Ethan Bortnick is a regular 15-year-old kid. He likes to play video games, eat, play sports, watch TV, eat again — the usual hobbies of a ninth-grade boy.
Except that he only has time to do these activities in between rehearsals or performances during his current 50-city tour.
Bortnick, who will perform at the Kimmel Center on March 26, was recognized by the Guinness World Records as “Youngest Musician to Headline a Solo Concert” after headlining his own show when he was 9, has been playing the piano and writing music since the tender age of 3.
Bortnick, from Hollywood, Fla., recalled — as much as you can recall from a preschool age — being a 3-year-old at a Montessori school and watching the older kids go off for piano lessons.
“So I asked my parents, and they said ‘No,’ ” he said, “but that’s because they didn’t really believe I wanted to play. What happened was, I had a little toy keyboard that maybe I got for my second birthday and I started copying the music I heard on TV and radio on the toy keyboard,” he said, which he was able to do from memory, to his parents’ shock.
By the time he was 5 years old, he was writing original compositions.
He soon did television appearances and interviews with the likes of Oprah, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Good Morning America.
The most meaningful reward to his growing fame, even today, has been the chance to be able to give back. Bortnick has raised upwards of $40 million for various nonprofits through
charity work and performances.
In 2010, he was the youngest addition to lend his voice to the remake of “We Are the World 25 for Haiti” for earthquake relief, singing alongside such nobodies as Jennifer Hudson, Justin Bieber, Barbra Streisand and Gladys Knight, among many others. He’s also performed with Beyoncé and Josh Groban for various fundraising concerts.
“For me, the most important thing is that if you have something that you’re passionate about — and it doesn’t have to be music, it can be art or cooking or sports or whatever — I think it’s important to use that and to help other people and those in need,” he said.
“And for me, as I started doing shows and everything and getting older, I started understanding that it’s important to use what you have to help other people,” he added. “Ever since, I’ve tried to do as much as I can to help others and help charities — that’s the coolest part about doing what I do. I’m happy to say I can help other people.”
The philanthropic aspect to his work has deep personal meaning for Bortnick.
“One of the main charities that we’ve been working a lot with is Children’s Miracle Network,” Bortnick said. “That’s because when I was around 5, when my little brother was born, we were told he was missing half his heart and he had to get three heart surgeries because of that.”
The Children’s Miracle Network was able to help and give his brother, Nathan, the surgeries he needed at one of the organization’s hospitals.
“Ever since then, we’ve tried to help them as much as we can,” Bortnick said.
After Nathan’s successful surgeries, Bortnick wrote a song for him called “Anything is Possible,” which he has performed countless times in live shows and televised performances.
The tune is also the title song for the 2013 feature film for which he co-wrote the songs, scored the background music and starred in with Lacey Chabert and Jonathan Bennett — who might be more familiar to some as their Mean Girls counterparts, Gretchen Weiners and Aaron Samuels.
As that song demonstrates, the inspiration for Bortnick’s compositions often comes from personal experience.
“A lot of times, I’ll write about what it’s like to be on the road and perform music,” he said. “It really depends on what’s going on at that time … I can’t really narrow it down to one subject because I love writing about a variety of things, just like I like a variety of music. If you can make people happy and inspire them through music, then you’re doing it right.”
When he goes on tour, he works with teachers from his Jewish day school in Florida, through videos and Skype, to keep up with his classes — so it’s probably good that his dad goes with him on tour to make sure he does his homework, although having his family with him is something Bortnick enjoys.
“In terms of my Jewish values, for me, the most important thing is family,” he said. “When I’m close to home and to my family and to my religious side of things, it also helps me stay grounded. I’m lucky to have a very supportive family and that would be the No. 1 thing I’m most happy to have.”
Coming to Philadelphia has a special meaning for his family. Bortnick hasn’t performed here since he was about 9, and he is excited to see the Kimmel Center — and to eat, particularly at the Thai restaurants he frequents with his family.
“Believe it or not, my grandparents and my parents immigrated from Ukraine to Philadelphia and my parents grew up in Philly,” he said. “So there’s a few restaurants we go to” when they are in the area.
The audience should expect a lot of interaction during the show at the Kimmel, including people being brought up on stage. And since he prides himself on no two live shows being the same, there will be “lots of surprises.”
“I don’t even know what’s going to go on,” he exclaimed with a laugh. “That’s what I love about the live show: Everything in my show is very spontaneous — I like that aspect.”
But there’s one feeling he hopes the audience will walk out with no matter what: inspiration.
“I hope they can walk out inspired and entertained,” he said, “and hopefully, they can enjoy the music.”
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