June 11, 2019
Tune-In Tuesdays #22: Perfect Pitch with Ethan Bortnick
Ethan Bortnick sitting on a pianoSource: Ethan Bortnick
Although he shared the stage with the likes of Elton John, Beyoncé, and Reba McIntire throughout his childhood, the 18 year old piano prodigy Ethan Bortnick isn’t all that different from his peers: he loves video games and anime, he’s kind, cheerful, and humble.
With the release of his latest single ‘Leave Me Alone’ and more music on the way, Bortnick gave us an inside scoop on his background, interests, and what’s next for the bright musician during our phone call over the weekend.
On your website, it says that you discovered your ability to hear a song once and play it back note for note after taking piano lessons when you were quite young. Does the ability come to you naturally, or do you have to think about it for a moment?
Ethan Bortnick playing the piano in the studioSource: Ethan Bortnick
Ever since I can remember, sounds trigger something in my brain. Whenever I hear a note, or somebody drops their keys, any noise that I hear, it’s processed in my brain as a specific note.
This is called ‘perfect pitch’ and it’s definitely helped me a lot.
When I was about eight, we got an email from some scientists who wanted to perform some studies on me.
[My parents] were like, “Uhh, oh, okay… Maybe when he’s older!”
It’s pretty cool though. We know some people who are super into [neurology], and I want to how it all works one day.
Do you remember what song you had first tested your perfect pitch with?
I personally don’t remember. My parents have really old VHS footage of me on my little toy keyboard, trying to figure out how to play whatever I heard on Sesame Street.
My parents also had CDs of classical music. I would sit down to try to mimic that – and eventually, I got really good at it.
Rondo Alla Turca by Mozart was probably the first song I ever sat down like, “Okay, I’m going to figure this out.” I was three years old.
That’s what sort of triggered my parents to get me piano lessons, ’cause I kept begging them.
Do you play any other instruments?
Do video games count? Anything Nintendo I’m a big, big nerd for.
What is your favorite genre to play on the piano?
Ethan Bortnick hugging a keyboardSource: Ethan Bortnick
Honestly, I struggle with this a lot. In some of my live concerts I’ll go from Beethoven to Post Malone.
For me, it’s hard to pinpoint what genre I love more than the other. I think that’s kind of evident in [‘Leave Me Alone’]
When we sat down to work on how the song should sound, we made a bunch of songs that totally didn’t sound a like. Later songs will definitely sound more like [my latest release], though.
It was really fun to put [‘Leave Me Alone’] together, too. The funny thing is our initial demo of the song had this weird Kygo vibe and obviously it sounds nothing like Kygo now.
It was great to play around with where we want to go with the song because it had the potential to go so many different ways.
When did you start playing on stage? Do you ever get stage fright?
I started performing at five and I’ve never been nervous for anything related to music. It’s what I love to do.
Two weeks ago, we were in Detroit. There was no sound for 30 minutes of this show and like 2,000 people were in the audience. I was literally asking people what their best recommendation for food in Detroit was.
Even if something goes wrong or it’s not the best concert in the whole world, it doesn’t matter because I’m still doing what I love. That never makes me frightened and nervous. It’s like my playground.
You have shared the stage with stars such as Beyoncé, Elton John, Reba McEntire, appeared on multiple talk shows, magazines, and so forth. What were those experiences like, especially at such a young age? What did you learn from playing alongside these musicians?
I definitely learned a great deal from a lot of these people.
But, being a youngster – as they say – I really had no idea who these people were at the time. Of course, now I know who they are.
Regardless, I never got starstruck or scared to meet them. It was like meeting another person.
When I met Celine Dion for the first time, it was backstage at her Madison Square Garden concert when I was six.
Celine had seen me on The Tonight Show two months before the concert and she was like, “Oh, Ethan! How’s it going?”
I chatted with her for 10 minutes straight with all of these bodyguards, managers, and record label people around.
When she left, I turned to all of these people and asked, “Yo, who was that lady?”
That’s just an example of how little I knew at the time.
I was never pushed or shoved to do this or that in front of this person.
What has been your favorite show so far? Are there any performances that stand out as particularly memorable for you?
Ethan Bortnick playing the keyboardSource: Ethan Bortnick
Well, that one where we completely lost power and all sound was pretty memorable [laughs]. It was pretty intense. That was two weeks ago.
Honestly, I pour everything into every single show, so I can’t think of a specific one.
A lot of the concert specials we filmed for television were pretty amazing, ’cause they were large scale productions with a full symphony and a 200 hundred kid choir, the audiences went nuts, stuff like that. Those were pretty dang memorable.
In general, there’s never really been a dull concert that I can think of.
