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Millcreek Journal

Highland High School hosts notable alumni The Piano Guys during alum concert and auction

Apr 09, 2024 12:59PM ● By Lizzie Walje

Highland High School alumni Jon Schmidt and Steven Sharp Nelson of The Piano Guys fame return to their alma mater to play to Highland High School current students and alumni. (Sony Music)

The year is 1984. Jon Schmidt has taken the stage at Highland High School’s auditorium to premiere his original piano composition “Waterfall” to an eager audience comprised of students, parents and faculty. Even then, the song was a consummate hit, and Schmidt, a teenage virtuoso, was already a routine fixture at Highland High School’s various student assemblies and events. 

His astonishing original music paired with his quirky and captivating stage presence has excited audiences for decades. After all, it’s hard not to be fully enthralled by a man who can play the piano upside down. 

Fast forward 40 years. It’s March 1, 2024, and Schmidt has returned to that very same Highland High School stage to play a setlist of his own original music, including the famous “Waterfall.” Except now, “Waterfall” is a worldwide hit, streamed millions of times across various platforms and played by pianists throughout the world. 

While “Waterfall” remains an undeniable crowd pleaser, more than a few things have changed since 1984. At the March 1 show, Schmidt was joined by fellow prolific musician, and his longtime bandmate, cellist Steven Sharp Nelson, who is also an alum of Highland. The world-renowned musicians are known as The Piano Guys, and although they’ve graced various stages across the world, not many of those venues hold the sentimentality that Highland’s auditorium does.  

Like Schmidt, Nelson also attended Highland, although he wouldn’t bring his musical talents to the school until the 1990s. A classically trained cellist, Nelson would energize crowds in the same way that Schmidt did years prior. Nelson also exhibits that same eccentric creativity that makes Schmidt so compelling to watch, employing unconventional methods as he plays his beloved cello. Today, Nelson continues to showcase his trademark antics on the cello. Paired with his unique brand of musicianship, it’s easy to see why The Piano Guys have struck gold. Their work is imitated, loved and respected by fans and musicians around the world. In fact, Nelson is considered a pioneer of cello percussion. 

“The teachers, the music department, the assemblies, the athletics, the very culture—everything Highland had to offer us—played such a big part in who both Jon and I are still striving to become,” Nelson said. “We are honored to be part of this celebration of what Highland means to us and to the community.” 

The alumni event was co-hosted by Nelson and Nate Orchard, a fellow Highland alumni and former NFL defensive end who entered a professional football career when he first started playing for the Cleveland Browns just shy of a decade ago. Orchard also credits Highland with cultivating his interests, particularly in the realm of sport. During his tenure at Highland, Orchard played football, basketball and competed in track and field.

Even during his high school football career, it was clear his star shone brightly. As a high school senior, the wide receiver and defensive end was already putting up impressive stats. Orchard would go on to play football at the University of Utah, before being drafted to the Cleveland Browns in 2015. Throughout his storied NFL career, he would play for the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks, Miami Dolphins, Washington Redskins, Tennessee Titans, Minnesota Vikings, and finally, the Green Bay Packers. 

The event was widely attended. The evening’s programming saw various former students take the stage, where they played to generations of excited Highland High School alumni, celebrating the wide range of alum achievements in a wide variety of fields including sport, sciences, entertainment and more. 

Celebrating the visual and performing arts has long been a hallmark of Highland’s identity, and they have the eclectic alumni base to prove it. Alongside The Piano Guys, other notable artists were present for the evening’s festivities including the Highland Steppers, alumni Calvin Cook’s CalJo Band, drummer Brecken Hunter, the Highland Orchestra and the Highland Concert Choir. 

"Highland is honored and excited to have some of our amazing alumni come back to the school to support and perform with our current students,” Highland Principal Jeremy Chatterton said. “Highland has a very rich tradition of kindness, gratitude and excellence and we are looking forward to putting that on display through this concert." 

In addition to the musical performances, the night also celebrated the endeavors of current students, showcasing their artwork in a student-run art exhibit. 

Fundraising efforts were launched in the form of a silent auction to help support some of Highland’s most esteemed programs. 

Free events like the concert and art exhibit are routinely made possible due to community contributions.

To support Highland High School in their various endeavors, both artistically and academically, you can donate to their nonprofit foundation, the Highland Rams Foundation, at λ