By Tess Steele
On Monday, February 15, Vice-Chancellor John McCardell hosted ragtime musician and pianist Bob Milne, for an evening at Chen Hall. Prior to the dinner, guests congregated in the living room of Chen, where Milne and his wife Linda mingled with curious members of the administration, faculty, and student body. Sewanee was the final stop for the Michigan-based couple, who spend upwards of 90% of their year touring the nation. Having practiced for over 35,000 hours and performed around 250 concerts a year, it should come as no surprise that Milne was bestowed the title of a “national treasure” by the Library of Congress in 2004 for being the leading ragtime pianist in the country.
After a delightful dinner, guests settled in the living room to hear a few words from the Vice Chancellor, who welcomed Milne and Linda, warmly telling the couple of the “blessing of having you two in Sewanee.” From here Milne stole the show, speaking of his career and musical philosophy. “I try to play the piano like the people. I play in a range people can sing to, and I make breaks in the music to correlate with where a breath is taken. One thing we all have as humans in an emotional range. I realized that inside that emotional range, people wanted to hear music sing.”
Milne confessed to having always been musically inclined, learning almost any piece he heard in a matter of days. “When I hear music, I know every note someone plays. It’s just how I am,” shared Milne. His remarkable ability to pick up nearly any tune led to Penn State neuroscientists running multiple experiments on his brain, revealing his unique ability to hear, and consequently play, four distinct symphonies in his mind at once. This gift means that Milne can play numerous time signatures simultaneously. That said, he is remarkably humble and is sure that his playing manifest the beauty of the music, not simply the brilliance of his abilities. “I always tell music students to never show others how good you are. Rather, show others how good the music is.”
Milne recalled an exceptionally moving performance during his tour of Japan in the early 2000s. While flying to the island of Okinawa, Japanese citizens traveling with Milne encouraged him to learn a song native to the island. Being able to play by ear, Milne listened to recordings of a few songs, and quickly picked up on one in particular. Upon enquiring the meaning of the song, he learned it was of World War II and the death of a girl’s father. Okinawa was the site of a gory battle that resulted in an American victory and significant loses for the locals. Unsure of how the people of Okinawa would react to an American performing a WWII memorial song, Milne initially refused to play it. After much encouragement from both Americans and Japanese on the plane, Milne went ahead and performed the piece. “I was absolutely terrified,” he said, but his fears dissipated upon hearing roaring applause following his performance. “Women greeted me weeping and thanking me repeatedly.” The importance of an American honoring the deceased Japanese soldiers was felt throughout the island, with the American flag being raised alongside the Japanese flag as a sign of respect. “It was the most stunning moment of my life.”
Following his recollections of his many musical experiences, Milne ended the dinner performing an original piece, serving as an ode to his tour through Tennessee. “I don’t write music, I find it. It simply comes to me, and I am thankful for the ability to play like this.” For more information regarding Milne’s tour schedule, visit www.bobmilne.com.