You normally have to travel to see a national treasure; Arizona has the Grand Canyon, Detroit hosts Rosa Park’s bus and the Statue of Liberty stands tall in New York.
This weekend, though, living national treasure Bob Milne will be visiting Enumclaw to perform ragtime and boogie-woogie music at the Chalet Theater.
Milne was declared a national treasure by the Library of Congress in 2004 after three days of interviews and filming his piano skills.
Milne is an accomplished musician, but it was his unique understanding of music that earned him his national treasure status. First of all, Milne doesn’t practice. Ever.
Oh, and no sheet music either, because that would be cheating.
Even so, Milne’s piano expertise may rival some of the greats.
“Playing the piano has always been easy for me,” Milne said. “I can’t explain that. I don’t know how. I’ve never practiced a day in my life because as I said, it is easy for me.”
When Milne was young, he would listen to his mother play the piano and when she finished, he would copy her by ear.
She signed him up for piano lessons, but he only stuck them out for a year.
“They were giving me these stupid scales and silly-sounding children songs and telling me to play these, and I was already listening to Beethoven,” he recalled.
Some of the feats Milne can perform include being able to play three time signatures at a time; 3/4 time, 4/4 time and 5/4 time.
Milne can also keep track of four different songs at a time, and when they’re over, he can tell you all about them.
“Some neurology doctors made a study of me trying to figure out how I can do this. I don’t know myself how I do it,” Milne said. “They’ve been studying me for 5 years and have not come up with an explanation.”
What Milne can describe about his brain is he stores music he hears inside a clam shell.
“Picture a clam shell. Picture it opened up,” he described. “I listen to somebody play a piece of music and I just open the clam shell and I put it in there and I close it. And I can let it out later.”
Milne’s philosophy towards music is just as unique as his brain, too. Once word got out about his abilities, people would try to cajole him into playing a certain piece by handing him the sheet music.
Milne, though, would turn them down.
“I would look at the piece and I would say to myself, ‘I’ve been given an ability. I was given the ability to do it without the music,’” he said. “’And if I violate that ability, it might be taken away from me.’”
Instead of using his skills to show off how good he is, Milne believes it is more important to show off how good the music is.
“I always tell piano students, don’t ever try to show anybody how good you are,” he said. “Show them how good the music can be. So if I sit down in some basement and practice all sorts of funky runs, double-handed going in different directions, that’s trying to show somebody how good I am. I won’t do that. I have to be able to use my brains and create (the music) on the spot, in the moment and keep on going.”
Milne has been a professional piano player for more than 50 years, and averages between 200 and 250 performances a year, and makes his living traveling across the country to perform.
“I feel so lucky that I can do something that other people like,” Milne said. “I happen to be doing something that I enjoy and people like me. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Milne will be performing at 2 p.m. on March 8 at the Chalet Theatre for one day only.