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Creator & Artist Stories

Creator Voices: Noah Kellman

  • By Noah Kellman
  • Nov.01.2021
Creator Voices: Noah Kellman
A debilitating health condition couldn't stop him from becoming an award-winning jazz pianist (and how his YouTube community jump-started his career)

Noah Kellman is a pianist, author, composer and YouTuber based in New York, NY. The winner of two ASCAP Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Awards, he has helped thousands of students with his modern teaching techniques to reach new levels of competence with jazz, neo soul and neo jazz piano. Noah has worked on various award-winning multimedia projects, including the 2018 mobile game "Where Shadows Slumber" and "To Be With Hamlet," a live, Shakespeare performance that takes place in virtual reality. He is also the author of "The Game Music Handbook."

During several years of aimlessness, something surprising was happening in the background — a huge community of wonderful, positive people was blossoming around the YouTube channel I had reluctantly started as a college assignment.”

In 2014, I finally moved to NYC to pursue my dream of being a jazz pianist, but my timing was off: I had also just completely lost faith in my reasons for playing music in the first place. While I had started out of the sheer enjoyment of musical improvisation, my mind had become bogged down with self-criticism and an incessant need to compete with and impress my peers.

But during several years of aimlessness, something surprising was happening in the background — a huge community of wonderful, positive people was blossoming around the YouTube channel I had reluctantly started as a college assignment. It inspired me to start sharing my knowledge for everyone’s mutual benefit rather than trying to gain more for myself for the wrong reasons. Through that process, I fell right back in love with jazz piano for the right reasons. And since then, my YouTube journey has led me to learn some invaluable lessons that I hope will be helpful to you, too.

Don’t let obstacles become excuses.

How often do you run into some kind of roadblock and use it as an excuse to do less work, or skip posting a video?

I do it all the time.

A lot of people don’t know this about me, but I have a nerve disease called Paramyotonia Congenita, which essentially means my muscles are always working, even when I’m technically at rest. That’s led me to some really debilitating chronic injuries lasting months, and there was always a voice in my head constantly saying “Meh, it’s not your fault that you can’t reach your goals. Just get to them later.” In high school, when my arms hurt so bad I could barely get dressed, I heard that voice every day, and if I had listened, instead of using that time to listen to music constantly and train my ears incessantly, I would have just done nothing. Those same physical limitations also led me to consider what other paths I could follow within music, so I studied video game composition and now it’s a huge part of my life. It has greatly influenced my jazz playing, and I even wrote a book about it.

This last summer, when a new injury lasted for months, I heard that voice again. But I knew it well from high school, so I found ways to stick to my weekly video release schedule by playing in short bursts and coming up with new video ideas that were less technique-focused. It was incredibly frustrating and I frequently failed to keep my head up. No matter what you do, facing an obstacle is going to be difficult… but you never have to let it become an excuse.

The longcut is often better than the shortcut.

My grandpa was famous in my family for his “clever” shortcuts. They always took so incredibly long that we knew we would surely be the last ones to arrive at our destination. And yet, as I now sometimes drive the very same roads he used to take me on, I often find I greatly prefer taking “shortcuts” just like his. They may not be the fastest way to get me where I need to go, and I may not be surprised by where I end up, but they always make the journey more scenic, more surprising, and just downright enjoyable.

As creators, we should put more thought into crafting the best possible journey for the viewer, rather than promising them a quick result. In my case, that means creating a chord progression which, in the end, lands the listener right where they were expecting, but with lots of musical surprises and unrecognizable resolutions along the way that make the landing that much more satisfying. There’s no rush to discover some incredible new innovation. Instead, utilize your creativity and expertise to help people go on an unexpected journey, even if in the end there were lots of other paths — even shorter paths — they could have taken to reach the same place. They’ll arrive gratefully at the destination and be that much better for it.

When you focus on community, commerce will follow.

As a jazz pianist focusing on a small niche of modern harmony and Improvisation techniques, let’s just say that making money wasn’t the first thing on my mind when I posted my first video. I’ve always felt excited to share my most valuable ideas with my community, and I’ve focused on providing that information as succinctly and cohesively as possible. When I first started learning about the concept of monetization, I went through a brief period of questioning what I had been doing. Did I need to shift my focus to building my subscriber count and focus less on the tiny niche I was in? Should I change my content to be sales-driven?

I now realize that it’s not about the size of the community, it’s about the quality of your relationships with the people in it. If you simply focus on building and nurturing your community through making meaningful connections with people and helping them achieve their goals through valuable content, not only will you be setting yourself up for personal fulfillment, but you’ll quickly realize that the members of your community are genuinely excited to reward you for it.

I hope these lessons give you something to think about and improve some of your experiences in the future.

And maybe I’ll follow you down one of your shortcuts someday.

Noah