Billy Joel and Michael Pollack. Was it a setup show?

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I was given a link to Youtube video where a singer Billy Joel was accompanied by some student, a piano player who spoke up wishing to play for Billy. And Billy agreed. Video has more than 2.5 mln views. The comments and different articles throughout Internet are full of praises and astonishment. Video looks very natural…

So, I said that the video looks very natural… but not to me. What am I missing? I absolutely do NOT believe it was all of a sudden that a guy came up and played so great for a tremendous pleasure of the public. I play piano myself and can say that accompanying a singer is very much harder than improvisation. And the duet was flawless all in all. Even if assuming that Michael knew this song and trained to play it in different keys before days and nights so that he even did not need to look at the notes. But it is still not enough to accompany a singer in the flawless way like it was in the video. Duet needs to practice TOGETHER quite a lot to perform like that. Duet is much about understanding each other. But Michael played like it was a piece of cake to him. He even was not looking at Billy while playing.

But even the above arguments are probably weak because Michael is a talented piano player after all. However, what makes me think that this performance was planned to some extent is the following. I assume that Billy Joel at least knew Michael Pollack (or at least Billy Joel had got some recommendations he trusted) before Michael stood up. Otherwise Billy risked VERY MUCH by letting some random guy accompany him. Just imagine that some other guy in place of Michael was not brilliant with playing (which is very likely). That would be a failure for Billy Joel. What should Billy Joel say in this case when the guy is already on the stage and trying to play piano? Just ‘Sorry bud, let’s stop it. Nothing personal but you are just not the one to play for me today’? That’s what makes me doubt that everything was as real as it pretended to be on this video.

What did I miss to doubt this story? I just don’t get it.

Was I surprised by this show? (I believe it was a planned show although a good one) No, I was not surprised. Almost everything around us is a story. Wrapped nice, but not completely true. Although cool. And very often the stories we see are even without a hint on what the core true is. The core that can destroy the whole story that people want to hear. We are fooled. Am I too pessimistic and not positive?

But I just did not expect that a lot of … no, A LOT OF people take as it is real. Seth Godin is right here. People want to believe in what they want to believe (by the way we discuss this phenomenon here). And people just adore so success stories that shine out and make people almost cry with sincere feelings.

If you think I’m too negative here, it’s not really so.
And if you want to see what I truly bust, then read this article (it’s not about music though, but about a foundation of any online business which is hosting).

I will underline that I love Billy Joel and I loved how Michael played. They were great. And their duet was great. And the story that is in the video is so good. Even if I believe it is not true, it is still wonderful. Wonderful show. Not a real case “oh, it just happened for real” after all.

What did I miss that I ended up thinking that it was a planned show? And why do so many people DO believe it was real? I am confused. Bring me to the light. And show me where I am wrong. Thank you.

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  1. Well, I actually surprised on this slow… But some times thinks that slow is also good if you are on a long way and alone. 🙂

  2. It’s certainly plausible that aspects of this performance were less (or were not less) than as spontaneous as they appeared.

    Here’s where I think–and I may be wrong–you are “missing something,” as you’ve asked responders to disclose.

    The idea that Mr. Pollack can play something he’s memorized, in different keys on the fly is entirely believable. Any decent grade school piano accompanist/chorus director/theater show music director changes a song’s key on the fly to match the limited range of the vocalist. Still more, the performance was done in “C”–no sharps or flats–the easiest of all keys.

    Second, the idea that Mr. Pollack had to practice this with Mr. Joel first….well, as a matter of speaking I bet he did…only not perhaps formally. What musician hasn’t shut the door, put the headphones on, and played along countless times with their favorite artists? This also isn’t to sell short Mr. Joel’s ability to adapt on the fly to Mr. Pollack’s nuances, or vice versa.

    Third, there are tricks–not the kind the fool the audience–but musician’s tricks for staying in sync with one another, whether a fist in the air indicating the last verse, or a look/head nod, or a percussionist landing the last symbol crash of a song just as the front man’s feet land on the ground from a jump, or the triplets Mr. Pollack plays before the last word of the song so that Mr. Joel know’s he’s done with his piano solo and should sing the world “Mind.”

