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Bob Milne – a Ragtime Pianist and a Library of Congress “National Treasure” Who Has An Extraordinary Musical Brain

August 29, 2014
Bob Milne playing at the piano in Boothbay Harbor, Maine

Bob Milne in Boothbay Harbor, Maine Photo by Mary McAvoy (HTC one phone camera)

Last week I was visiting a friend in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where, one night, we enjoyed a concert given by Bob Milne, a ragtime pianist I’d not heard of before that evening. As we settle into our folding chairs at the concert, I had the sense that I would be seeing a local musician. As Milne took to the stage, everything in his demeanor indicated that could be the case. He was an ordinary looking older gentleman, dressed casually and he seemed to be completely at ease in this small setting where about 150 people had come to see him.

His opening remarks were amiable and humorous, dryly humorous. Immediately, he captivated the audience with his warmth and down-home style.

When his fingers first struck the keys my senses responded with “WOW!” Shame on me for not expecting this white-haired, mild-mannered man to dazzle with his incredible talent. In fact, more than being talented, Bob Milne, I was to learn after the performance, is gifted in a way that is astounding. But I’ll leave that till later.

As Milne played his first few tunes, I wondered how such talent was not on my radar. Mind you, I’ve never followed ragtime music, but this pianist, who is from Michigan (not Boothbay Harbor!), is so astounding, I couldn’t imagine as I watched and listened that his name is not a household word.

It may be that Milne had never before crossed my radar but his extraordinary ability at the piano and his knowledge of ragtime, boogie-woogie and the history of music has been noticed by the Library of Congress, which has distinguished him as a National Treasure.

Milne completely won me over when he played “Steeplechase Rag.” To hear a 45 second clip of Milne performing his own steeplechase at the keyboard, scroll to the bottom of this page and hit play where you see “Steeplechase Rag.” Fasten your seatbelt…

Between songs, Milne talked to the audience about his journey at the piano through the years, about the history of ragtime and boogie-woogie, and about piano chords. He talked about cross-genre piano as he discussed how one style influenced another, and he showed that he’s adept at playing classical piano, too.

Milne devoted a segment of his evening to Scott Joplin’s music and history. It was a real treat.

At some point in the evening, Milne revealed that he is self taught and that he plays by ear. It’s nearly impossible to believe this as you listen to and watch him. This fact is offset by a great story that reveals his abilities. At some point in the ’60s he was playing in a bar night after night to earn his living. As he’d arrive and set up, a player piano would be banging away, entertaining till the live performers began. Milne would listen to it till it was time to unplug it and get on with his evening’s work. He began to try to learn tunes from the player piano. Some time after he’d been at this a while, and frustrated by his inability to play quite as fast and as well, he learned that the piano was programmed to included notes as if three players were playing at once! His friends teased him, “Keep going, Bob, you’ve almost caught up!”

This story about Milne hints at what has been learned about his mind through a neurological study that’s been conducted on him by Kerstin Betterman, a Penn State neuroscientist. Please take the time to listen to this NPR Radiolab story of the study of Bob Milne’s brain. It will amaze you! In fact, it will blow your mind!

Please have a look at Bob Milne’s tour schedule and commit to seeing him if he’s in your area.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2014 9:10 pm

    Egads. Someone just sent me your blog. Thank you. You’re very kind. Bob Milne

    Like

    • August 31, 2014 9:48 pm

      Hi Bob,
      “Egads!” – I can’t believe this post made its way to you!
      It was an honor to see you perform in Boothbay Harbor and it’s so pleasing to me to see your comment here on my blog.
      The post above doesn’t really express adequately how much I enjoyed your show.
      I was amazed at how much music history and information you packed in and around your incredible piano playing.
      I’ve been singing your praises since seeing you in Maine!
      Thank you for sharing your talent and knowledge.
      I hope to see you perform again.
      Best wishes,
      Mary

      Like

  2. August 29, 2014 11:02 am

    Great post! I want to hear this guy. I see he is playing in Indiana in October. I will make every effort to go to the concert and bring my daughter with me. She’s quite the budding young ragtime pianist herself! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Like

    • August 29, 2014 1:57 pm

      Hi Jim,
      I’m so glad you saw this post since your daughter has interest in ragtime piano!
      And I hope you are able to see Bob Milne in Indiana.
      He’s a wonderful person and very approachable if it’s a small audience.
      He joins the crowd during intermission and after his concert.
      He talked about a week-long lesson that he offers for a “ridiculously low” cost.
      I think he said people of all ages and all musical abilities attend.
      Maybe you can find something about it on his website and consider it for your daughter.
      By his description, it sounds fantastic.
      Thanks for stopping by and for commenting!
      Mary
      PS I love your posts at http://www.injimsgarden.wordpress.com
      Your photos and content are delightful! 🙂

      Like

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