Musician and former Rochester resident Bob Milne doesn't say he was born with a gift for music, but he doesn't deny it either.
Referred to as "a national treasure" by the U.S. Library of Congress, Milne is the only ragtime musician to be featured by the national library in the past half-century. However, it's the unique way that Milne hears and sees music that makes his story so interesting.
Raised in Ferndale until the 7th grade, Milne had already been introduced to the violin by the time he moved to Rochester. By the 5th grade, he was tutoring other students, later picking up the French horn in the 8th grade and playing with the Pontiac Symphony while in high school, and with the Rochester Philharmonic in New York at 19-years-old.
"My mom wanted me to take piano lessons, which I did for about a year, but I hated it," Milne said. "They kept having me play stupid things they give beginners, so I started playing violin in elementary school. They were having me tutor other kids, just showing them obvious things, but they couldn't get it. I remember thinking then, 'I can see and hear things in music that the other kids can't hear, but they are doing their best.'
"It became my mantra of life: if you have been given a gift – I will never say I was given a gift, someone else may say it, but I won't – but if you were given a gift, it's your duty to honor that gift by making it better each day, and never make another kid feel inferior because of your gift."
It wasn't until around the 9th grade that Milne began playing piano, making $5 a week for a dance class. Even then, he said he didn't read notes off a piece of paper – playing by ear after hearing a song one time.
"I knew the notes, but for me to read the notes is like for someone else to read the newspaper to you," Milne said. "I don't visualize notes at all. I hear the sound and I know the notes they play, and I know how to fill in the chords and counter melodies that go along with it. I can't explain it."
While music has always come naturally, finding steady work has been a challenge at times. While Milne started playing bars in Detroit in the 1960s, the work became erratic or dangerous during the time of the riots in the city. At one point in his career, Milne relied on shooting pool to make ends meet. But that changed in the 1990s, when he began playing libraries and special events that opened new doors.
Milne's peculiar way of processing music caught the attention of a neuroscientist at Penn State University, who determined Milne is able to play up to four symphonies in his head at the same time.
"They played four pieces of music I never heard before, and then asked me to get into an MRI and listen to them, then asked if I could remember them, and I can," he said. "It started with a Bach piece, then after 15 or 20 seconds they had me start another."
Starting each piece at a different time, researchers cut the music to Milne's ears and asked him to continue them in his head. When they checked the progress, each matched up with where the music would be if it were playing.
"When I was younger, I thought that's how everyone heard and played," he said.