    Fouth, Mr. Pollack’s name drop of Ritchie Cannata, a Billy Joel band musician (and musician among musicians), and members of the audience clearly indicating that they know Mr. Pollack had “chops,” told Mr. Joel that Mr. Pollack’s repertoire was not limited to “Three Blind Mice.”

    Fifth, watch videos of bands like Mr. Joel’s warming up to songs from other artitsts, like Zeppelin. Everyone seems to know what to do in relation to one another; and is the sign of a good musician: the ability to listen to others, and adapt.

    And finally, there are videos out there of Mr. Joel inviting people on to the stage that turned out okay, but by no means the level of this performance.

    Still–again–it’s entirely plausible that aspects of this video, from Mr. Pollack knowing he was going to get picked, to previous rehearsal occurred, and that you are right.

    • Thank you Dave for your very thoughtful and details comment. It was very interesting to read it.
      Everything you say makes very good sense and I agree with you.

      Perhaps my post sounded a bit harsh, but there’s nothing wrong with this performance. It looked pretty naturally and it’s great by itself. I really loved it and enjoy watching it over again sometimes.

      My point was that many people can’t even assume (or moreover, they refuse) that it could be just a sort of planned (or at least well-prepared by both parties even independently) action. And it made me a bit sad, because this indicates a lack of people’s adequateness.

      Being critique to mass media is very important, I believe. And by the way, this does not restrain from enjoying the mass media performances, but quite the opposite – it adds up more colors and taste to it 🙂

      Thanks again for your thoughts!

    • If you watched Billy Joel immediately after he finished the song, you would have seen him ask the student, “What’s your name”? Didn’t look rehearsed to me.

  3. Joel-fangirl says

    I don’t mean to be mean but you sound like a lame piano player. Michael says he plays by ear, the piece is easily practiced, has a steady beat, so why not?

  4. Pete Muenster says

    I agree with your statement that “the above arguments are probably weak…” so I won’t address the “flawless” musical performance, Michael “did not need to look at the notes,” or “he even was not looking at Billy while playing.” (But I can address if you like.)

    But honestly, the singular premise of your subsequent paragraph seems just as weak.
    “Billy risked VERY MUCH…” Really? He was having fun. On the chance the guy is excellent, it’s a great show. On the chance he isn’t, Billy simply goes over to the piano, sits down, and helps the guy out, and sings the rest of the song with the mic at the piano. I’ve seen that sort of thing done live many times. No risk at all.

    I very much agree with you next ideas.
    1. People want to believe what they want to believe.
    2. People adore success stories.
    But neither is a compelling argument for your take on this video. We can say that about anything. And in fact, the converses are also true about some people:
    1. Some people want to disbelieve what they want to disbelieve.
    2. Some people have aversions or skepticism to success stories.

    I am somewhat of a musician and I have met piano players who could VERY EASILY do what Michael did. Not common, but also not so impossible to support the assertion that this was a planned show.

    But I am also somewhat of an actor/director and that proficiency is what makes me believe that this is real (unplanned). The music is one thing. Professional, excellent musicians improv like this all the time. But the acting and direction in this is also “flawless,” to use your word. So Billy and Michael would also have to be professional, excellent ACTORS. This setup is just too natural to be pulled off by lesser actors, IMO. Their entire interaction is so natural, so IRL, that if a setup, the acting performances would be more impressive than their musical performances. Consider the following:

    0:02 Billy say, “The group with the fan club, here. Are they all pointing to you?”
    (Michael’s friends helped him get picked—exactly the way these things can happen IRL.)

    0:15 After Michael Pollack cites his favorite song, he looks around for a reaction.
    (Exactly what would happen IRL)

    0:20 “I was able to play with Richie Cannata many times in NYC.”
    Michael name dropped an industry pro to help him get picked, just like he would have done IRL. (If it was pre-planned, he wouldn’t have to do this. Or if part of the script, the writer/director would have chosen a name the audience would have recognized.)

    0:28 The clarification “I would accompany you, that is.”
    If it was pre-planned, Michael wouldn’t have felt the need to clarify—Billy would have already known what he meant.

    1:04 Billy Joel takes awhile to find the song and then explain the song sequence.
    (Bad for timing, bad for pacing. No director would have allowed this in the act.)

