AWest Virginia Universitymusic student is taking the piano skills he mastered in Morgantown and showcasing them on the country music circuit.

Nathan Strasser of Wheeling is a keyboardist with the Chris Higbee Project, which is on tour throughout the region this summer and has a single getting a lot of air time.

The Chris Higbee Project is made up of former members of the nationally acclaimed touring band The Povertyneck Hillbillies and other musicians. Povertyneck Hillbillies was named one of the top independent country acts in 2005 by the Country Music Association and was the official band of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Povertyneck Hillbillies split up in January. The founder, Chris Higbee, formed the Chris Higbee Project and selected the 21-year-old Strasser as the bands keyboardist in March.

A mere month later, the group released its first single,Break Me Down,which became the most requested song on Froggy Radio in Pittsburgh. The song now plays on radio stations all over the tri-state area.

Strasser said he will always remember the first time he heard the single on the radio.

You get chills down your spine knowing that thats you on there,he said.Thats one of the coolest things Ive experienced so far with this band.

The band performed at Heinz Field for Pittsburghs Fourth of July celebration and will be touring in West Virginia and Pennsylvania throughout the summer.

In addition, Strasser will return to his tri-state home roots when the Chris Higbee Project performs at Jamboree in the Hills in Morristown, Ohio, about 20 miles from Wheeling. The band will share the stage with national acts such as Reba McEntire and Brooks&Dunn at the July 19 country music festival, which attracts more than 100,000 people.

Along with the tour, the group plans to travel to Nashville to record its first album. The album is slated to make its debut in the early fall.

Strasser might not be where he is today if he hadnt decided to return to WVU last fall.

Prior to WVU , Strasser attended Arizona State University and studied piano, with an emphasis in jazz. He wondered if he had made the right college choice and got his answer after watching the WVU -Pitt football game in 2005.

While he listened to the postgame singing ofCountry Roads,a few musical notes struck home for the piano student in his ASU dorm room, 2,000 miles away.

I heard the fans singing �€~Country Roads,and it made me a little homesick,Strasser said.

Strasser spent two years at ASU before deciding to return to West Virginia. This proved to be good news for WVU and the Chris Higbee Project.

The WVU Jazz Studies Program greeted Strasser last fall with open arms and a music scholarship. The program only selects a handful of students each year.

His return was also warmly welcomed by long-time personal mentor and WVU piano professor James Miltenberger.

Strasser said a desire to advance his classical and jazz piano skills prompted him to take lessons from Miltenberger beginning in the ninth grade. He admired Miltenbergers skills and knowledge in classical, jazz, composing and songwriting.

After a few lessons, Strassers admiration grew. Years later, Miltenberger became a key factor in Strassers decision to return to WVU .

When you feel that way about someone, thats the best type of person to take lessons from and learn from,Strasser noted.

Miltenberger said Strassers abilities in classical and jazz and his ability to learn very quickly are what sets him apart from other students.

The talent is enormous, and I think hes going to be extremely successful,Miltenberger said.

Strasser also tips his hat to other WVU College of Creative Artsfaculty members, especially his adviser, Paul Scea.

The advisers work hard to make sure students have a life and career plan after graduation, Strasser noted.

My adviser, Paul Scea, has been great,he said.He really cares about me as a person just as much as he cares about teaching me music.

Scea, an associate professor and director of jazz studies at WVU , first heard Strasser play at a jazz festival in Morgantown when the musician was in high school.

Scea said he encourages students like Strasser to be as creative as possible.

I try to expose them to as much music as possible,Scea said.Even the most talented students dont have a broad background in creative improvised music, contemporary classical music and the history of jazz. I strive to create an atmosphere where experimentation is rewarded.

Strasser said that this experimentation is necessary to be successful.

If you can play classical and jazz well, you can play any style of music because theyre all based off of classical and jazz,he said.My goal is to become as versatile as possible.

Jazz has taught Strasser to improvise and think on the spot, which has really helped him in terms of playing country music.

Its different from any other musical thing Ive done before,he said.

Regardless of where or what style of music he is playing, Strasser is passionate about all music. And hell always be thankful for his return home.

Ive always loved West Virginia and WVU , but I never realized it until I went away, 2,000 miles away, and I missed it and felt like I took it for granted before,he said.

Strasser is the two-time winner of the Music Teachers National Association piano competition for West Virginia, a three-time winner of the outstanding soloist award at WVU s Jazz Festival, a Pittsburgh Concert Society Young Artist winner and a recipient of the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award for outstanding achievement by an instrumentalist in the field of jazz. He has performed as a guest soloist with the Wheeling Symphony and Washington Symphonic Orchestra.

He has also achieved colleague certification with the American Guild of Organists. He served as organist for Christ United Methodist Church for four years and music director at Covenant Community Church, both in Wheeling.

To learn more about WVU s Division of Music program, visithttp://www.wvu.edu/~music/ ””:"/www.wvu.edu/~music/ .

To catch Strasser on stage this summer, visithttp://www.chrishigbee.com/.