In January of 2015, some of the most talented living LDS musicians filed into a nondescript Institute building in Orem, Utah. Lindsey Stirling, Jon Schmidt, Marshall McDonald, all came to witness the culmination of a long string of miracles.
Matt Janovsky, a Pittsburgh native and extraordinary violinist, was being baptized, and Steven Sharp Nelson, the cellist of the Piano Guys, would be performing the honors.
Matt’s conversion story begins with what he describes as a miracle.
God Knows Us, Even in Dorm Rooms
In early December 2012, Matt studied pre-med in at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown.
The weather was too warm for snow and ice, but too cold to do anything outside but walk between classes. And the persistent drizzling refused to break into a full-hearted storm. It was lonely weather, perfect for studying, I suppose, if only Matt could focus on his chemistry book.
But Matt could only trudge through the study material for the classes he was on the brink of failing. Years ago he had stopped attending St. Mary our Lady of Guadalupe Church and gave up his position as an altar server.
His YouTube playlist ticking along in the background, Matt rued the irony that while the loss of the church had felt so subtle at the time, now he longed desperately for its peace, its community.
Matt felt alone, lost, anxious, forgotten. He threw his book onto the ground. “I can’t do this anymore,” he said to no one. But screaming to himself reminded Matt of Who he used to speak to when he was alone. He turned his computer off and did something he had not done in years—pray.
Matt surrendered himself to the Lord, and in that little dorm room in that little town in Pennsylvania holiness communed with the ordinary.
Today Matt struggles to remember the precise words of the prayer, since what he communicated was more guttural, more conceptual than linguistic.
But Matt tries to reconstruct what he meant in that prayer on that sacred evening. “I know I haven’t been there for you, and I know I haven’t been the best I can be, but I’m lost right now. I don’t know what to do, or how to get out of this situation. Please help me, show me the way and I will follow you.”
His sleeping computer sprang to life, and this song began to play.
As Matt listened to the remarkable song by a group he had never heard of, he felt as though his prayer had been heard. And a conviction solidified that he needed to pursue music and that if he were faithful everything would work out.
Did an angelic hand reach down from heaven and start the music, or did Matt simply bump his computer that autoplayed a related video?
I’m not sure it matters if this was a sudden broad miracle or a subtle placement of all the right pieces for a young man’s heart to be softened. But for the first time since he left his Catholic faith, Matt Janovsky was on the path to God.
A Fan Becomes a Friend
Matt left his dorm that day with two convictions. First he needed to return to church, to rebuild the relationship with God that he had abandoned. But while Matt felt the need to refocus on his faith, he felt the opposite toward his education.
Matt decided that it was time for a career shift. He abandoned pre-med to pursue violin performance.
Over the next months, Matt began attending mass, both at a church near his university and at the church he had grown up in when he visited his home. But Matt says, “I never felt like I was truly building the relationship I wanted with God.”
Just as Matt was beginning to refocus his career on his work as a violinist, Lindsey Stirling’s career as the weirdest, most popular violin player around was just starting to gain traction. Matt noticed.
When Matt talks about Lindsey, he starts to ramble like the fanboy he very much is, “I saw her on YouTube and immediately loved the whole idea of what she does. I never thought in a million years I would ever meet her.”
He reached out to her on her web page, at a time when she could still respond to fans’ emails. He began playing covers of Lindsey’s music. And she told Matt that she enjoyed them.
So when Lindsey went on her first ever tour and made a stop in Pittsburgh, Matt was there with a VIP ticket. He later became an admin for Lindsey’s Facebook fan page and as a result, became acquainted with her sister, Jennifer, who worked as Lindsey’s assistant.
Later that year, Matt went out to Utah to see one of Lindsey’s shows at Saltair and meet with many of the friends he had made from around the world on the Facebook page.
The next day Jennifer invited Matt to come to fast and testimony meeting with her before his flight back to Pennsylvania.
When he walked in a few people welcomed him, but Matt felt a little surprised that anyone would even know that he was visiting. In fact, when you talk to Matt about his conversion story one word comes up over and over again: community. Even in one hour he recognized that this was the opposite of the loneliness he felt in that dorm room.
Meeting the Miracle Musicians
But when Matt returned to Pennsylvania, he didn’t give much thought to finding another LDS church. Matt was now studying violin performance full time, and he threw himself into his work.