On your website, it says some of your other hobbies include reading, sports, and art. What sort of art do you like to dabble in? Do you have any artists, cartoons, or eras that you pull inspiration from?
I like to sketch a lot. Just rough, pencil, 2D drawings.
Five or six years ago, I got heavy into digital painting. I do a lot of fun concept art and video game characters as a side hobby.
I definitely pull a lot of inspiration from Pokemon, too.
Another big source of inspiration for me is anime – even in my music. When I write songs, I draw a lot from that.
Your website also says that you have raised over $50,000,000 for non profit organizations, which is absolutely incredible. What charities have you donated to? How could some of our readers get more involved in helping the cause?
Ethan BortnickSource: Ethan Bortnick
The most important aspect of my work is doing my part to give back.
When it comes to a specific cause, it ranges. We did a lot for the USO (United Service Organizations) and military families here in the US. We did a lot in Japan in South Africa for orphans and natural disaster response.
We also did a lot for children’s hospitals here in the US. My little brother has half of a heart, so we wanted to help the charity that helped us in that tough time.
There are a lot of different causes that are very near to me. Whenever we have a concert – it doesn’t matter what it is or where – we always make sure part of the proceeds go to a local charity or one that’s close to our hearts.
I take so much joy from giving back, I couldn’t imagine doing this without it.
Amidst touring, performing, and practicing, how did you balance your career as a musician with going to school?
I’m still in school.
My parents always made sure I attended a public school, rather than home school. At least, until last year, when things got really busy and sort of spiraled out of control.
I always kept in contact with my teachers. Whenever I was on the road, I would do homework whenever I had off time. Sometimes I’d even catch up during the summer.
School has always been something that I love, because I love learning. I know that’s probably weird, but I’ve always loved to go to school.
On the other hand, this is my first home schooling experience. It’s unbelievable for me to be able to do things at my own pace. I breeze through a subject whenever I totally understand it or slow down until I do.
Getting the best of both worlds is kind of awesome.
While you were still in school, did you ever feel alienated from your peers because of your life outside of your education?
I was very lucky that I was in the same school for many, many years. I grew up with a lot of these kids, so I never really experienced people treating me differently or excluding me.
Recently, that sort of experience – outside of those people – was a lot of the inspiration behind ‘Leave Me Alone.’
Do you mind expanding on the inspiration behind ‘Leave Me Alone’?
When I sat down to write it, I didn’t realize I had the best writing material right in front of me.
I was trying to find things to write about and everybody was like, “You’re literally the most boring person,” because all I do is eat, play video games, go outside, then sleep. That’s it.
Eventually, I wanted to write about what was going on at the time. I had made some new friends and after I came back from tour, they spread all sorts of crazy rumors and awful lies about all this stuff.
I guess they were angry at me for some reason, so I left it alone. I left and came back from another tour and it had happened again.
At that point, I was like, “Leave me alone,” so I sat down and wrote the song.
Sometimes the best thing is to leave things alone. Move passed it.
It was definitely a defining moment in my songwriting career [laughs]. I had never written something as specific as this, so a lot of the songs after that really dive into some more personal topics.
What else is next for you? Is there an EP, an album, or another tour on the books?
Ethan Bortnick resting on a piano in the studioSource: Ethan Bortnick
We go back on tour in August and a lot of that is going to be based off of the new music.
We have [‘Leave Me Alone’] out right now, but we have about 12 songs ready to be released. Our plan is release a song every month and a half to two months.
I’m very excited because we have some songs that are very unexpected, genre and soundwise. I’m looking forward to putting all of them out.
Each song has such a unique sound and quality to it, but the one thing that ties all of them together is the heavy piano.
Although this is what you love to do, do you ever feel like you need a break from your work?
Ethan Bortnick on his phoneSource: Ethan Bortnick
The funny thing is we’ve been on break for like five months, besides the shows in Ohio and in Detroit. I’ve been working on new music, the release [of ‘Leave Me Alone’], and school.
When I went back on stage, I was like, “Oh my god, I hated taking a break.” I couldn’t imagine being on break longer than this.
Going forward, what are some of your overarching goals, as a musician? How do you aspire to impact the world through your work?
I just want to do as much good as I can; give back as much as possible and inspire as many people as I can. That’s really what music is all about, hopefully conveying a message to someone.
As long as I’m doing that I’m happy.
Hopefully someone can relate to leaving me alone [laughs].
What advice would you give to fellow young musicians who are just starting out or interested in delving into their passions further?
Have fun with it. If you don’t have fun then there’s no point. When you have fun, the rest will come.
If you’re enjoying what you’re doing it’ll show, and people gravitate towards authenticity.
Ethan Bortnick in the studioSource: Ethan Bortnick
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