Patel Student and Blake High Valedictorian Excels, Inspires and Dreams


James Lafayette wanted to play the bass – the double bass, to be precise. The instrument, though, was a bit too large for the preteen.

The cello’s size, however, was just right. But he wanted to play bass.

James Lafayette (pictured above) playing the cello.

Have him start with the cello, a teacher advised James’ mother. James could switch to bass later on, the teacher assured. Funny how things happen, though. Or don’t happen.

“Long story short I’ve never switched to bass and I’m still playing cello,” said James, now 19. “I don’t know when that switch is going to happen,” he said with a laugh.

Turns out James did OK with the cello. He was selected for All-State Orchestra on cello from 2017-2021, and on harp for 2022. As a Patel student, he played in the conservatory’s Advanced Chamber Ensemble, Repertory Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra Intensive. He also plays the harp – the six-foot tall instrument with 40-plus strings.

James playing the harp at All-State Orchestra.

He did OK with his schoolwork as well – he graduated from Blake High School last spring as the school’s valedictorian. This fall he began classes at Northwestern University, pursuing a double major in engineering and music education. Or composition, “because I also like to write my own music.”

In fact, composing film scores is a possible career option, James said. He’s a fan of contemporary composers such as Hans Zimmer, whose credits include Gladiator, The Dark Knight and Pirates of the Caribbean. Zimmer’s score for last year’s Dune has had a big impact on James.

“That score was unlike anything I’d heard in my life,” James said. “I just thought it was he weirdest, most unique thing. I kind of nerded out over that score.”

He’s considered film composition as a career option. “Right now I just kind of make music for small string ensembles although I arrange music as well,” James said.

He credits Patel and Dr. Catherine Michelsen, strings specialist in Patel’s music division, with expanding his knowledge and experience of music.

“Patel exposed me to a lot more chamber playing and to different types of music ensembles,” James said.

James plays in the weekly chamber ensemble led by Dr. Michelsen. “She’s an extremely good teacher. Every week we’ll have a discussion about some topic in music history or music theory or music interpretation,” James said, “and we discuss how we can apply that to the music that we’re playing.”

Dr. Catherine Michelsen, music faculty member at the Patel Conservatory.

Dr. Michelsen has a great deal of praise for James.

“He has been amazing to work with,” Dr. Michelsen said. “He is an extremely talented and expressive musician not only on the cello but also on the harp and other instruments.”

Dr. Michelsen also cited James’ interest in teaching and his ability to communicate and inspire younger, less experienced musicians.

James draws inspiration from his family, particularly his grandfather Bernard Lafayette, who was a leader in the 1960’s civil rights movement. An associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lafayette fought on the front lines of the movement, enduring beatings and imprisonment in the struggle to gain equality under the law for African Americans. 

James with his grandfather Bernard Lafayette.

“He’s one of my biggest heroes if not my biggest hero,” James said. “I really admire his work and I love to hear him tell us about what he’s done, and the troubles and the trials he had to go through. It inspires me and make me want to give back to the community just like he did and just trying to make the world better through my work.”

James’ mother is another influence. In fact, it was watching her play the double bass in a community orchestra that made him want to play a musical instrument on the first place.

“I was like, ‘That looks cool, I want to learn that,’ ” James recalled.

James’ love of learning extends to STEM topics as well.

Music is a huge part of James’ life, but he sounds just as enthusiastic when discussing engineering.

“My major is mechanical engineering and with that I plan to pursue a career in aerospace engineering or astronautical engineering,” James said. “I’m really interested in aerospace and I think I’d like to work at NASA or Lockheed Martin.”

Wherever aerospace might take him, music will be there too.

“I really love to just explore new things within music,” James said. “I want to keep it a central part of my life. I don’t plan to ever stop, really.” 

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