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From Sesame Street to Pennsylvania Avenue with pianist Awadagin Pratt

Awadagin Pratt poses with a piano.

The pianist, conductor, violinist and music education advocate gave his first professional recital at Interlochen. 30 years later, he's back, and tells IPR what he's been up to since.

If Awadagin Pratt had to make a CV, it would practically be endless: three White House performances, two honorary doctorates (and another on the way), top prize at the Naumburg International Piano Competition and more — not to mention his work as a conductor, violinist and teacher.

Pratt recently visited Interlochen Center for the Arts to work with the students of Instructor of Piano Kara Huber, who studied with Pratt at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.

Like many of Huber's multi-faceted students, Pratt knows what it's like to balance competing priorities.

As a conservatory student, he studied both violin and piano, but he says differences in the instruments' repertoire influenced his choice to lean more heavily toward piano.

"At the time, if you wanted to be a violinist, you had to play the stupid stuff, like Wieniawski and Paganini and Vieuxtemps and pieces that just had very little musical value in terms of how I valued things," he says.

Pratt hadn't been out of school long when he won the career-launching Naumburg International Piano Competition, and suddenly, he was booking performances everywhere from Sesame Street to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Pratt had already played in some of the world's most prestigious concert halls, but he says his first performance at the White House caught him off guard.

"I was trying to be very low key about it ... this is just another gig," he says. "The concert was in the East Room, and as I walked in, the sense of occasion, and the guards and everything, is just apparent ... and then it was like 'Oh my god, I'm playing for the leader of the free world.'"

Pratt has also used his platform as an internationally acclaimed musician to shed light on racism and violence against Black people, most recently with a PBS documentary titled "Awadagin Pratt: Black in America."

He says that hearing the criminalization of Black people killed by police pushed him to share his own personal experiences with racism through a spoken-word essay and music.

"I really realized that most of the people in my orbit had no idea of the number of stops [I've had] and the nature of the stops — that I spent a night in jail," Pratt says. "People can think that it doesn't happen to normal citizens. And so I realized that that was what I needed to share."

Kacie Brown is IPR's digital content manager.

Nancy Deneen is the host of Music at Midday and Music by Request.