    1:30 Billy Joel doesn’t go right to the mic. He gives Michael a chance to show what he can do (and give Billy time to evaluate how he should handle this before totally committing). To me, it looks like at 1:40, Billy decides this guy is a ringer and commits (and goes and gets his glasses).

    1:47 He didn’t get his glasses right away. If he knew what was coming (Michael is a ringer), most people would have prepared (picked them up) earlier (in sequence after going to the piano to discuss the song). Why make another trip back to the piano?

    5:25 Billy has to ask him twice for his name..

    Never mind the music. This was either a brilliantly scripted, directed and acted setup, or it was real.

    • I like your arguments very much, Pete!
      Above all I like how well-balanced your opinion is.
      I believe your thoughts would be very convincing to any readers of my post who hesitate.

      By the way, the main idea of this post (reading between lines) was not actually about Billy or Michael.
      My idea was show that it is possible (and useful for developing a critical state of mind) to look at this from a different perspective.

      I’m glad that my post has provoked a valuable discussion.
      And I’m happy if this performance was real, because I really like it.
      Once again, thanks a lot for chiming in!

  5. Ethan Marc says

    As someone close to Michael, this show was absolutely not planed. Michael had never met Billy prior. The one time he shook his hand in public… A birthday dinner in which Billy had been at the table next to us and he was absolutely starstruck. Michael is also a phenomenal pianist, he has the ability to play anything that crosses his ears based on memory and is a talented writer.

    That being said, Michael Bely… you wrote a beautiful piece. Its just filled with your own theories and nonsense

    • Ethan, thanks for your comment.
      My piece of writing had a bit different idea rather than accusing or underestimating Billy or Michael, as it may seem to Michael’s and Billy’s fans. And it was not about music or performance in the first place.
      You are welcome to read this my comment as well.

  6. ed stonegold says

    why be negative about such an inspiring moment. It’s like George Washington and the cherry true. The lesson was much more important than anything else. And the lesson on the billy joel duet is– in life if you work hard and take some chances you will get your opportunities… eventually… but when you do, you better be ready. And this kid was ready. And still it’s a hard business and it will take tremendous work. But why be skeptical about how it came about. That’s the magic of show business.

    • Hi Ed,

      Thank you for your comment.

      Sorry if my post made the impression of being negative.

      Before all, I repeat and repeat it – I loved and enjoyed how it was. I watch and re-watch it again and again with pleasure.

      And you are totally right that this is a great example the magic of show business, whether it was a show or 100% real and authentic.

      At the same time, the purpose of my post was educational from a marketing point of view – to draw attention that it could be a (great) example of a show, a planned to some extent action. Nothing negative about it.

      However, from a non-emotional consumer’s, who does not want to be fooled, it makes sense to always keep in mind, that what you see can be a show which is made for the one purpose – to sell you something (a product, a person, a event, a popularity etc). And from a consumer point of view it’s better to be able to put emotions aside if you want to buy a good product (in case the product is not just emotions).

      And this post was born as a result of the collision of these two views. The first view belongs to a non-emotional consumer’s point of view, which you found negative; and the other view belongs to a marketer (or a pure emotional consumer) which is totally positive.

      To make a clearer example, imagine watching a movie about super heros. it’s fun, it’s cool, it’s a professional movie with millions bucks in budget. No problem. But if you believe that those heros are real, then it’s not (always) good.

      The same is with this episode. You need to understand that what we see happening in the world (including business, politics etc) is often a setup, a show, a lie. And if you want to harness the reality, you need to keep it in mind. It’s not about being negative about B.Joel or M.Pollack. It’s about education of a real life if you like.

      I assumed this show was partly a setup. And because it looked so real, I wrote this post. Not to accuse the guys, but to look at that from a different perspective.

      If it was a (partly) setup, then it’s a very cool setup, a really inspiring one. There’s something to learn from it.
      And if it was not a setup, then it’s simply a bomb.
      Nothing is negative.

      The bottom line is I’m not negative about this at all, quite the opposite.
      And thanks for your comment once again!

