PROVO — When the search for Annie Schmidt began on Oct. 22, 2016, those who knew her personally understood they were on a mission to rescue a rescuer. Although Schmidt hadn’t scaled mountains or searched through canyons to reach the lost, she’d rescued dozens in her own way.
“She had an ability to notice and lift up people who had been overlooked in life,” said her father, Jon Schmidt, of his 21-year-old daughter who went missing last year while hiking Oregon’s mountainous Columbia River Gorge. Several weeks later, volunteer searchers found Annie’s body under a slippery cliff and determined she had fallen to her death.
Marking the tragedy's recent one-year anniversary, her parents gathered friends to thank them, celebrate Annie’s life and share stories — many centering on Annie’s ability to rescue and love the “invisible.”
“It was a gift to hear these and many other stories about the fun-loving, joyful person that she was,” said her mother, Michelle Schmidt, in a recent interview. “There were many that Jon and I had never heard before. We spent hours laughing and crying.”
Jon Schmidt hopes to cast a broader net of gratitude to the thousands of well-wishers and volunteers who supported his family during the tumultuous events of 2016. As a member of the four-man musical group known as The Piano Guys, Schmidt will have an opportunity to communicate his feelings during a hometown concert at the Vivint Arena on Dec. 8.
“It was so touching to get a sense that our fans were praying for us and rallying around us,” he said. “So to have a chance to finally do a concert at home again will be a really meaningful way for me — for all The Piano Guys — to say thank you.”
The group will play music, in part, from its new Christmas album, titled “Christmas Together.”
“I’ve never felt such inspiration on any creative project,” Jon Schmidt said, acknowledging that the challenges faced by his family have played a major role in his latest compositions. “The biggest surprise of this extremely difficult year was realizing that we could feel such deep sorrow and also somehow feel some sense of joy.”
He said that he is eager to convey that message when the group performs one of his favorite tracks on the album, “Ode to Joy to the World,” a number that combines the popular Christmas carol “Joy to the World” with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
“It’s strange that we could feel any joy after losing Annie. It’s a crushing thing to go through, but looking back I feel that we’ve been sustained this year,” said Michelle Schmidt. “I don't know that I could have made it through without feeling so much help from prayers and from people — and then there were the ‘angels’ in our lives that literally made miracles happen.”
Many of those miracles were friends who stepped in to organize a private search operation, including Steven Sharp Nelson, Paul Anderson and Al van der Beek — Jon Schmidt's three fellow Piano Guys — who flew to Oregon to search. Others coordinated the use of dog teams, all of which eventually led to finding Annie’s body after the official search ended.
“Those individuals saved our lives,” said Jon Schmidt. “They helped us to survive the weight of everything and take away the horrific pain of not knowing. If Annie was still up there, I know I would not have been able to do things like tour and do an album, certainly, but even more I wouldn’t have been able to function.”
The Schmidt's recounted other miracles, like Lydia McGranahan, a volunteer searcher who found Annie’s body with the help of search dogs. During the ordeal, she described to the Schmidts a dream in which she saw their daughter falling, compelling her to search and re-search a nonmaintained trail with steep, slippery scrambles called Munra Point. It was there that Annie’s body was eventually found; officials determined the 21-year-old did indeed fall and died on impact.
The Schmidt's say it’s not the first time their family of five kids, including their oldest son, Spencer, twins Jonny and Chris (who began their full-time service as missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints weeks before Annie’s death) and youngest daughter Sarah, has experienced miracles, turned to prayer or relied on people whom they call “their angels.”
Long before forming The Piano Guys in 2010 and long before the events of last year, Michelle Schmidt said she and her husband felt “directed by God and have seen His hand in our lives,” in pursuing an untraditional life in the music business.
“In this career, especially in the days when we didn’t know how much money to plan on from month to month, we’ve always had to rely on the Lord,” she said. “We’ve said so many times: ‘We need help.’ It’s not always fun, but it’s a good place to be when you realize you need God.”
Jon Schmidt said while he didn’t always aim for a career in music, he loved playing his compositions any chance he had.
