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This 70-year-old improv pianist is the best thing on the Internet right now

Jan 27, 2016

Reggae Hotel California? Bebop Mr. Rogers theme? This piano virtuoso does it all.

Bernie Katzen is an absolutely amazing pianist. He began formal studies at age four, was accepted to the Juilliard School of Music Prep Division at 10 and went on to attend Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art, eventually receiving a Masters degree from Juilliard. While there’s no doubt he has the chops, he’s also been described as “unparalleled” in the art of improvisation.

Now, at 71 and after a long career of performing and recording, Bernie decided to partner up with live-streaming platform Twitch TV in what was originally a low-key deal. Since late last year, he’s sat in his living room with a 1957 Steinway Grand piano and a keyboard, taking requests from viewers and making masterpieces out of them. Then Reddit got a hold of it and made it their latest mission. Well mission accomplished – between last night and today, Bernie Katzen a.k.a. ‘pianoimproman‘ has gone from Reddit obsession to Internet hero. Tune in below:

Things started to take off around late November of last year when pianoimproman’s followers on Twitch jumped from 5,000 to 30,000. Things built pretty modestly since then until the past couple of days when things just went apeshit. Bernie’s now up to 138,000 followers and 500,000 views. At 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, there were 17,000 people watching his live stream (that’s way more people than there were at the last Smashing Pumpkins concert I went to at the ACC).

As for Bernie himself, there’s no way to describe the experience of watching him play, you just have to see it yourself. He’ll listen to a requested tune he’s never heard before for about 30 seconds, then turn to his piano and rip the song a new one in whatever style he chooses. Just for shits and giggles, he’ll sometimes turn ninety degrees and play the piano and keyboard at the same time, or incorporate maracas and a kazoo. Some viewers astutely commented that Bernie was now ‘music’s modern day Bob Ross.’  

From R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” to Internet gag “Sandstorm” by Darude‘ to “Hotline Bling”, Katzen takes on anything. Meanwhile, just to be more endearing, dude LOVES John Cena. The inside gag is for users to choose the tag ‘John Cena’ and whenever they subscribe or donate, Katzen will excitedly yell to his wife, “Oh my God do you know who’s here? JOHN CENA” and break into the wrestler’s theme song. 

In an almost Ozzy-esque twist, Katzen’s wife Mindy has taken up the mantle of manager, organizing requests and thanking big donators when Bernie is too busy playing. They’ve also become netiquette pros, playing up to their biggest supporters while artfully dodging the douchebags (user “floppycock’s” onscreen message “you’ve made me hard for the first time” was ignored, donation or not).

Besides the talent, it’s Bernie’s obvious passion for what he’s doing that’s drawing people in in the thousands. Becoming visibly emotional on occasion, he can’t stop thanking viewers for giving him the opportunity to perform for them and do what he loves. And while this isn’t why he’s doing this, his retirement fund is getting one hell of a boost. One viewer claimed that pianoimproman’s donations now exceeded $300,000. 

While that may be completely speculative, considering the number of $100 donations we saw within the space of an hour and the fact that he rocked a 12-hour day yesterday, it’s totally plausible. Bernie Katzen: thanks for the music and here’s to your first Internet million!

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