Why I went all the way to Singapore to see two guys play violin

Okay, I have a lot of thoughts about TwoSet Violin, and they’re not all going to fit in one blog post. But this is my personal blog where I write about whatever I want, so here goes. You want to know why I went all the way to Singapore to see two guys who play violin? Keep reading.

If you don’t already know TwoSet, my recommendation is to watch a couple of their videos before you read this as it’ll all make more sense if you do. (Here’s a typical one, here’s a “reactions” one , and a “games” one.) If you’re already a TwoSetter and you’re here to bask in the afterglow of the #TwoSet4Mil experience, welcome.

Explain TwoSet in under twenty words:
Two talented violinists inspiring a new generation of classical music fans by being totally genuine goofballs on the Internet.

Explain TwoSet in under 100 words:
Two Asian kids growing up in Australia fell in love with playing violin, decided to go to music school (instead of med school), got actual orchestra jobs, then quit those jobs to devote themselves to their YouTube channel. Described as “classical comedy,” the channel is much more than that. Yes, there are funny skits about orchestra life, hilarious violin-based games, and “reaction”/roasting videos. But the channel is also about Brett and Eddy’s personal journeys and their relationship to classical music itself. And that’s the core that ties together all that with events like #TwoSet4Mil.

So… What’s #TwoSet4Mil?

The whole reason I went to Singapore was to be there in person for a once-in-a-lifetime peak experience: someone else’s! TwoSet started a tradition a few years ago where whenever they hit another million YouTube subscribers one of them would play one of the “big” violin concertos and they’d livestream it for the fans as a kind of celebration/challenge. Like a lot of things with TwoSet the idea started out as an off-the-cuff joke and — as I wrote in The Strad classical music magazine — “quickly became a moral imperative.”

At two million subscribers, on February 8, 2020, Brett played the Tchaikovsky violin concerto (there is only one) while Eddy played the entire orchestra part himself. They streamed it in front of a curtain in their apartment in Brisbane, and Brett talked himself through it, repeating often, “I’m so nervous!” He got through it, though, with 40,000-plus fans watching the livestream and cheering him on. (At the end, even their neighbors clapped.)

With the lockdowns of 2020, and so many people watching YouTube, their subscriber count zoomed to three million under a year later. So it was Eddy’s turn: on January 30, 2021, he played Sibelius–again in front of the curtain. But another offhand joke was made — I think it came in a comment from a viewer? — wouldn’t it be great for Brett to play the next one with a real orchestra with Eddy serving as concertmaster?

What ended up happening is pretty close, though Eddy couldn’t exactly bump the actual concertmaster of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra out of his seat. I don’t know exactly how working with the SSO came about. Brett and Eddy have been living part of each year in Singapore for a while now, and somehow they got the SSO on board with doing the 4Mil concert. Then Tarisio, the rare musical instrument auction house they did a video with a few months back, jumped in with a loan of two Stradivari violins. Worth about $10 million each. Yep, things just kept getting bigger.

Tickets for the concert and open rehearsal sold out in under two minutes. I’d believe it was under one minute, honestly, because on the day the tickets went on sale I was in a hotel at a work conference and I had four devices all pointed at the sale site. I saw the “buy” button go live on the mobile devices and hit it immediately. (It never did come up at all on my laptop.) One of the three mobiles was given a queue number in the 300s, one in the 600s, and one around 2000. Victoria Concert Hall, the elegant and acoustically excellent hall where the SSO plays, only seats 650. Between the concert and the rehearsal that was 1300 tickets available. By the time my number in the 300s came up, the concert was sold out but the rehearsal was still open. I grabbed three seats and then sweated through my credit card company declining the charge as very definitely fraudulent three times before I realized I could switch the Paypal to pay. Thank goodness!

Having secured actual tickets and being one of the very lucky few compared to the number of people trying, I felt it was then a moral imperative to go to Singapore and be present for this momentous event.

