Ethan & Mark's Music Room Performance at J. Allen Axson Elementary School

by Rick Grant
Every so many years, a true genius is born-a musical prodigy who at age 3 can instantly play music on piano that is in his or her head without musical instruction. Ethan Bortnick fits this profile. This 8 year-old kid is really an adult genius trapped in a child’s body. He literally can play any composition he hears, which is the holy grail of music.
Last Tuesday afternoon I was privileged to witness Ethan play piano with one of his musical buddies, saxophonist, Mark Rivera, who is presently touring with the Billy Joel-Elton John show. Mark had performed that Monday night with the show.
They call this gig Ethan & Mark’s Music Room-a performance to inspire young kids to not get discouraged and find their special gift to the world. Of course, Ethan stole the show. He’s not only an exceptional musical prodigy, but he’s charming and self assured. He easily established a rapport with his audience and told jokes. He had the assemblage of elementary school students spellbound with his charisma and poise.
Now 8 years old, he plays popular classical music, pop, rock classics, and composes his own songs. He even sings on some songs like Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” After a few minutes on stage, I didn’t think of him as a kid but a very short adult. His adult body language is uncanny.
For three years, Ethan has been on the road, playing with major artists like Beyonce, Santana, and Josh Groban. Just to be accurate, he did not open for these acts, but he actually played on-stage with them. He’s appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno multiple times. The last time he appeared on Jay Leno, he joked with Jay and got laughs.
Mark Rivera has been a featured member of Billy Joel’s band since 1982 and has toured the world with John Lennon, Peter Gabriel, Simon & Garfunkel, The Eagles, and was Ringo Starr’s musical director.
Clearly, Mark gets great joy from working with Ethan and they joke around on stage as pals. Mark is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, playing all saxophones, flute, and keyboards. His Music Room gig with Ethan is a chance for him to give back and inspire young people. Of course, Mark knows that Ethan is the star of this duo, and he’s fine with that.
Ethan’s songs are about animals and the environment. He wrote a song titled Arctic Jazz about a manatee swimming to Antarctica. He wrote out all the notes and improvised a few measures. So, he’s just getting turned on to improvisational music.
It was amazing to watch him play with those tiny hands, stretching to form the chords. But he does it with ease and advanced facility with style. There’s a pedal extender so his feet can reach the pedals.
After the show, I had a chance to interview Ethan. He sat on his piano stool like being interviewed was part of his routine. I first asked him if he started playing piano from the music in his head.
“I was 3 years old when I went to a piano and started playing music that was in my head. Previously, I had asked my parents for music lessons, but my mom said ‘don’t be ridiculous, you’re still in diapers.’ So I went to the piano and played some music and my mom said, okay, now you can have music lessons. This was before I started listening to music. I just knew I could play. Later I learned to read music, but at first, upside down. I just hear music and in 2 minutes I can play it.”
Ethan went on to say he likes to play basketball with his friends, but he has to be careful of his fingers. Then I asked him how much he practices the piano every day. His answer was shocking.
“Many days go by and I don’t practice at all– just right before shows I go over my repertoire.”
Obviously, Ethan relates to adults. He lives in an adult world of musicians and educators. But, he explains to the kids what inspired him to write certain songs. Indeed, that gave the youngsters something to think about.
Before I left, I spoke to Ethan’s dad Gene. He said he has an Internet business but has been traveling full time with his son. He said he’s exhausted, but happy for Ethan to experience the big time music world which he really enjoys. “He can’t wait to play the next gig,” Gene said.