Ethan Bortnick, an 11-year-old piano player and philanthropist from Florida, will kick off his 22-city national "It's All About Music" tour Friday at the Carnegie Library Music Hall of Homestead in Munhall. Kidz Bop Kids will open the show.
Lily Tolchin, 10, a soon-to-be sixth-grader at St. Bede School in Point Breeze, had the chance to interview Ethan recently. Lily also has her own blog: www.kidsbeststuff.com.
You play piano really well. When did you start playing, and when did you know that you were gifted?
When I was 3, I was really into music, and I saw a lot of kids at my school taking piano lessons. And I was really curious, so I asked my parents for piano lessons, and they said, "Are you kidding? You're still in diapers!" So I had a little toy piano, and I started playing everything I heard on that toy keyboard, and finally my parents decided I was ready and signed me up for piano lessons.
What's the first song you remember playing really well?
Well, I used to listen to Baby Einstein CDs, and I really liked this song by Mozart called "Alla Turca." So, I started playing it on my toy piano when I was 3. But it wasn't the best, partly because my toy piano was really small -- it only had eight keys -- but later on I learned it for real on a regular piano keyboard.
What did your parents think when they found out you could play so well?
They flipped out -- that's what they told me. Because they didn't believe me, they didn't believe that I was playing Mozart. They thought that I had turned on the Baby Einstein CD, but when they came in the room, they saw that I was playing the Mozart song on my toy piano. I think they took a videotape of me playing that day. I was too young to remember.
How long does it take you to learn a new song?
It depends. If I'm learning a song by reading sheet music, it could take me about a week or two to learn it and to be able to play it well. But if I just listen to a song about three times or so, then I get it immediately and I can play it pretty well. So reading the music actually takes me longer than if I just hear it.
How many songs do you have memorized, and how long do you practice every day?
I have hundreds of songs memorized, but I really don't keep track of the actual number. As far as practicing, some days, I'll practice for one hour or two hours, and some days I won't practice at all. I usually just like to hang out and play the piano for fun. It depends on how I feel that day. But when I have a concert date, I usually rehearse for an hour or two.
I understand that you also write your own music. Where do you get your ideas for songs?
Well, first I think of a story, or I get inspired to write something, and then my hands just take over. I don't know how it happens. And then I start to think of words to go with the song. I sit at the piano and then the hands start working, and then what I'm playing turns into a song. It happens pretty fast.
You recently started singing during your performances. How is that going? Do you like singing?
Well, I used to sing when I was younger, but it was new for me. Now I've been taking vocal lessons, and I'm really starting to love it -- it's cool!
What's it like to meet celebrities like Oprah and Justin Bieber, and are there any celebrities that you'd like to meet?
All of the celebrities have been amazing. Justin Bieber was great. We recorded some music with him. Oprah was really, really nice, and the Black Eyed Peas were awesome. Once, will.i.am. called my house to invite me to his concert, and my dad was on the phone, and he thought it was one of his friends playing a trick on him, so he hung up. But then he realized that it was actually will.i.am, so he called him back! I've never met Paul McCartney, but I'd really love the chance to meet him and to play with him someday.
What grade are you in? Do you go to a regular school or have a tutor?
I'm going into middle school, sixth grade. I go to a regular school -- a private school -- and I love it. I really like school. I especially love math and science. Those are my two favorite subjects.
Is it hard to study when you're doing concerts?
No, it's not that hard because my teachers give me the homework while I'm traveling, and when I'm going away on a really long trip, my teachers talk to me on Skype on the computer.
How much time do you spend on the road doing concerts each year?
Last year, we did almost 75 shows -- headlining shows, and then we also did a bunch of private concerts.
How does it feel to be famous? Do you get recognized by other people a lot?
You know, I'm just a regular kid. I mean, I play piano, but I also play video games, I read, swim, play sports, draw. I mean, you know, I'm a regular kid like anyone else.
What's your favorite sport?
Well, my little brother is a huge sports fan, so I have to try to play with him nicely, even though he gets very excited to play sports. He's still smaller than me. But I would say that my favorite sports are probably basketball and baseball, but I have to be careful with my hands, especially before a concert.
What do you see yourself doing when you're grown up? Are you planning to go to college?
Sure, yeah, I mean, it's important, you know. But I'm still young, so I have to decide that when I'm older.
What's your new CD?
We've just released a new single that came out called "It's All About Music," which is also the name of our tour. Kidz Bop Kids is the opening act, and then I come out, and I'll play all kinds of music. There will be lots of surprises.