How Did We Get Here?
TwoSet have gone through several stages since the channel’s founding. I haven’t gone through and classified all their videos, but I feel like it breaks down to roughly this:

  • 2014-2017 – experimenting with everything for the channel, skits, games, leading up to the Kickstarter for the first World Tour
  • 2017-2018 – Post-Kickstarter Era: establishes several go-to formats including games, roasting
  • 2019-2021 – Post-Bumblebee Era (including the pandemic) more of the same, but even better leading up the the Virtual World Tour
  • 2022 – ongoing – Era of the Artistic Statement

The Era of the Artistic Statement
Playing the 4Mil concert with the Singapore Symphony definitely counts as an Artistic Statement in my opinion, but it’s one of several they’ve made in the past year. It really feels like TwoSet have been leveling up repeatedly throughout 2022, both in production values and in choosing to invest in some longer term projects. We see it reflected in everything from they finally came up with a background set other than just the plain white wall or curtain (and one they can recreate whether they’re in Brisbane or in Singapore), to the build up to and then release of a K-Pop style group video “B2TSM” (except instead of 5 Korean idols it’s five classical composers…), the Virtual World Tour show/storyline which kind of led to the production and release of a long-form video/film project called Fantasia… we’ll have to talk about that later, because to understand Fantasia you have to be familiar with various parts of the TwoSet mythos.

One piece of that mythos is Brett’s oft-repeated lament of “I had dreams” of growing up to be a globetrotting violin soloist like, say, Itzhak Perlman. Around the time he and Eddy founded TwoSet was about when it was really sinking in that those dreams were never going to come true. Toiling away in their orchestra jobs, hurrying from rehearsal to ballet performance to concert, it was becoming clear that if they had chosen this path because they loved classical music, that after some time it was going to make them hate it. Unlike in music university where they had multiple outlets for their creativity, working orchestra life was stifling. Starting a YouTube channel seemed a risk worth taking. (They’ve addressed these issues repeatedly, like in the video “Why We Left Orchestra”.)

At the time when they started the channel, they received little support from the people around them. As Brett tells Hilary Hahn in a conversation video they did in Boston during their 2018 world tour (see December 22, 2018) everyone–parents, teachers, friends, other musicians–were basically like “what (the heck) are you doing?” No one understood. And things started quite slowly. But eventually things began to take off and the choice had to be made: they quit their orchestra jobs to concentrate on TwoSet full time.

Two other motifs that repeat often in TwoSet videos are laments about their struggles with intonation (every violinist’s bane) and with performance anxiety. When they toured in 2018, the show began with a bit about Eddy getting shaky bow and having to go and eat two bananas (this is apparently a known cure for stage nerves among classical musicians and even seems to ve supported scientifically). Eddy later revealed in a video that the reason they wrote that gag is because Eddy would actually get shaky bow, so turning it into a comedy bit was the best solution.

It’s far from the only time that TwoSet have drawn on their real life feelings and experiences for their content. This is why I think it’s not the “comedy” that really makes people into TwoSet fans, it’s the genuine, relatable personalities, flaws and all, that make Brett and Eddy special. The “story” of TwoSet is the story of their relationship to classical music and how it continues to change over time, and them passing their love of classical music on to us.

The Cult(ure) of PRACTICE
So how do we get from Brett standing in front of a curtain in a Brisbane apartment talking to a laptop screen about how he’s so nervous he can barely play the Tchaikovsky, to him standing on stage with the Singapore Symphony and taking a bow to people streaming the concert all over the world? Well, the old joke about Carnegie Hall is true: practice, practice, practice. TwoSet have inspired a whole cohort of musicians to join the culture of daily practice, as nearly every one of their videos ends with the exhortation “Go practice!” Much of the popular merch on their website features the word, as well.

I was one of those folks sitting at home during the pandemic who, upon hearing Brett say “go practice” nearly every day, decided it was time to actually start doing it. I took the classical guitar that’s been sitting in my closet for literally decades and which I never learned to play “properly,” and I’ve been practicing *almost* every day since. I even practiced while in Singapore! I keep track of my practice and am part of the online practice community on the Tonic music app — founded by violinst Ray Chen, who I also found via TwoSet. (You can join the Tonic app, and our online TwoSet discussion group, here, btw: https://www.jointonic.com/invite/twosetappreciation) I got to meet several Tonic Twosetters in Singapore including another classical guitarist (hi Wei!) who borrowed a guitar for me from a friend. I practiced twice a day while in Singapore, in between touring the famous sights and eating a ton.