“I saw people who wanted to follow their passion, but as a result their families were starving. I didn’t want to do that,” he said. “I was doing it for fun and then people started asking for fundraising performances. It just sort of snowballed. I made a recording and was selling more and more cassette tapes and I thought, ‘Wow, this fun. This is what I love to do.’”
Then, he said, a thousand people showed up to a concert he self-produced — one that was not part of a fundraiser.
“They just wanted to come hear a night of piano music — and it was just weird. I mean, whoever thought that this would fly?” Jon Schmidt said with a laugh. “By the time Michelle and I got married, we had significant sales, and I was trying to decide if I should get an MBA or if we should keep pursuing music.”
He remembered the two of them reading a passage of scripture that promised that if they’d turn their lives over to God, he could make more of them than they could of themselves.
“We kind of looked at each other and were like, ‘Well … how do we do that? … Let’s try,” he said. “We were both on that same page and the direction that we received very clearly was to do music.”
But with a growing family, the couple said they had to revisit those impressions several times, especially when things “went bad,” as Michelle Schmidt put it, and when they weren’t sure where the next paycheck would come from.
“We would ask God again and again, especially times when we were going to quit, and we would feel the same thing: to move forward with it. We needed that so badly because being a musician is a crazy career, and we wouldn’t recommend it,” she joked.
But the couple soon realized it wasn't enough to only depend on Jon Schmidt's music — they’d need to be entrepreneurs as well. They learned how to produce albums, sheet music and piano books, embark on an endless teaching and touring schedule and keep up on the industry’s latest technology. Jon Schmidt used early avenues like Mp3.com, Pandora and later, after joining with The Piano Guys, YouTube. With almost 70 videos and more than 1.3 billion views, the medium has catapulted the group’s careers to a level Jon Schmidt said he “couldn’t have imagined.”
The Schmidts say that besides relying on each other and their family, they have also relied on the goodness of others — from which sprouted “what can only be described as miracles,” they both said. The couple relayed stories of “angels at every turn,” from those who helped Jon Schmidt with his first recordings and sheet music to those who helped launch The Piano Guys.
“That’s how we’ve felt about most things in our lives. It’s certainly how we feel about the search for Annie. Individuals have carried us again and again,” Michelle Schmidt said. “They have enabled us to survive.”
The Schmidt's count the other members of The Piano Guys among such individuals.
“It’s incredible to have business partners that are really there for each other,” said Jon Schmidt of his cellist, videographer and music producer partners. “They have been a source of unending love and support. It feels like an unusual bond — like family.”
That’s not to say they always see eye to eye. Jon Schmidt said that while they’re extremely close, they are also very different. In fact, sometimes the four "Guys" have strong disagreements typical of musical groups.
“That’s the other aspect of families,” Jon Schmidt said with a laugh. “But I’ll tell you what has really kept us together is our common purpose and common faith where we just want the right solution. We don’t want to get caught up in who is right but what is right, and we’re all committed to that.”
Jon Schmidt said that The Piano Guys pray together often and feel the pull to dedicate their careers to God.
“One afternoon, we had a song where we just kept getting stuck, so we kept praying about it together. It’s just something we’ve learned that when we pray, we somehow move forward,” he said. “In experiencing that time and time again, we now pray before performances, before we write, before we shoot a video — and in the process, we’ve experienced so many miracles. It’s almost become the type of thing where, you know, we don’t dare not pray.”
Audiences can be sure, according to Schmidt, that The Piano Guys will be praying before they step onto the stage at the Vivint Arena on Dec. 8.
“I can already tell you that it’s going to be a special experience for me,” he said, a comment that takes on new meaning in light of the fact that The Piano Guys has been touring in full force for the bulk of the year. The stop in Salt Lake City is one of the group’s last for 2017.
“And although it’s going to be a great way to say thank you and join with my hometown, it’s not going be somber,” Jon Schmidt said. “Annie was a joyful, energetic person, and she’d never want a concert to be anything but fun.”
The last tweet Annie Schmidt posted before she embarked on her fateful hike in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge read: “Fill your life with good vibes.”
That, said Jon Schmidt, is exactly what The Piano Guys plan to do.
If you go …
What: The Piano Guys
Where: Vivint Arena, 301 W. South Temple
When: Dec. 8, 7:30 PM
How much: $24-$172