SIOUX CITY — Stepping confidently into a performance space at Whispering Creek Senior Living, James Gates sat down behind the keys of a piano.
The 16-year-old Moville, Iowa native then performed Mozart’s “Sonata in A minor” to a grateful audience of staff and residents of the retirement community, 2609 Nicklaus Dr.
“I interpret Mozart as a way to prepare for a performance,” Gates said as he kicked off a 30-minute concert that would also include musical works by Frederic Chopin and Felix Mendelsohn.
If it seems unusual for an eleventh grader to effortlessly play a complex piece by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a “warm-up” exercise, then Gates must be a very unusual kid.
A pianist since the age of 4, Gates has been known to practice music for up to four hours a day, according to his mother Liang Gates.
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“When James was 1, I placed medical equipment, sports balls and a toy keyboard in front of him,” she said. “James immediately went for the keyboard.”
Since then, Gates has taken private lessons with Sioux City Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Richard Steinbach, performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and is currently a student at the Haverford School, a prestigious preparatory school located in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Whenever he returns to northwest Iowa, he will perform concerts in a handful of retirement communities.
“James was performing at a retirement home in Moville when he met a 100-year-old woman who was celebrating her birthday,” Liang Gates explained. “The woman remembered James playing years earlier. ‘You were so little the last time you came here,’ the lady said. ‘You’re such a nice young man now.'”
“It meant so much to me that the woman remembered my previous gig,” James Gates said. “It makes me want to do more and more concerts.”
Which can be difficult since there are other activities that occupy his time.
This includes pole vaulting, a sport that earned him the friendship of Sandi Morris, American silver medalist at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“James and Sandi follow each other on social media and have become friends,” Liang Gates said.
Indeed, Gates got involved in athletics because it provided him with a more physical outlet than music ever could.
“I really like pole vaulting,” he said. “When I pole vault, I feel like I’m flying through the air.”
Yet music will always be at the center of Gates’ life. That’s why he helps his 11-year-old brother, Noah, to play the violin.
“Noah has been playing the violin since he was six years old,” Gates said. “Now hw and I will be able to perform a piano and violin duo with ‘Concerto No. 5 in D major.'”
As Noah Gates takes a seat next to his older brother, Gates can’t help but smile.
Gates knows how much impact music has had on his life. He now shares music with everyone he meets.
“When I was younger, I played my music in retirement communities and loved it,” he said.
Unfortunately, Gates couldn’t perform many live concerts during the height of COVID-19. He then started posting his performances on social media.
With COVID increasingly in decline, he’s back to classical music.
“I’m having a great time playing,” he said. “I want to be able to do it for others.”