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It started with Tupac and ended with Tupac.

And in the middle, New York pianist Adam Tendler and five young residents at Lancaster County Youth Services Center spent an hour Wednesday evening talking about classical music and taking risks, about believing in yourself and your art -- whatever that may be.

Tendler, a classical pianist who will perform Friday at Sheldon Museum of Art, was telling the young men in detention about his life -- how music went from an escape to a mission to a passion -- when one of the young men asked whether he knew a song by rapper Tupac Shakur.

Tendler went to the small keyboard the center provided for him and played a few notes.

“Yeah,” said the young man. “That’s it.”

“I know the song,” Tendler said. “I don’t play it on the concert.”

What he does play -- what he’s been performing around the country for the past year -- is music by John Cage, a pioneer in avant-garde classical music who would have turned 100 this year.

“People thought he was crazy,” Tendler said. “He was a very experimental person.”

He told the young men how Cage did things people didn’t understand -- and often didn’t like -- but that made them think about art in a new way.

He showed them one of his famous pieces, called "4’33” -- an essentially blank score that required performers to sit for four minutes and 33 seconds in silence, allowing other sounds to comprise the performance.

“He wanted to frame that time, and now we’re going to call that the art,” Tendler said.

He told them about the piece he will play at Sheldon, called “Sonatas and Interludes,” where Cage used other objects placed on the strings of the piano to create completely different sounds.

He talked about the risks Cage took, and about his own journey as a musician.

He said he took piano lessons as a kid but didn’t like them much and was bribed by his mom with trips to Burger King after lessons.

 He began playing in earnest in high school, found the music as a way to express himself during a difficult time.

“High school wasn’t fun for me,” he said. “So I escaped into the piano.” 

He attended Indiana University after high school and earned a degree in music, but he wasn’t convinced he was a musician, was unsure of his talent.

“There was this whole world of doubt,” he said. “Was it where I should be?”

And so he created his own classroom, began a journey where he discovered himself and his music and realized -- finally -- that he didn’t have to ask permission to be an artist.

He called that classroom America 88x50 -- a 50-state tour where he performed, often for free, living out of his car much of the time. During that tour seven years ago, he came to Lincoln.

He had a great experience here, he said, and it's why he wanted to return to perform Cage’s work.

While here, he will work with students at Lincoln Public Schools and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln -- and he was thrilled when they asked him to come to the youth services center.

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“I can relate to being at that kind of crossroads,” he said.

He told his young audience that he wasn’t sure he was born with a gift to be a pianist, but he was interested in it and what initially was an escape, developed into a love of the music.

“Sometimes I thought this instrument could save me,” he said. “That’s not being fair to the instrument. That’s my job.”

He recently finished a book about the tour and how it helped him discover himself as a musician and personally -- coming out as a musician, he said, and as a gay man. 

Cage took chances, he told the group, and so does he, through his choice of a profession and the music he performs.

He performed some of that music, including a piece by Cage that uses an amplifier and a microphone to create different sounds with the piano. And then he invited his audience in.

“Do you want to try it?”

And they did, using their hands and the amplifier, a small microphone and the piano to create their own music.

“I wonder what Tupac sounds like,” Tendler said.

Then he and five young men who’d spent the past hour talking about classical music, found out.

Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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