Shattering Stereotypes: Classical Music's Bodybuilding Pianist
Haynes, Karima A., Ebony
Leon Bates divides time between concert hall, gymnasium
On the surface, Leon Bates is pursuing what appear to be two completely incongruous interests: a career as a concert pianist and a hobby as a bodybuilder. It seems that no one has bothered to clue him in that a classically trained musician doesn't go around bench-pressing 300 pounds.
Shattering stereotypes is something that Bates has been doing all his life. Growing up in his native Philadelphia, he divided his time playing ball with his buddies in the street and taking piano, violin and tuba lessons. In high school, he spent hours at a local gym pumping iron and alternately logged hundreds of miles traveling to and from out-of-town concert dates.
And, today, when he performs the classical works of Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Mozart with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Strasbourg Symphony of France or the Sinfonica dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia of Italy, he may just slip in a piece or two by jazz greats Duke Ellington, Chick Corea or Ellis Marsalis.
Unorthodox? Bates doesn't think so. He's just being himself. "It's so important for us to show that our lifestyles as artists are part of the '90s," the 43-year-old musician says. "We have to dispel those cloistered stereotypes, those dusty images of dealing in the past."
While others may view bodybuilding as an odd pastime for a concert pianist, Bates believes it enhances his musical performances. He says that the daily workouts and repetitive lifts help to hone and refine his capacity for discipline and concentration, two talents that are essential to a concert pianist who must perform difficult pieces of music from memory.
Bates also finds that there is a direct relationship between piano techniques and bodybuilding technique. Just as weights and lift positions are used in different combinations to strengthen and define muscles in the body, he explains, varying hand positions, finger movements and pressure applied to piano keys produce different sounds from the instrument. "To sit on that stage and play a piano recital for two hours requires stamina and concentration, which are necessary to keep your musical focus," Bates says. "The last piece on the program is the one that is the most demanding and dynamic. You don't want to run out of energy as you are coming to the piece that demands the most from you."
Even with a hectic concert and practice schedule, Bates manages to spend two hours a day, six days a week in the gym. There are times on the road when he'd rather relax in his hotel room and watch television, but he usually scouts out a local gym and works out. "It's a real test of how disciplined I am. And, of course, after I've done it, I feel wonderful about myself."
Bates' muscular physique inevitably draws stares from classical music aficionados, many of whom are used to seeing frail-looking White pianists on the international concert circuit. However, Bates is quick to point out that his Herculean appearance is not some gimmick to fill concert halls: he is first and foremost a concert pianist.
Bates first ran his fingers along a piano keyboard in kindergarten and was totally captivated by the sound. "There was something powerful and majestic about the sound of the piano," he recalls. "I was impressed by the sensation of just pressing down the keys and I was intimidated by it as well because the keys seemed to be so big. …