The culture of practice is real and without TwoSet I don’t know if I’d have ever gotten back to it.

Brett took a measured approach to learning the Mendselssohn after it won a fan poll for which concerto he should play. (I couldn’t find the original poll on Reddit but it was between February and July 2021.) As he said in a video in early 2022, he set benchmarks for himself about how far into learning it he needed to be based on when the subscriber count hit 3.4, 3.5, 3.6, million and so on.

And he did it. He mastered the piece. I’ve been listening to the audio of it (downloaded off YouTube) during my flight back to Boston from Singapore and I just keep thinking “damn, that sounds good!” Does it sound like Ray Chen or Hilary Hahn? No. They both have the otherworldly god-level perfect intonation that most of the great soloists seem to have. Brett doesn’t, but that doesn’t matter, because the point is that he doesn’t sound like Ray or Hilary: he sounds like Brett Yang. The whole purpose of a performance is that it’s live, it’s a moment in time, and the soloist isn’t there to just be a puppet on which the composer’s work is imposed. The soloist is a conduit, yes, but it’s what they put into the music of themselves that makes the performance special.

Brett might play the Mendelssohn again, who knows, but he’ll never have the milestone 4 Mil concert again. That he was able to have the experience of spending over a year working on the one piece, and having over a month to play on a Strad, and to have prepared for and then done the concert with a national professional orchestra… these are all experiences that matured him as a violinist and as a person.

At a typical classical music concert, you go there to enjoy the music and be enraptured by the performance, but you aren’t rooting for the soloist the way we TwoSetters were at Brett’s Mendelssohn. Being there at the rehearsal, I can tell you a lot of what some of us were feeling was a kind of relief, actually. I’m sure Brett was anxious, and so were we! But for us, at least, the anxiety dissipated within the first few lines of music. It was so clear that Brett had hold of the moment and it wasn’t going to get away from him.

At a typical professional classical concert, the audience probably also doesn’t feel “proud” of the soloist or the orchestra, but I’m sure I’m not the only TwoSetter who felt proud of Brett and Eddy afterward, and who could clearly see the growth in both of them as musicians and performers. They’ve had to get past so much to reach this point, not only all the naysayers, but also both of their internal critics, performance anxiety, imposter syndrome, and battles with physical and mental health.

Real Life
In several of their videos, Eddy references how at one point in university, when he was pushing himself the hardest, preparing for a major competition, etc. he experienced such a bad burnout that he was literally in a wheelchair and went through a period where he could not touch his instrument. To put it mildly, that’s heavy stuff. With Brett’s support and visits to various doctors, he eventually got past it and was able to play again. (For one example, see “Opening Up About Our Mental health”)

Brett went through something similar, but in his case it happened right in the midst of TwoSet’s surge of popularity. On December 11, 2020, Eddy posted an announcement video (“Taking a Break“) saying that Brett had been hospitalized. They never revealed Brett’s exact condition–in fact, at the time the diagnosis was still “not clear” although the root cause was: stress and overwork. Up until that time they’d been maintaining a schedule of five (!) videos a week, and had already mentioned they were going to cut back to three videos a week because Brett hadn’t been feeling well since October, but just “cutting back” wasn’t enough, and a total break was needed. At the time they didn’t know if the break was going to be weeks or months.

As it turned out, the break was about one month long. They officially returned to YouTube on January 14, 2021 (“We’re Bach” — that’s not counting a couple of pre-filmed videos they did release, nor Eddy’s somewhat impromptu “Give Brett Christmas Gifts” video). The scare left a deep impression on both of them, but it wouldn’t be clear just how deep until the Fantasia film was released.

