Stephen Kates comes from a long line of musicians. His grandfather on his mother's side was Hungarian and studied with David Popper in Budapest. His father was a violinist in the New York Philharmonic for 43 years.
His teacher was Marie Roemaet-Rosanoff. At the age of 15, he played the Dvorák concerto in a public performance of her summer school in Connecticut and decided then to make cello playing his profession. Kates' ideal of cello playing took a decisive change when Mstislav Rostropovich made his first American tour and played Carnegie Hall. Kates had grown up a fan of Pablo Casals and because of his father's job, had even met him. But now, Kates decided to make equaling what he had heard at Rostropovich's recital his life's work.
It is probably fortunate that at this point he started studying with Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School. Rose, a very analytical and practical teacher, forced Kates to understand technique, "and stopped me running wild in my adoration of the cello." He entered the Budapest Cello Competition in 1963 as one of the youngest contestants and received honorable mention. Leonard Bernstein selected him to appear in a Young People's Concert on national television. For the occasion, Rosanoff loaned him her Stradivarius cello.
Next, Kates studied for three years with Piatigorsky at the University of Southern California. "It was a wonderful balance," he said. "First, Rosanoff giving me confidence and then Rose showing me how things worked, with the Rostropovich explosion right in the middle. And then Piatigorsky, sitting back as a semi-retired artist with all the wisdom of the performer and nothing but time for his students." At the same time, Piatigorsky's chamber music partner Jascha Heifetz was on the faculty and would send a request for a cello student to come over and complete a chamber ensemble for Heifetz's class.
Sometimes Piatigorsky gave extra lessons at his home, usually lasting from ten a.m. to 7:30 p.m., with a break for lunch and another for a swim in the pool.
In 1963, Kates met Rostropovich through an introduction by Lev Ginsburg. After dinner at the Kates' house, Rostropovich gave him an impromptu and detailed lesson in Russian, with several Russian friends scrambling to provide a running translation. In 1966, Kates won second prize at the Third International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. On his return, he played at the White House and gave the first U.S. performance by an American of Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1. Since then, he has enjoyed an important international cello career and began teaching at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore in 1974. His instrument is a 1736 Montagnana known as the "Hancock" after a famous instrument collector.