  7. Perhaps the little chat Billy had with Michael before the performance was of any help?

  8. Well, it’s 2017 and people are still talking about this video. I sent the link to a piano-playing friend just last night. All your points are valid, Michael. But I guess I WANT to believe that such things happen. And in reading about it when it went viral, I remember that Pollack had accompanied other performers of this song professionally, so … More than that though, it was so flippin convincing! (I think Pete’s post sums up my impressions.) If, in addition to being phenomenal musicians, these two are THIS OSCAR-WORTHY? Well, that’s hard to believe. Possible, I suppose, but really hard to believe.

    • Hi Cindy,

      Thanks for your comment.

      My blog is not about music, but rather about marketing. And from my perspective, what Michael and Billy have done was a brilliant marketing operation. Although it all might be real, spontaneous, not planned and not intended (what the most comments here defend), but otherwise it would be how really the business world and show biz (including politics) often work. And my point was to emphasize this on Michael and Billy’s case.

      For some reason, my post ranks top in Google for the search queries like “Billy Joel and Michael Pollack”. It was not intended 🙂 But it made a lot of Michael’s and Billy’s fans come to this page. And the people truly do not understand why I sort of have something against Michael or Billy. And the fact that I don’t. I just wrote a post about marketing.

  9. Hi Michael,

    I stumbled across your blog post while looking for one of Michael Pollack’s songs. Michael is a nephew of mine, and I’ll tell you that he was a terrific kid who grew up absolutely idolizing Billy Joel. He is also obviously a gifted piano player.

    The event captured in this video was definitely not a set-up. When given the opportunity to ask a question Michael was simply one of many students in the crowd who raised his hand. To help him get picked for a question Michael enlisted his friends to point to him and scream encouragement when Billy Joel asked if there were any questions from the audience.

    Billy Joel had no idea this was going to happen, and everything you see after Michael asked to play with him was unscripted. Kudos to Billy Joel for agreeing to take a risk like this with a student, and kudos to Michael for having the guts and the talent to pull it off.

    As a follow-up, you might be interested to know that Michael graduated and is now writing songs professionally in Los Angeles.


    • Thank you Erik for taking time writing your comment.
      It’s great to know that sometimes such things may happen naturally and not a marketing setup or a promotion trick. This makes it especially adorable.
      However, as my website is a educational resource which deals about marketing (apart from some technical stuff), the example of Michael and Billy’s show was an interesting case from a marketing perspective. Whether it was genuine or scripted. Not regarding personalities. That’s what most of the commenters here get a bit wrong about my writing.
      After all, I really enjoy this video and this is truly uplifting.
      And I sincerely wish Michael a great career.

  10. Tinydancer54 says

    One important point that has not been mentioned, which will support that this was completely legitimate: if it was planned, and his friends knew that Billy would actually let him do this, don’t you think that in 2013 his buddies would have been prepared with the utmost hi-def video recorder? We are talking very high tech being available at that time, without breaking the bank. Yet the video quality is absolute crap.

    Mike, I think your claim that you just wrote a post about marketing is not true. You wrote a post that any reader of high school level or above, if they knew nothing about music and were completely objective, would conclude that the author is clearly being accusatory and arrogant. I know you try very hard in susbequent posts to deny it, but it truly was a negative piece and you pretend to be open to other ideas, but cannot resist always adding a little dig, out of obvious insecurity. Look at your last two posts: “I really liked the show, whether it was planned or not.” Later post: “Whether it was scripted or not.” You always have to add that. I know you don’t like to hear it, but I think you are being manipulative.