Matt says it’s strange, but he also stopped attending church altogether. I asked Matt why he’d stop going to church so soon after his miraculous experience.
“I thought it was kind of like Laman and the angel” he laughed, “but not as big.”
But even thought Matt’s path wasn’t entirely clear to him at the time. He felt like music was the path God had given to him.
Matt still followed the Piano Guys closely and knew they would be performing that summer at the Lyceum Music Festival, an educational and performance opportunity for some of the best young classical musicians in the country.
Matt sent in an audition tape for the camp. Kayson Brown, the camp director, sent Matt a rejection letter. His playing just wasn’t up to par.
But Kayson wasn’t expecting the letter he got back from Matt. Matt asked for details on how to improve. Kayson agreed, and Matt sent in a second video of a more difficult piece.
“That let me know what kind of kid he was,” Kayson said. So he accepted him for the camp.
Matt’s chamber coach, during camp, was Jon Schmidt. And Matt couldn’t get enough of talking and enjoying the company of one of his idols.
Jon, along with his partner Steven Sharp Nelson, spoke to Matt about his career ambitions and suggested he pursue the University of Utah.
Before returning home, Matt went and toured the campus and fell in love with the area. But it didn’t have the commercial music program that Matt needed. Matt left disappointed. He knew what he needed wasn’t at the University of Utah, but felt so drawn that returning back to his former school didn’t quite feel right either.
Moving to Utah
The summer dragged on. It’s impossible to dislike Matt, so everyone that Matt crossed paths with seemed to stick into his ever-expanding circle of friends.
There were the Lindsey Stirling fans from Europe he met on the Facebook fan page. There were the Piano Guys who leapt from festival coaches to buddies. And there was Nathan Drew, the director of the Salt Lake Pops, and at first little more than an acquaintance.
Unsurprisingly, he and Matt made a quick friendship, and in one of their chats, Nathan mentioned that Utah Valley University had a commercial music program.
By the end of the summer, Matt had transferred schools and moved to Utah.
Matt left to Utah knowing fully well it was the “Mormon state,” but promised himself that he would not join the Church.
I asked Matt why after his experience with the Mormon Message video, his good relationship with so many LDS musicians, his spiritual experience at fast and testimony meeting, and his ongoing spiritual journey, he would rule out joining the Church.
It took Matt a while to answer the question. “I don’t know.” He searches for an answer, tries to explain the behavior of a person he no longer is, “Perhaps the adversary knew this would happen and tried to influence me,” he guessed.
But then Matt settles into more comfortable territory, “I’m glad I didn’t stay in that mind set.”
Prayer Wins in the End
Matt’s roommate, Victor, was a returned missionary who immediately befriended him and invited him to attend Church activities. But Matt turned him down. He was happy to spend his Sundays doing the homework he now savored.
But on Sunday afternoons, Victor enjoyed spending time on the grounds of one of the many nearby temples. He invited Matt, who accepted. The first week they went to the Draper temple.
Matt had seen photos of temples before but had never seen one in person. But the appearance of the temple gave Matt the same need to connect with his Creator that he felt in the dorm room that night. Matt knew what to do, and he prayed.
His prayer filled him with the Spirit, and the feeling was familiar. The next week he went to church, and felt the Spirit. So he attended again. That fall, he attended general conference.
Matt’s feelings began to develop into specific beliefs. “God wouldn’t leave us alone, right? Of course He’d send a prophet,” or “Jesus must be separate from His Father. Nothing else explains the scriptures.”
Matt began to string together experiences with the Spirit until he began to see a pattern. I asked Matt if by this point he was seeing the missionaries, but he wasn’t. Why, I asked him.
“I guess I just wasn’t ready.”
The next month, Matt and Victor left on their Sunday trip to the temple. But Victor was struggling. There had been several personal setbacks, and he didn’t know what to do next. He was hoping that Matt could give him some advice.
But Matt felt stumped. He had no similar experiences. He left to the trees on the side of the Provo temple. And as he now did often, Matt prayed. But rather than praying for himself, Matt prayed for Victor. For his troubles. When he was done, he felt ready to return to Victor, even though he wasn’t sure what would come.
Matt began answering the question in beautiful language. He pulled from the scriptures. The Bible—certainly—but also The Book of Mormon. Matt cited verses he had never read before, only had perhaps heard once used in a Sacrament meeting talk.