Fantasia
Okay, I said we’d talk about this later, and now it’s later. TwoSet made a short film in which they played the soundtrack music themselves (original score by their frequent collaborator, composer Jordon He) and play the parts of themselves in… basically an alternate universe where either they never become TwoSet or where they split up and went their separate ways. The film is wordless, and I suspect it’s not easily comprehensible to anyone who isn’t already familiar with the mythos built up over the course of over one thousand YouTube videos (not exaggerating, there are over 1300 videos in the channel) and hundreds of offhand comments that turn into lore.

If you’re not a TwoSetter, I’m kind of curious what you think of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XmDtLvCEVsk

SPOILERS AHEAD. I’ve seen various interpretations of “what happens” in the film, but a prevailing one seems to be: at some point in the past Brett and Eddy split up. Brett pursued his goal of becoming a soloist, burned out, and landed in the hospital in a coma. Eddy gave up violin entirely and landed a boring desk job. But he just can’t forget the violin and Brett entirely. When he opens his violin case again for the first time, he goes into a dream realm that leads to the two of them playing a performance together. It’s the emotional closure they’ve both needed, and Brett can finally die in peace, having brought Eddy back to music. (A less dark interpretation is that once they reconnect psychically, Brett comes out of his coma and the flatline is because he pulls the wires and leaves the hospital.) Either way, there must have been some dark moments of anxiety about health and career and the fraught choices one makes in life to inspire such a story.

I feel like Fantasia is a terrific piece of art, but it was really made for TwoSetters. It’s packed with references to the TwoSet canon. For example, we haven’t even mentioned actual Singaporean violin prodigy Chloe Chua (the violin goddess in Fantasia) or TwoSet’s ongoing series of torturing themselves by watching violin prodigies, nor the fact that bubble tea is A Thing with them (did I mention the Tiger Sugar pop-up stand at Victoria Concert Hall for the 4 Mil concert?), or the fact that Bubble Tea was the time-travel device in the Virtual World Tour…?

And we haven’t even talked about how the Virtual World Tour concert, which was livestreamed at the end of 2020, was also a huge pack of references while simultaneously being a showcase for Brett and Eddy’s violin playing…

Like I said, there’s a lot to say about TwoSet Violin. But this essay is getting very, very long, so it’s time to wrap it up.

The 4Mil Pinnacle
Classical music as a whole is a sort of cult of perfectionism. Everyone is trying to perfect their craft and their artistry. It’s a challenging pursuit. There are plenty of easier genres of music if one just wants to play for fun or pleasure. Being challenging is part of classical music’s ethos. The pyramid of success in classical music, then, leaves behind many people at each level. Climbing from one tier up to the next takes a combination or talent, drive/ambition, and hard work and practice.

Brett and Eddy climbed to the tier of going to conservatory for university, leaving behind the vast majority of teenage classical musicians. Then they climbed to the top of the ranks there, Eddy making concertmaster for the opera orchestra, and each of them having a few rare soloist chances for competitions and the like. From there they climbed into the professional ranks of working orchestra musicians. At each one of these stages, you leave behind 90% of the people on the previous tier. That was the tier where Brett and Eddy decided to get off the pyramid entirely.

For violinists, there are not many tiers above that one. There are those who rise to the rank of concertmaster. And then there are the soloists, and then the very top tier soloists, the household names. There are just a handful of them, really, violinists who aren’t just at the top of the craft but who are a draw to a concert hall, the rare players whose appearances sell more tickets when a symphony’s season is announced.

TwoSet’s concert with the Singapore Symphony sold out in under two minutes.

Only those folks on the top of the violinist pyramid ever get the chance to play the great concertos professionally. So can we appreciate just how rare it is for someone like Brett, who wasn’t a prodigy, didn’t go to Julliard or Curtis, and who hasn’t played in an orchestra since 2016, to be able to take over a year to master a concerto and then play it in a concert hall, with a top national orchestra, in front of a packed house of adoring fans? (I mean… has anyone else ever done it?)

