When Rob and I met on a drizzly Saturday afternoon in the basement of Bernhard Music Center, I was prepared to be awed and inspired. Sources had alerted me that Rob could play anything by ear on the piano. I had to meet him. We spoke in the privacy of a practice room, sitting amongst an extra chair and a big, black piano. I waited for the right moment to inquire about his skills.
What inspired you to get into music?
My grandmother had this piano at her house. It was a really old piano and eventually she got rid of it and decided kind of randomly to give it to our family. Then we had this piano sitting in our living room. I was eight years old at the time and I decided I wanted to play piano just out of curiosity.
Were you amazing at first?
Um, no. I practiced a lot. I was completely taken with it; I found it absolutely fascinating. I would do the [plays little ditty on the keys] three- note things, and then it just got more and more complicated. I had to move on from my first teacher within the first year or so.
I’m going to cut to the chase. My sources tell me that you have your own barbershop quartet.
Uhh, well it’s not my own, but I’m a member of it [Laughs]. It’s not the “Rob Pasternak Barbershop Quartet.” It’s with three other freshmen: Tim Lengel ’11, Nathaniel Basch-Gould ’11 and Evan Maltby ’11. We started our barbershop quartet because Tim and I were in the same music theory class and it somehow came up that he was in the National Barbershop Organization.
That’s a real thing?
There are like 30,000 members. Most of them are old.
What inspired you?
Well, I started listening to barbershop six months ago and I became obsessed kind of the same way I was obsessed with learning how to play piano. I would just go to YouTube and look up barbershop videos and sing along. Once I heard there were other people interested in barbershop here, I decided to pounce on the opportunity.
So who are your musical heroes?
Oh jeez . . . For classical, I’d say Bartok, Stravinsky . . .
The original rockstars.
My favorite jazz musician is Bill Evans.
If you were stuck in a room for the rest of your life listening to either classical, barbershop or jazz, which would it be?
That is probably the hardest question you could have asked me. [Pauses] I would say classical; there’s more diversity there than in, say, barbershop. Barbershop’s a specific, rigid style of music. So it’d be a very similar thing for the rest of my life. Classical is all over the place.
Do you do haircuts with the group?
Um, no . . . When I told people I was really into barbershop, a lot of them thought I was talking about the movie, which I hate.
Wait, with Queen Latifah? Who were you talking to?
Well, I know that when most people think of me they think of barbershop, as in that movie. And not cheesy music.
You look just like Cedric the Entertainer.
I do, I know. I get that all the time . . . There are a lot of stereotypes about barbershop music. Some of which are true. But there’s no haircutting, we don’t do any of that foolish nonsense.
There is no tomfoolery.
[The moment arrives. I had nearly forgotten about it.]
So I’ve heard that you can play anything by ear on piano. True?
Ah, not anything, but a portion of things . . .
Family Guy theme song.
[Hands fly gracefully over the keys as a passionate rendition of the theme emanates from the piano. He ends with a flourish.]
[Awed] How do you do that?
[Laughs] Well, um, I’ve been playing and composing and doing stuff by ear for a long time. So after a while, you get a familiarity with chords and combinations of chords and their sounds. I started when I was 13 and it was kind of choppy, now I can hear more voices at once.
How about you play a theme and I’ll try to guess.
What if I change the style completely? Same notes, changed style. [Plays a florid, melodious tune.]
Was that a Christmas song?
What if I play it more blatantly? [Plays the Super Mario theme in perfect time.]
That’s the Mario theme!
Can you play 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop”? In lounge style?
[Plays the embarrassingly simple melody flawlessly.]