He stepped to the shiny brown piano, sat at the keyboard and played softly and slowly.
He then increased the tempo, and the power of his fingers on the keys.
Ed Berry, a 17-year-old high school senior, improvised the pop-style piece with jazz hints. During the next three hours, he created more tunes, but also played familiar music such as “Misty” and other jazz standards.
Berry has performed on stages in front of several thousand people, but on this day, his concert hall was an Omaha mall. He is one of six Omaha-area teens selected to play piano or violin at Regency Court, providing entertainment and atmosphere for shoppers.
Regency Court, an upscale shopping center, has featured live piano music for nearly a decade, and until recently, the performers have been adult professionals.
This spring, mall management decided to give talented young players a try, and the teenage musicians are drawing great reviews from customers, managers and employees.
Berry auditioned for the $10-per-hour job because he loves sharing music with anyone, anytime, whether it's a crowd of people or just a few, like the shoppers who stroll by his piano heading from one store to the next.
He can't resist playing, and squeezes in time at the keyboard whenever he can. Sometimes it's before breakfast at his family's west Omaha home, or during lunch at Elkhorn South High School or if he spots a piano in a friend's living room.
His musical interests are broad. He loves playing Chopin and Beethoven. But also plays keyboards in a blues band and jazz quartet with other teens. Until recently he played music by such groups as Led Zeppelin and Maroon 5 in a rock band called Northern Lights.
He plays piano and keyboard in his school's jazz and pep bands, marimba in the marching band, and tenor sax in the concert band.
Berry, the son of Susann and Joel Berry, also performs well in the classroom. He earns straight A's, and aced the ACT college-entrance exam, hitting a perfect composite score of 36. Nationally, fewer than one student in 1,000 earns that mark.
He wants to major in chemical engineering in college, but may minor in music and might still make that his career.
“It's the best way I can express (myself),” he said. “I can't imagine having it not part of who I am.”
At Regency Court, the piano is set up in an area called center court, near Borsheims jewelry store, Pottery Barn and Parsow's clothing store.
The ceiling at center court rises more than 50 feet, and sunlight streams through glass panels.
A pool of water surrounded by rocks and boulders gives the space a calm feel. New leather armchairs and couches provide a spot for shoppers to rest.
The musicians perform Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons, taking short breaks halfway through.
Berry was scheduled to play from noon to 3 p.m. on a recent July afternoon, and arrived 10 minutes early. He wore a black T-shirt, black suit jacket and dress pants. The dark clothes made the slim 6-foot, 1-inch Berry look even taller and more lean.
As he played, shoppers walked by, and some smiled at him as they passed his piano.
One man hustled by lugging a child in a car seat. An older man strolled by holding a cup of coffee. A pregnant woman walked past, with a young child by her side.
As one man walked by, he looked over his shoulder, smiled at Berry and clapped softly.
Berry improvised most of the pieces. But like any good tune, they had a beginning, middle and end.
He'd start with a C, a bright and happy sounding chord. Then he'd progress to an A minor, a darker chord to add tension. He'd mix in a few more chords and maybe finish with another C.
When he played softer, quieter pieces, he sometimes closed his eyes. Other times he tilted his head slightly or looked toward the ceiling as his fingers worked the keys.
On faster, louder pieces he'd move his head from side to side to the rhythm, and would lift a shoulder, and then the other, almost like he was accenting the music.
Occasionally he lifted a hand from the keyboard, and rotated his wrist to keep it loose, so he could keep playing strong. He knows he has his audience members for only a few moments, and wants to give them his best.
Berry started taking piano lessons when he was about 6, and learned quickly.
About a year later, he was at a gathering and a family friend asked him about his piano playing. The friend playfully asked Berry if he knew the music to “The Entertainer,” a popular piece by Scott Joplin.
Berry actually had just learned a basic version of the piece, and the friend stood wide-eyed as the 7-year-old sat down at a piano and played it all the way through.
He performed in front of a large group for the first time during a school talent show at age 9, playing “Maple Leaf Rag,” a Joplin tune with a fast tempo and tricky finger movements, on a stage in the school gym.
He nailed it, and students and parents roared with applause.
He remembers how good he felt knowing that people enjoyed his playing.
Last summer he and three other teens formed a jazz quartet called Escape from Alcajazz. The group performed this spring during a horse show at the CenturyLink Center, and has played at the Pizza Shoppe Collective and other places.
He's played with his blues band the longest.
When he was 12, he joined a program of the Blues Society of Omaha that provides workshops for talented young musicians and forms them into bands.
His band, Mojo Bag, has been together five years and has played at music festivals and concerts in the Omaha area. Both his blues band and jazz band have performed benefit concerts.
Ali Fisher, singer for the blues band and a senior at Millard South High, said Berry emerged as the leader of the band, though he didn't seek the role.
The other band members, all teenagers, recognized his musical skills and his ability to help the band get better. Even though he's a keyboard player, she said, he knows the music so well that he can help the bass player and other members figure out their parts in a tune.
“He can find something cool in any song,” she said.
Band members are impressed with his pure love of piano. He'll show up early for a practice to work on his parts, or stay late.
He just can't resist playing.
Andy Johannes, a friend, remembers walking through Omaha's Von Maur department store with Berry last summer. The store has a piano, but no one was playing it at the time.
Berry sat down at the keyboard and improvised a tune. Customers gathered around, and told him the music sounded great.
As Berry played he wasn't laughing or trying to make a joke out of his 10-minute performance, his friend said.
“He was so wrapped up in just playing,'' he said. “There are a few moments in life where everything just melts away. He can just fall into those moments and do what he loves.”
Michelle Bluford, band director at Elkhorn South, said she sees the same qualities in Berry.
Sometimes during the middle of the school day, she'd hear the metronome in the music room start clicking, and then hear piano music.
It would be Berry playing after finishing his homework in study hall.
His goal is to start writing his own music. He recently purchased music production software for his computer.
At Regency Court, Berry's three-hour gig was nearly over.
He starts and finishes each session with improvised music, and his final piece flowed. It started soft, grew louder and at the end Berry played so quietly you could hear a woman's high-heels click as she strolled by on the stone floor.
Berry titled his head back toward the ceiling as he finished, and didn't look down until a man walked past, smiled and told him he played beautifully.