“That’s when I decided to get baptized,” Matt told me.
“So you didn’t get baptized, when the Lord gave you a miracle?” I asked.
“You didn’t get baptized when you felt the Spirit at church?”
“You didn’t get baptized when you intellectually believed it was true at conference?”
“But when the Spirit used you to help someone else, that’s when you decided to get baptized?”
“I guess so.”
From Testimony to Baptism
It was time for Matt to meet with the missionaries, a process Matt calls a “formality.”
The Elders would come over to his apartment and say things like, “Today we are going to talk about he plan of salvation.”
And Matt would say “you mean this this and this.”
The Elders would stare, “OK, I guess we don’t need to talk about that ”
“I don’t want to say I was a super golden investigator,” Matt jokes, “but I finished the Gospel Principles book in 2 days.”
During this time, Matt was asked to join the American Heritage Lyceum Philharmonic orchestra for a Christmas concert. Kayson Brown was the conductor, and was happy to have Matt’s participation.
The Piano Guys headlined the concert. After rehearsals, Steven Sharp Nelson and Matt would walk back to their cars and chat. When Matt began taking the missionary lessons, Steven would talk to Matt about what he was thinking. Often Steven would throw in quotes.
Matt remembers one quote in particular. It came from a BYU devotional by Neal A. Maxwell. “The intertwining of people’s lives, often regarded as mere coincidence, is actually part of God’s ‘divine design.'”
“That’s my story,” Matt says.
Soon he agreed to be baptized.
He couldn’t wait to celebrate with Victor, who instead had this sobering warning, “Before your baptism, you’ll have a trial.”
So he went to share his news in a Facebook chat with his friend Lindsey Stirling. She congratulated Matt, promised to be there, and told him that he had to be on the look out for a trial before his baptism.
Matt refused to believe them.
One night after rehearsal, Matt asked Steven to baptize him. He looked shocked. “No one has ever asked me to do that before but yes I’d love to”
On a trip back to Pennsylvania, that fall, Matt told his mother he was joining a church. She was thrilled until she learned which one. Her feelings didn’t go directly to anger, more confusion.
And for a young man whose life is built on the quality of his relationships, when that relationship devolved into one-sided hostility, there could have been nothing worse.
An old friend from school, Brandon, invited Matt to lunch, only to ambush him with anti-Mormon material.
Matt used the opportunity to show Brandon the Joseph Smith movie, told him how much it affected him, bore his new testimony.
But Brandon just stared stoically back “anything else you want to show me?”
I ask Matt if those were the trials he had been warned about, but he sheepishly says those weren’t the one.
“So what happened,” I asked.
“No it’s silly.”
Finally Matt relents, “I talked to this girl every day for two weeks, and things were going great. Then suddenly right before my baptism we just stopped talking.”
“But dating is often hard,” I say.
“Yeah,” Matt admits, “but I felt lonely.”
A Rebirth and Musical Celebration
That January Matt was baptized by Steven Sharp Nelson, the man who miraculously appeared on his YouTube playlist at the beginning of his spiritual journey.
His baptism, the culmination of his conversion story came about from what Matt modestly describes as a series of “not accidents.”
His mom didn’t come to Utah, but she did Skype in and watch.
The orbit of friends that Matt carries with him filled the building. Jennifer Stirling, who had first invited him to Church. Nathan Drew, who had encouraged him to move to Utah. Jon Schmidt, his coach and friend. Marshall McDonald who wrote that “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” cover. Al van der Beek, the producer and writer for the Piano Guys, confirmed him.
Kayson Brown, who had rejected Matt’s first audition tape, gave a talk about Baptism. And made sure the audience knew he met Matt because he wasn’t quite good enough the first time. Matt called the talk a “little roast.”
And you can only imagine the musical numbers.
Steven and Marshall played, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and Lindsey Stirling played her own cover of “Come Thou Fount.”
Months later, Matt and Marshall played together at a special fireside for the Church’s missionary department. Matt shared his conversion story with the audience. Afterwards, Elder Bednar approached Matt to tell him how inspiring his story was.
Perhaps all the star power that surrounds him, shrouds the fact that Matt’s story is ultimately the story of each of us. He searched for the truth, and the Spirit testified to him.
“Jesus Christ and our Heavenly Father know us,” he tells me, “they love us. That’s my testimony.”