One performance from the talent show leading us into Thanksgiving left the audience stunned. The murmurs amongst teachers and students remarking on the incredible performance were drowned out by the rapid and complicated tunes springing to life from the piano. Behind the keys, playing with astonishing composure and eloquence, was 16-year-old Fourth Former James Gates.
Gates’s piano skills have been in the spotlight since he was a small child.
“When I was a baby, my parents gave me this little toy piano. It had preset buttons that you could click that would play music, and I’d be singing and playing around with it,” Gates said. “My mom decided to give me lessons at a very young age, and that’s where it all started.”
Gates still had limited opportunities as a child due to his isolation in a small town in Iowa. A long and irritating commute to get to the nearest city and an overall lack of people in his area proved making a name for himself to be difficult.
Still, these adversities didn’t stop him from striving for success.
“When I was about eight years old, my piano teacher was telling me about how one of her other students who was my age went to a big competition. My mom figured I should try it out too,” Gates said.
Gates began competing seriously at this young age with hopes of expressing his talent and improving. As he piled more and more hours into playing, more opportunities fell his way. He ended up taking it to a state level as his first ever large-scale event.
“At that time in our area in Iowa, none of the kids there had ever won states, so nobody had any hope for me,” Gates said. “I gave it a shot and won the regionals, and then went on to win states. It was really cool to be on the news and receive recognition, especially being from this small town in Iowa.”
Moving from his remote town in Iowa to a much more populated area led to a change of pace in Gates’ life. It helped boost many aspects of his playing and performance skills. A more populous area provides many more opportunities because more people are around to support you, and there are more places to learn and play. These opportunities landed on a much larger scale than a typical talent show or a recital.
“One of my biggest piano achievements was playing in Carnegie Hall in seventh grade. Being able to audition and have tons of support all around me made it one of my most memorable experiences.”
Now, as a Fourth Former, balancing sports, school, and piano playing is no easy challenge.
“On school days I definitely don’t practice as much as I do during the weekends or the summer; I’d say around 1-2 hours is my goal,” Gates said. “I try my best to balance everything well, and I think I do a good job at it.”
The skilled player has spread his range of skills on more than a regional or state level through social media. He has amassed over 25,000 followers on Instagram.
“I started to gain recognition on Instagram when I was in ninth grade. My piano teacher passed away, and I wanted to do some sort of performance to honor her,” Gates said. “I hadn’t been able to compete or be in any sort of performance in months because of COVID, so the combination of these two hardships made me feel pretty sad and helpless. I decided to take the matter into my own hands and do a concert for it, and it blew up.”
Gates received a lot of positive feedback, which fueled him to keep working hard.
“I got tons of messages from younger kids and even adults saying that I inspire them to do music, which made me really happy and inspired me to keep going,” Gates said.
As far as the future goes for the young phenomenon, Gates is still undecided.
“I’m definitely going to be doing music throughout my whole life; whether that be performing, teaching, or just playing for myself. I’ve invested so much time into it, and I really love it, but as far as making a career out of it goes, I’m not sure yet because it’s a very hard task. A very risky task I’d say,” Gates said. “There’s a lot of luck involved in it.”