Piano keys unlocking brain functions

Describing Robert “Bob” Milne as a pianist seems inadequate … like describing someone as “a breather” because they can breathe, or a “thinker” because they think.

“I’ve been a musician all of my life,” Milne, who will perform Tuesday at Lycoming College’s Clarke Chapel, said. “Ever since I was a little kid it’s all I was interested in. It never occurred to me that I was interested in anything other than music.”

Milne mastered the French horn at a young age and became assistant first horn in the Baltimore Symphony at age 19. He became disillusioned with symphony politics, however, and quit in 1964. Soon after, he found himself in a German bar in Detroit. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but this decision led to a lifelong love affair with the piano.

“I became a piano player. They just hired me on the spot,” he said. “Somebody threw me up on a piano stand and had me play the thing. I ended up playing for an hour, an hour and a half … That was the beginning of my piano career.” Milne spent the next 25 years playing piano full-time in bars and began performing in concert halls in 1991.

But it’s more than just a calling. In fact, Milne assumed for much of his life that everyone could naturally play the piano. Thanks to a brain that’s exceptional at multi-tasking, Milne not only can play any song by ear, but can listen to multiple pieces of music at one time and even write songs in his head.

“If somebody has an ability, they just assume it. They think everybody can do it,” he said. “Things that you can do, you assume that everybody else can.”

It was a chance run-in with neurologist Dr. Jim Toole that brought Milne’s unique abilities to light. While relaxing at a resort in California, Milne began performing an impromptu concert for friends in which he incorporated different time signatures at the same time.

“I was playing (the piano) and a bunch of my friends were sitting around … (and I decided) just to amuse myself and play the melody in 3/4, the rhythm in 4/4 and do a trill in 5/4. I was demonstrating that to people. A guy standing there started yelling that that was impossible. I asked him why not and he said because you gotta use the left and right side of your brain at the same time.”

The commenter turned out to be Toole, who connected Milne with neurologist Dr. Kerstin Betterman, who has worked at Hershey Medical Center since 2007.

“My interest was in the networks of the brain,” Betterman said. “Because we know that they get damaged in brain injury, whether it’s stroke or traumatic brain injury. The question was, how can we learn from people who are healthy? Is there something we can learn and apply to people with diseases?”

Betterman said since then she has probably studied Milne’s brain for about 100 hours total, “on and off for four years.”

The fact that Milne can play more than one song at a time on the piano just scratches the surface of the innerworkings of his brain.

When Betterman asked Milne how he learned the music he played, he answered that “I just drove around and listened to things in my head and practiced them on the steering wheel.”

At that moment Betterman realized Milne was “playing” multiple songs in his head simultaneously.

“I’ve always listened to two pieces of music at once,” Milne said. “I can see them in my head – one’s on the right side and one’s on the left side.”

After making this discovery, Betterman asked Milne if he had ever played three songs in his head.

“It turned out that I could, and I can see it too,” he said. “She asked me if I could do a fourth (song), and I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it … That was a little eye-opening to me. I didn’t know that I could hear three or four (songs at the same time).”

Milne even wrote an opera for piano, titled “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” entirely in his head. He composed the two hour, 40-minute piece on an 11,000-mile trip.

“I wrote and orchestrated the whole thing in my head while on a concert tour for two months out west,” he said, adding that he wrote the sections down later. When asked if he was worried about forgetting portions before he committed them to paper, he playfully scoffed: “I can’t possibly forget it. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I do the same thing with the lyrics of these things. I’ve written poetry in my head all my life.”

While Milne’s talents come to him naturally, he constantly needs to challenge his brain in order to continue to succeed, with both his memory and his music.

“Every time I play the piano, I try to play it better than I did last time. That doesn’t mean faster or more notes … maybe it means slower and more beautiful. I can’t play anything the same way twice. That’s letting your brain turn to cement,” he said, adding, “All my life, I’ve looked at the crossword puzzle and tried to do it without using a pencil … just look at it and feel the letters. It’s something I can’t do. However, I continue to try to do it, because what if I can? Your brain adapts, your brain changes. If you work at something enough, you can do it. So I’ll try to do the crossword puzzle just mentally.”

Milne said speed is essential in order for his hands to keep up with his brain: “When I was in my 50s, I was probably the fastest piano player in America. I constantly challenge myself. I listen to the thing in my head. Then I play it a split second later. I constantly challenge myself to see if I’ve slowed down, and I don’t think I have. I might have gotten faster, I don’t know.”

Milne and Betterman will combine their talents for the Lycoming College performance, with a lecture from Betterman, a question-and-answer session for the pair and then a piano performance from Milne. Betterman said she still continues to learn from Milne’s abilities when he performs.

Milne’s performances cover the landscape of musical genres, but the type of music he plays most frequently is ragtime.

“I can play ragtime or showtunes or popular songs or operas. Anything I want. I can take a symphony piece and play it on the piano. But the reason I play ragtime is, first of all it’s fun,” he said. “Rags aren’t singalong tunes, they’re piano pieces written in the style of the 1900s, which is far better than (contemporary music) … This ragtime stuff, everybody loves it when they hear it. I love playing it because it’s good music.”

Betterman said Milne’s mastery of the instrument makes his performances unforgettable: “If he plays, even if you are not musically inclined, it’s really like he has the whole instrument sing. You realize why a piano has been built the way it has been built.”

While most pianists, no matter the level of talent, still perform within certain limits, Betterman said that when Milne plays, “The whole instrument is involved. It’s really amazing.”

Milne is known for lecturing during his performances, and said he’s never confronted an obstacle that could distract him from playing pieces and talking simultaneously.

Thanks to experience playing in rowdy bars during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, he experienced all sorts of distractions but has never stopped playing.

“I have had shotguns go off in bars and I continued playing the piano. I’ve had bullets go over my head in a place I was playing at. I kept playing. I’ve played through brawls and fights,” he said. “I don’t know, if a tiger walked up on the stage, I’d probably realize I couldn’t get away from it anyway so I’d keep playing.”