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Ethan Bortnick, the world famous 16 year-old piano player and singer, performs Thursday, April 6, at Valley Regional High School to raise funds for Sister Cities Essex Haiti. (Photo courtesy of Sister Cities Essex Haiti )
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He was playing concerts at five years old, appeared on the Tonight Show and Oprah by the time he was seven, and made in his first PBS television special when he had not yet turned 10. And that was just the beginning for Ethan Bortnick, who is now 16.
Since then he has toured the world singing and playing an eclectic mix pop, jazz, and classical piano; made a second PBS special; and even kept up with his high school homework assignments.
Bortnick will appear in a concert benefit for Sister Cities Essex Haiti (SCEH) on Thursday, April 6 at Valley Regional High School.
SCEH has sponsored the building of a library in the Haitian village of Deschapelles and provides ongoing support for Hôpital Albert Schweitzer, which serves more than 350,000 residents of Haiti’s remote Artibonite Valley. There is no free public education in Haiti and the Deschapelles library gives children who would otherwise have no access to books, the opportunity to learn to read.
Now, at 16, after more than 10 years of touring and performing, Bortnick doesn’t think his audiences still expect him to see the precocious child he once was.
“I don’t think I was a prodigy, I think of a prodigy as someone who does only one thing, like play classical piano and win competitions, and then grows out of it,” he said. “I’ve evolved over the years; I play, I compose, I do crazy things on stage; I’ve made myself more of an artist.”
One of the things Bortnick likes to do is compose during a concert. Often he invites someone from the audience on stage, asks to hear the ring tone on the person’s cell phone, and improvises music on the notes.
Bortnick added singing to his performances when he was seven years old, but the voice he sang with then is not the voice he sings with now.
“Of course, there was a flip-flop in my voice and it is a completely different instrument now,” he admitted.
In fact, his Ukranian-born parents refused his first request for piano lessons when he was three years old, thinking he was too young. Instead, he began to pick out songs on a toy keyboard. He doesn’t fault his parents for refusing.
“They were not musical and I think I was still in diapers,” he said.
After Bortnick had played for several months at his keyboard, however, his parents relented and he started formal lessons.
“At first, I don’t think my teacher thought it was anything very special,” he said. “After about a month, when I was already practicing an hour and a half at a time, things really started to take off.”
Academically, Bortnick is a student at a private school in Florida, although he is most often an electronic presence, communicating on computer.
When he is home, he describes himself as a normal 16 year-old who plays video games, eats like a teenager, and who likes to draw and watch sports.
Giving charity fundraising programs has become a regular part of Bortnick’s schedule. He believes not simply that he can help raise money, but that music can help change people’s attitudes.
““Music has the power to effect people, to change things, to change the world,” he said.
SCEH President Dan Taylor-Stypa saw Bortnick perform last year at the Bushnell in Hartford and heard him talk about his concern for the people of Haiti after the earthquake that devastated much of the country in 2010. Bortnick was one of the musicians who participated in the “We Are the World for Haiti” single, a worldwide bestseller, produced to raise funds to help the country rebuild. Taylor-Stypa told Bortnick about SCEH’s work and the upcoming concert is the result.
At fundraisers, Bortnick likes to incorporate musicians, often a chorus, from the local area.
“It’s awesome,” he said, using a word that often appears in his conversations.
At the upcoming Essex concert, there will be a local choir consisting of children from Regional District 4 elementary schools as well as singers from Connecticut College.
Bortnick’s charity performances started with his own family, when his brother Nathan, five years younger, was born with half his heart missing. Nathan had three operations by the time he was four; Bortnick did his first benefit concert to support the hospital that had treated his brother in a program that included Beyoncé, Smokey Rogers, and Gloria Gaynor. Bortnick’s fundraising concerts have raised more than $40 million for charitable organizations.
As for Nathan, he has recovered well, according to his website ethanbortnick.com.
“He’s doing amazing, awesome. The only thing he couldn’t do is go in outer space, and he doesn’t want to be an astronaut anyway,” Bortnick said, noting the gravitational changes space travel produces would disrupt Nathan’s blood flow.
As he looks to the future, Bortnick doesn’t want to make any predictions for the course of his career.
“I will just go with the flow,” he said.
There is one thing he will never has to worry about, something that can bedevil even longtime performers: anxiety.
“No, I never get stage fright. I love what I am doing too much,” he said.
Ethan Bortnick Live in Concert
Pianist and vocalist Ethan Bortnick performs Thursday, April 6 to benefit Sister Cities Essex Haiti. The performance starts at 7 p.m. at Valley Regional High School, 256 Kelsey Hill Road, Deep River. For information and tickets, visit sistercitiesessexhaiti.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 860-227-0848.
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