Thursday, November 6, 2014 'Pianist Leon Bates discusses music’s ability to break down cultural barriers'; Performs 3 PM Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014 at Lerner Theatre, Elkhart

Leon Bates
Leon Bates will perform "An Evening of Gershwin," including "Rhapsody in Blue" with the IUSB [Indiana University South Bend] Philharmonic and youth players from South Bend, during a concert Sunday, Nov. 9, at The Lerner Theatre. (Joanne Rile Artists Management)

Behind That Curtain is a community blog for The Elkhart Truth written by Trevor Wendzonka, the marketing manager for The Lerner Theatre and SoMa.

Behind That Curtain

Trevor Wendzonka

November 5, 2014

Acclaimed Philadelphia pianist Leon Bates will perform Gershwin with the IUSB Philharmonic and South Bend Youth Symphony on Sunday, Nov. 9, at The Lerner Theatre.

Leon Bates’ expertise has taken him from Vienna to San Francisco. His commitment to excellence is demonstrated in every thoughtful word spoken.

His confidence wavers only once, when he’s asked if he considers himself a composer. “I’ve written a few pieces that I’ve not had the nerve to play in front of audiences,” the Philadelphia-born pianist says. “If there were more hours in the day, I would sit down and compose. But I have enjoyed more arranging – Gershwin, Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington. Arranging has allowed me to create things that I am able to use in a very personal context.”

The sharing of music is important to Bates because of the enjoyment and education it brings to the audience. Elkhart will get a chance to experience the acclaimed pianist’s work on stage Sunday, Nov. 9. “An Evening of Gershwin” at The Lerner Theatre will support a scholarship fund for Elkhart County students to attend the Raclin School of the Arts at IU South Bend.

The IUSB Philharmonic and the South Bend Youth Symphony Orchestra will share the stage with Bates and his Steinway. And, of course, “Rhapsody in Blue” will fill the air.

Q: This event you’ll be playing is designed to help local students obtain scholarships. In addition to the concert, you’ll be speaking with students while you’re here. You started your training at a very young age (6). Who inspired that young kid from Philly to take up classical piano, and how do you inspire students in your talks?

Bates: Philadelphia is very fertile ground for music making and the study of music. My exposure to classical music began in kindergarten with a teacher who played recordings and encouraged us to try the upright piano. My parents were sensitive to my interests and arranged for private lessons — I was a natural talent in a lot of ways, picking up melodies in songs, humming the tunes and playing them on the piano. Both my mother and father were in performing groups … but they settled into traditional roles. My father, for instance, worked at Sears and Roebuck for 47 years as a forklift operator, and mother was a homemaker. They appreciated music and were very supportive. …

I like to answer the misconceptions of what exactly a classical pianist is involved in. The very fact I do weight training is a surprise to a number of people, but I tell students weight training parallels playing an instrument, parallels certain kinds of music itself. Music may be off the beaten path from what their peers expect — they feel pressure to conform to a certain standard or play sports, but there’s no reason they can’t also study art, dance, music.

I stress the importance of performing as an individual, separate from a group or stereotype. Don’t be dissuaded by negative attitudes or peer pressure. Follow your own path. I demonstrate that by simply sitting and playing. That’s an image not seen as much — an African-American man playing classical music.

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