    • Hi,
      Thanks a lot for the detailed and well argumented comment.
      I hear you very well. And I agree with you… partly.
      Let me tell you what I think:
      1. I really love what happened in that concert hall. And this is beyond other arguments.
      2. From a marketing perspective it was a bomb. And bad quality of the video just adds to the explosion since it looks completely authentic (yes, it’s a sort of a little dig again).
      3. This could be real and all people in the comments say it was. But this is NOT important. What is important is that the video just demonstrates how marketing can be done to archive the best results. At this point I really don’t care about who was on the scene – I just see at the picture as a whole. If you look from the same objective position (e.g. imagine there were not Michael or Billy, but some others you don’t really like or care, and you will understand what I mean).
      4. Now the most interesting part. The thing that you got very right, but not completely – where I was negative. I was negative in the fact that I realized being (or probably) manipulated by this show. And no one wants to be manipulated (but everyone loves stories or tales, and everyone protects the stories they believe in). That’s why it caused my negative emotions. And for the same reason you are writing your comment (you mentioned manipulation in your comment).
      5. If you were coming from a marketing world (TV, newspaper, politics) you would completely agree with my post and would understand it.
      Anyway, I hope you understand my point after my comment.
      6. Even if I were negative and arrogant in my article, this has nothing to do with the sense of the article. This is not about Michael and Billy. They were just a good example for what I wanted to express. If you were not a fan of Michael or Billy, you would hear me very well.
      7. And one more thing. I mentioned I was manipulative in being open. It is true but also partly. I was manipulative to provoke discussion (and I think I got it). But I was not manipulative when it regards new ideas.
      Thanks again for your comment. I love digging deeper and you made my day.

  11. Michae; Harr says

    —to all of us, everything in Eternity is unknown so selective perception aint foreign by humans…
    I thought it was great between Joel and audience student…
    I played it multiply loving it over and over!
    So if it’s ala Godfather -so be it. “Willing suspension of disbelief” movies and books et al.
    Joel is super talent and experience -and Michael fit in perfectly.

    And this article piece was excellent too.

    • Thanks Michael for your comment. It’s very true. Regardless of whether it was genuine 100% or not, the result is superb and people love it. I also re-watch this video now and then with great pleasure. It’s very motivational. Both Billy and Michael are awesome.

  12. Johnathon Eltrevoog says

    Here’s something kind of interesting.

    This song was not performed in C. The song was performed in Bb. Just check it.

    It’s an electric piano which can transpose keys. Billy says “Play it in C.” Guarantee you that’s what Billy goes over to the piano to tell him. He transposes it down a full step because as his voice has aged he can’t sing many of songs in their original keys anymore. So he goes over to the piano, shows Michael how to transpose it down a full step to Bb, and Michael plays it in C, as written (and the easiest key to play in = least risky key for Billy to let the stranger accompany him in).

    The Stranger. See what I did there?

    • Interesting idea, Johnathon.
      I don’t see that Billy shows Michael how to transpose keys changing something on the piano. It looks more like Billy shows Michael the intro or something in the notes from where to where to play.
      However, if the piano was already set up to transpose the key, then it does make sense what you say!

      • Yes, it was played in B flat and that is why billy goes over to the piano (to tell Michael that the piano is transposed 3 steps – billy is obviously getting older and voice boxes age as well). Billy told him C because that’s the original key of the song and asking a complete stranger to play a song in a different key to the original would be incredibly risky. You would have to trust that the stranger is an incredible pianist.
        Now anyone with a mid-high level of musical training can hear that this song is being played in b flat (they can at least hear it’s not in C). So if it were a setup, Billy would have asked him to play it in B flat, making the performance even more incredible.
        Billy obviously took a risk, but when Michael mentioned he had played with Richie Cannata, and the fact that Michael was prepared to potentially embarrass himself not only in front of his school, but most likely the entire world, was enough of a hint to Billy that the kid could play.
        Also, Billy waits and listens to the intro before fully committing. You can also see him instructing Michael to play the next part *adagio* at the start of the second verse. This is the type of communication between the two you probably missed.
        I think that anyone with musical training can see all the clues that this performance wasn’t scripted. Too much of it doesn’t make sense if it was.

  13. La Sonja Wyatt says

    I don’t know who gave you piano lessons, but you should get your money back. I know several pianist who can accompany someone after they’ve hummed or sang four measures and do it flawlessly and with ad libs. I had several relatives where want to be playing the piano get tired in the middle of song or need to go to the restroom and rather than stop I just slid over somebody else took over and they didn’t need sheet music either. I had a piano teacher anything in any key and not miss a Beat again she could do ad libs unfortunately I was 12 at the time only took lessons for about 4 years and unfortunately I was Never As Good As she is. So in conclusion it is very plausible and possible for someone to sit down at a piano, ask what key you want it in, have you sing the first few bars, and without any sheet music be VERY capable of playing it even though they had never heard the song before. Some people are gifted and just that good. When I was growing up I knew at least ten people who could do this. So maybe you are a great pianist but your not a piano player! There is a big difference. But that’s just the way it was when I was growing up.

