The piano called, he answered

Scott Schmidt practices and teaches piano lessons on a Boston piano made in Japan at his Port Washington home. (LOWER PHOTO) SCOTT SCHMIDT READS music from an iPad for songs he hasn’t yet memorized. He plays at the Von Maur department store in Brookfield, Aurora Medical Center in Grafton and at private parties. Photos by Sam Arendt


Ozaukee Press staff

Scott Schmidt of Port Washington was good at computer programming. It was his career, until one day he realized, “My heart wasn’t there. I stopped programming computers and played music.”

Schmidt had played the piano since childhood, playing and performing on the side while working at his computer day job.

His perspective on life changed in January 1992, when he took lessons from jazz pianist Kevin Kostick in Wauwatosa. Hearing Kostick play mesmerized Schmidt.

“That really opened my horizons,” he said.

“This is something I really started paying attention to. I would go to bed thinking about music and wake up thinking about music.”

He knew a career change wouldn’t be easy.

“It’s tough as heck to be a professional musician,” he said

Schmidt was an accomplished pianist. He played throughout high school and college, and was in the wedding band Avenue with a few longtime friends.

His first steady gig as a pro came at the old Parkview Grill in Saukville. Schmidt played electric keyboard on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He had a tip jar on his piano and he got paid by the restaurant’s management.

“They saw value in what I was doing,” Schmidt said.

Computer programming was a more steady and lucrative field, but Schmidt’s wife Sally encouraged him to pursue his passion.

“She’s my rock,” he said. The two have been married for 26 years.

Schmidt went on to play for the American Club in Kohler nearly every weekend for four years.

He started teaching piano lessons in 2008 and is now up to 17 students, the most he’s ever had. Three are adults.

He still plays for private parties, but his regular job for the past five and a half years is at the two-story Von Maur department store in Brookfield. The piano is at the center of the first floor.

“I’m next to handbags and women’s dresses,” Schmidt said.

Most of his repertoire is jazzy tunes from the past, although he’ll play some current tunes. “Autumn Leaves” and “The Girl from Ipanema” are popular songs among his library of nearly 200 songs.

“I’m there to make people relax and try on clothes,” Schmidt said.

“All I’ve got to do is say hi. That kind of interaction really separates Von Maur from someone else.”

Schmidt does more than play and teach, however. In January 2021, he released an album of eight original songs available for purchase at

It was released when Schmidt had to take a break from playing. On Dec. 30, 2021, he slipped on ice and broke his right wrist and cracked a few ribs.

He contacted friends and family members about his album.

“I was bowled over by the people who responded to my email,” he said.

During physical therapy at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton, he was relaxed by live piano music. The hospital has a piano in the lobby, and Schmidt asked if he could play. Now, he volunteers for an hour at 11 a.m. each Tuesday, adding sweet sounds to the beeping and serious phrases typically heard at hospitals.

“I’m just trying to make everybody have a better day than when they walk in,” he said.

Schmidt also arranges music and has released two albums of those songs. Arranging music, he said, is putting a familiar melody into a different key. He chooses favorable keys for piano players.

Schmidt comes from a family of musicians. His grandfather William Heck was a professional musician who played keyboard into his 80s despite having shaky hands.

“That made an impression on me,” Schmidt said.

His mother Rose played piano as well, and she had Schmidt take lessons when he was 8 on his grandfather’s old Wurlitzer spinet when the family moved from La Crosse to Delavan.

“I think the first two or three years of piano lessons are the toughest,” Schmidt said.

“Whenever I hit one of those bumps in the road and I’d be in tears, my mom would come sit with me at the piano,” he said.

Rose would have her son start with the right hand, then add the left.

“She would be the one who would put me back together,” he said.

A few years in, things clicked.

“That’s when it really starts to go. It starts to be fun,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt also learned clarinet, and as a sophomore in high school, band director Joe Kieraldo got Schmidt to play piano in the jazz band. By the end of the year, Schmidt, who had only played classical music at that point, was hooked.

“I’m still fascinated with the blues,” he said. “It’s halfway between jazz and rock.”

While his classmates were blasting Van Halen and Def Leppard, Schmidt was listening to jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the jazz group Spyro Gyra. It was at a Spyro Gyra concert at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater where Schmidt saw people dancing and moving to jazz for the first time.

“I was like, ‘Dang, I want to do that,’” he said.

A few classmates in “Avenue” asked him to join, and the group became lifelong friends. It even performed at Kieraldo’s celebration of life.

“We were all united by the love of music and performing, and that was all cultivated by Joe Kieraldo. He challenged us too,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt graduated from Delavan-Darien High School in 1987 and majored in computer engineering at UW-Madison.

When he plays, “If I can get somebody to walk by the piano and smile or nod at me, that’s what drives me,” he said.

Schmidt is also focused on passing his love of music to the next generation. A study has shown that students who take piano lessons generally get better grades. Schmidt chalks it up to getting them to focus for short periods of time. Performing for even small audiences also helps people get over stage fright.

The piano is a percussion instrument that helps in learning to play drums, but Schmidt said learning to play any instrument is a plus. Music, he said, is an international language that can make an instant connection with people.

“If I can hold a conversation with an 8-year-old about music, that’s a great thing,” he said.

“I believe in the power of music, and I try to convince them that they can change the world with music. I’ve seen it, and I hope they do.”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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