And then to nail it? Come on, he nailed it. Okay, sure, there were a few notes where the intonation wasn’t PERFECT, and the Straits Times review of the concert even called this out. When I first saw the review I thought, oh no, that’s all Brett’s going to see. Why did he have to call him out like that? But a friend I know through the Tonic app who is playing in a professional orchestra herself pointed out, actually, it means the reviewer treated Brett like a “real” soloist and not some dilettante.

I’ll say this, I did notice some wavering intonation in a few particular spots, but we’re not on the classical cult-of-perfectionism pyramid anymore. I did not fly all the way to Singapore to grade the playing like a competition judge, but to appreciate it for what it was, a heartfelt and genuine performance. To me calling them “imperfections” in the playing would be like calling Brett’s accent imperfect English, which would be ludicrous. (In fact there is no such thing as “perfect” English and the only people who believe there is, and that they themselves speak it, we define as “snobs.” Which I suppose applies to classical music snobs just as well.)

But another thing that was great about the concert was that it didn’t stop there. TwoSet then played the Bach Double (aka The Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043). I don’t have time to go into all the things that make Bach great, or what counterpoint is, or fugues (but of course there are plenty of TwoSet videos about this!), but I’ll quote musicologist Phillip Spitta, as translated at Wikipedia about the Bach Double: “Two solo violins are here employed, but it is not, strictly speaking, a double concerto, for the two violins play not so much against one another, as both together against the whole orchestra. Each is treated with the independence that is a matter of course in Bach’s style.”

In other words, two more soloist works, undertaken as a team, in true TwoSet style. (I’ll note the Straits Times critic was much more taken with the Bach than the Mendelssohn.) They played it enchantingly.

And then there had to be an encore, right? We thought maybe there would be a round of “Navarra” by Sarasate, which has become something of a signature duet for TwoSet and a fan favorite, but no, as Eddy would reveal in the post-concert chat, two weeks earlier Brett had the bright idea, “what if you (Eddy) played ‘La Campanella’ for the encore?” It was an idea that was too good to pass up. So now we know why two weeks before the concert TwoSet announced they were taking a break from making videos until the concert because they needed time to practice. It was because Eddy was cramming La Campanella.

If we’re going to talk about all the reasons why Eddy playing it was so fitting, we have to open yet another can of TwoSet worms that includes their ongoing love-hate relationship with Paganini, the fact that Eddy played the role of Paganini in not only the B2TSM video but in two followups, and that in one of those, Paganini drops a “diss track” on K-Pop idols Blackpink for the fact that their song “Shut Down” uses a two-bar long sample of La Campanella over and over. Blackpink fans lost their minds over the parody (not in a good way) because, I think, also in very TwoSet fashion, the video was too much of an in-joke, making as much fun of Paganini’s purportedly massive ego as pop music’s tendency to oversimplify.

But anyway. Eddy absolutely nails La Campanella in the concert, which whets everyone’s appetites for what will happen when the channel reaches five mil subs, since it will be Eddy’s turn. That and they announced a new world tour coming in the end of 2023 into 2024. No dates or details yet, but stay tuned.

So, was it worth it to go all the way to Singapore to be there for the concert? Even though I didn’t have concert tickets, I did see the livestream with a large gathering of TwoSetters who rented an entire movie theater to see it on a huge screen. First of all, it was truly incredible to connect with other TwoSetters, both at the movie theater and also in meetups with fellow members of the TwoSet Appreciation group on the Tonic app, whom we had a few different meals with include a large group lunch after the rehearsal! Secondly, seeing TwoSet on such a big screen, so well shot by a professional camera crew, real brought out the details of the concert that seeing it live would not have. The beauty of the Strads, the intricacies of the fingerings, the interplay of glances and facial expressions, all was terrifically captured by the camera crew. The only thing I missed was, well, getting to actually meet Brett and Eddy for the autographing afterward. But hopefully I’ll be able to catch them on their world tour instead!

tl;dr: Yes. I went halfway around the globe to see two violinists play, and it was completely worth it.

(Watch the entire concert livestream for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlRRdGnzA00)

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