Nine -year-old Ethan Bortnick’s parents had already noticed that their son was gifted (he’d picked up reading by age 2), but they first realized they had a prodigy on their hands when they overheard Ethan, then 4, using his toy keyboard to repeat every song on his Baby Einstein albums. “We pretty much flipped out,” says Ethan’s dad Gene Bortnick. “We’re not musicians at all. There was no piano in the house.
That’s when the whirlwind began that would find Ethan, two years later, as a guest on The Jay Leno Show. He charmed the talk show host — and everyone who tuned in that evening — with not only a medley of complex piano pieces but also his precocious personality, and in short succession, Leno invited Ethan back three more times. He’s since been on air with nearly every the major television personality (including the likes of Oprah and Martha Stewart) and opened up for artists such as Beyoncé and Josh Groban.
“When Ethan’s on-stage, he has this spark,” explains Gene. “When he’s off-stage, and he’s playing video games, he has that same spark. Like today, he just could not wait to get to school this morning. He has that spark. When he’s eating good food, he has that spark. I think he just enjoys everything. What we try to do is just balance everything. I think that’s why the spark is still there.”
Most recently, Ethan was invited to be a part of the monumental “We are the World” for Haiti recording (see video below) and to join the Baldwin Piano family. In fact, the elementary school student gets to travel in style during his upcoming headlining tour on the Gibson/Baldwin tour bus. “I showed him the pictures [of the bus] and he said, ‘Oh this is where I can play my video games,’” says Gene. “And I said, ‘It’s where you can do your homework, too.’”
After a piano rehearsal last week, we chatted with Ethan about his experience with “We are the World,” his tour and what he wants to be when he grows up.
How did you first get into playing piano?
I was begging my parents for piano lessons, and they kept saying, “No, no you’re still in diapers.” So I said, “OK, fine.” You know those Baby EinsteinCDs? I was constantly listening to them and I had a little Elmo toy keyboard and just one day I started mimicking the Baby Einstein CDs. And my parents said, “OK, now you can have piano lessons.”
What kind of things do you like to write songs about?
Well, I like animals so I like to write about animals mostly. Like one of my songs is called “Arctic Jazz.” It’s about a manatee who went all the way from Florida to Antarctica. It’s called “Arctic Jazz” because he’s going to Antarctica to have a jazz party. Why I wrote this song is because if you keep trying and trying you’ll be the best at what you do. And for a manatee, it’s so hard for him to go from Florida to Antarctica to have a jazz party, but he just kept trying and trying and he made it. It’s one of my favorite songs that I wrote because I love jazz.
Tell me about your PBS special coming up — you’ve called it Ethan and the Musical Time Machine.
We’re just going to invite a bunch of people to help me do it and everything and we’re going to hang out, just have a lot of fun. We’re going to just play music and travel through time and do a lot of fun things. Or meet Mozart and give him an iPod, stuff like that.
What do you love most about playing piano?
I just love music, and I think music really is amazing because…once, my grandpa told me a story, how one farmer started playing music. Andthe next day, he saw that all the plants were almost done. Because of the music, they were growing faster. I just like making people happy and besides that, it makes me happy, too.
You seem very happy when you’re on-stage performing.
Yeah, I have a lot of fun with the audience. We just schmooze.
You’ve schmoozed with a lot of famous people. Most recently you did the ‘We are the World’ recording.
That was a great recording. I loved it. It was so much fun. It was pretty cool. I mean, it was hot inside and we were on our feet for six hours, but it was still a lot of fun. First people did solo, but I was in the choir with the other people. I was singing. They didn’t have a piano there. I love to sing.
It seems like you get a kick out of helping people who are in need.
Yeah, that’s mostly what I like to do. I like to do charity. First of all it’s just fun for me, and it helps people.
Other than playing piano and performing, what do you like to do?
I like to play video games. I like to play with my brother and cousin. I like to go to school. I like to eat goat cheese salad. I like to do a lot more things — get on the computer. I like to play sports, but especially soccer because it doesn’t include my hands. Because sometimes I can break one of my fingers and that’s not good.
Who are some piano players that you look up to?
Basically all of them, I think. I like Mozart. He’s really good, but he’s not alive anymore. I like Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Elton John. I like everyone.
You’ve already accomplished so much. What do you want to do in your future?
I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be a zookeeper, I think. And play music for the animals. That would be really fun. I love animals and I love music, so it includes both things.
The Little Giant Among Giants: Ethan at the 25th anniversary remake of “We Are The World,” which debuted during the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics and featured more than 70 performers, including Kanye West, Brian Wilson, Pink and Celine Dion.