  14. Michael, what do you make of the fact that the pianist and Joel agree on the key of C, and then it’s played in B-flat? On this version, zoom in at the 4:15 mark, the tonic chord in root position is definitely a white key on the LH fifth/pinky finger ( So this means that Joel’s piano is tuned down, right? That would make sense, since in his advancing career it’s easier to play a tuned down piano than relearn everything. I don’t know how/whether this dovetails with your theory that the whole thing was staged. Joel does seem to hesitate a bit — “Do it down a step… wait, C, do it in C.” He’s probably thinking through the transposition, which he ordinarily doesn’t worry about..

    • Simon, thanks for your input.

      If investigating this performance further I think it’s possible to dive in even deeper and find out something interesting like what you have found. The continuous interest in my post which (surprisingly) lasts for five years already, what I did not actually expect. Obviously it touched something intimate in people.

      I wrote this post to demonstrate a possibility of marketing/promotion/creating a viral video etc. And from this perspective such performance must have been a set up show. Even if it was not.

      Thanks for your comment!

  15. Joseph Jumbalaya says

    Interesting theory – I’ve watched this video probably dozens of times since I first found it years ago, and I just found this page accusing it of being a set-up. I disagree.

    I’ve been playing piano for (holy smokes) 18 years now. Truth is, I’m not very good… but most of my repertoire consists of Billy Joel songs. The Billy Joel songs that I play I know like the back of my hand. If Billy came to my house right now, I know I could 100% nail a duet in Piano Man, Angry Young Man, Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, (and probably a few others if I had a weeks preparation!) As long as I hit the correct notes, I know where every solo, every pause, every beat, etc exists in those songs. They’re as familiar to me as the back of my hand – it’s all muscle memory and knowledge of how the studio version of the song sounds.

    This player was obviously a big Billy Joel fan. If he’s anything like me he had probably listened to that song over 500 times. He would have also known every pause, every solo, every beat, every rhythm shift, etc. Of course, Billy Joel would know his own song too. The onus was on the kid to remember when all these happened – and after proving himself in the opening it’s clear Billy recognized this. And the kid nailed it. Yet, you can still see in multiple parts he looks at Billy to make sure he’s ramping up at the right time, and vice versa. The entire back and forth solo at the end proves that they were just playing off each other. People at the peak of music do this without even thinking about it (this definitely doesn’t include me!).

    All in all, while it’s an interesting theory, it looks as genuine as you can get.

    • Joseph, thanks for your comment.
      The idea behind this blog post was not to accuse Michael or Joel (they are cool, hands down). But to point the attention of my readers to the marketing perspective of this.
      The way I wrote the blog post is indeed provocative. But I wanted to provoke thinking of my constant readers, who are more in marketing rather than in piano playing.
      So, if you want to market yourself, you have some chances to do it like a bomb in a natural way (the way it looks like with Billy and Michael). But if you are less talented or lucky, then you can prepare and set it up carefully. So you have more chances to rocket it up. This is what my blog post was about in the first place.

  16. Faith Currant says

    Not rehearsed. And it wasn’t flawless. There was LOTS of looking back and forth and communication between the two of them to let one another know where they were going next. Also, notice that Billy didn’t even start singing until he was sure that the kid knew how to play. And finally, to the person who said that you can practice that stuff with the recording and headphones, yep. New York State of Mind is a standard at this point, and not that hard to get right. (In my opinion, the kid overplayed it by a mile, but that’s to be expected.)

  17. Faith Currant says

    PS Also in a 2013 interview with New York Times Magazine, Billy talks about the event, and also about how they occasionally do let people come onstage and play and sometimes the people are not that good, and that they had a “gong” for awhile where they gave people 30 seconds to prove themselves. Billy is confident enough and a master of his craft. He’s not going to “look bad” if someone doesn’t know how to play — and he only started singing once he knew it would be okay. In the interview, he also talks about how he had a feeling it would be okay when the kid said, “What key do you want it in?”

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