After 60 years, church pianist ‘semi-retiring’

FORNEY?Stella Cates does not recall possessing any latent talents at age 3, but she was told she could play the piano by ear. By age 9 she was playing piano for services at her family’s church in La
Feria, Texas.

“There were no nerves at all because it came so natural,” Cates, now 70, said of her experience at leading worship services at such a young age.

She has been playing for God ever sense, for 60 years?the past 30 at Forney’s First Baptist Church.
She said she would rather play for an audience then have to speak to them.

“I just tell the Lord, ‘Thank you for my talent’ and it’s for him.”

She attended Baylor University where she studied piano performance for two years before meeting her husband, Don Cates. Job opportunities took the Cates family around Texas before finally settling in the rural plains of Forney. With each move and new church location, Cates took on the role of piano accompanist for children’s choirs to senior adult choirs. It was a role that would take her overseas and across North America.

She recalled working with Leroy Till and the high school choir while a member of First Baptist Church of Dallas in the 1960s. The youth choir traveled to Mexico, Canada, and Scotland. The work
was challenging but the performances were always well done.

“That was an exciting time,” she recalled.

Never content to just play well enough, Cates endeavored to improve her talent and studied five years under the tutelage of the director of piano at Southern Methodist University. Having left her performance degree unfulfilled, Cates said her later music studies “just seemed like the thing to do.”

Cates’s skill and reputation led her to play throughout the Forney community. Her performances have taken her out of the church hall and into the concert halls where she performed in piano ensembles with local artists. Her skills do not begin and end on the bench of a piano. The musical talents Cates shares spill over into hand bells, singing, and keyboard accompanist with the praise ensemble.

Having been involved in church music for so many years, Cates has seen her share of conflicting egos and discord over music styles. She has persevered anyway.

“I’d just talk to the Lord about it,” she confessed. Her tenure is a testimony to her ability to simply focus on the music. “I love being able to praise the Lord in that way.”

As to recent disagreements over music styles within the church, Cates said she never felt her job was ever at risk. On the contrary, the piano, she said, is generally the lead instrument in the contemporary praise music. It is the organ, she said with regret, that has lost its place in church worship. As a child she taught herself to play the complex instrument and hopes one will be installed in the planned worship center at FBC Forney.

Through her years of performing, Cates has worked to pass on her talents to up-and-coming pianists. It was her talents as a piano instructor that would, ultimately, help train a student who would some day fill the bench Cates would eventually vacate.

“I don’t like the word retirement,” said Cates, who recently stepped down from full-time work as the church pianist.

An illness suffered by her husband last autumn forced Cates to relinquish her role temporarily while helping him recuperate. It was during that time that she began toying with the idea of semi-retirement. The woman who was filling Cates’ place at the piano, Becky Dobbs, was a former student of Cates and a capable worship leader.

When Cates confided in Dobbs about her desire to give up the bulk of responsibilities, Dobbs told her, “Go for it!”

“It’s been a relief,” Cates admitted.

Rehearsal schedules for the various music ensembles at the church can be very time consuming, and, Cates said, “I realized [Don] had been sitting out there all by himself all these years” during worship services. Her family’s accommodation of her love of music has not gone unappreciated.

Cates readily acknowledges that music, specifically her ability to play the piano, is a gift from God. But, she admitted, from the time she was a young girl her heart’s desire was to be a good wife and mother. God gave her the desire of her heart and, in the process, allowed her to pass on her gift to her four children. Each one, she said, grew up playing the piano and, for a couple of her sons, the guitar.

Making music has been such a natural outpouring of her love for the Lord.

“You just live it and don’t notice the years going by,” she said.

Cates is not resigning all music duties.

She said, “I’ll be available. I have to play. I can’t live without playing.”

TEXAN Correspondent
Bonnie Pritchett
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