it just for the sole purpose of enjoyment.
As an artist, I just want to keep trying unconventional things. That’s always been my core value as an artist. I’ll definitely branch out to different types of mediums to see what I can possibly do in the future.