His feet can't reach the
pedals. And his little fingers sometimes have trouble getting to the
But if you close your eyes, you'd never know it.
Six-year-old Ethan Bortnick is a classical pianist. Already, he
fetches $400 for a 15-minute performance and is recording his own
The boy's teacher, Dr. Irena Kofman, is wowed by his astonishing
memory. She says he can play more than 200 compositions, from
Beethoven's "Fur Elise" to Disney's "It's a Small World," all
without sheet music.
The Hollywood, Fla., kindergartner is more modest: "I just like
playing piano," he says while watching "Dora the Explorer" on a
rainy afternoon. "It's not that hard." Lately, Ethan's life has been
a little crazy. The video archive on his Web site
(www.ethansmelodies.com) has him hopscotching from the Dade Fair to
the Palm Beach Ritz-Carlton.
His dad, Gene Bortnick, has scheduled him to perform earlier this
month at a Las Vegas charity event hosted by Jason Alexander of
"Seinfeld" fame. Bortnick has also been talking with producers at
"The Tonight Show" and "The Martha Stewart Show" about future
appearances, representatives of the shows confirmed.
The proud father insists he guards against crossing the line into
overbearing stage parent.
"We don't push Ethan," says Bortnick, who runs the Web site,
books the gigs and is a one-man PR juggernaut. "Ethan pushes
himself." Ethan's story began three years ago with his favorite toy
-- a pint-sized piano, plastic, with colorful, flashing lights.
One afternoon, Ethan began mimicking a classical composition that
was playing on the radio. Hannah Bortnick thought her son had hit
the piano's demo button.
"I was in shock," she recalled. "I never played the piano. My
husband didn't, either. We knew we needed to get Ethan lessons right
away." The lessons, however, would have to wait.
Later that year, Ethan's mother gave birth to a little boy with a
rare heart condition. She and Ethan's dad spent weeks at Miami
Children's Hospital, waiting for baby Nathan to grow strong enough
to go home.
Ethan stayed with his grandparents. He used the time to teach
himself dozens of songs on the toy piano, family members said.
That's when he got serious about his lessons. "At first, his
playing was very primitive," said Ludmila Vaserstein, Ethan's first
piano teacher. "But I knew he was something special. He could feel
the music." Vaserstein noticed something else: Ethan had perfect
pitch -- the ability to identify musical notes without a reference.
And within a few months, he was composing his own complicated
Experts believe 3 percent to 5 percent of all children are
gifted, likely due to genetic factors. But according to doctors,
being gifted doesn't always predict future success.
"Some prodigies do very well in life -- look at Mozart," said Dr.
Jon A. Shaw, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the
University of Miami. "There are others, though, that lose it
somewhere along the line. Personality development is a complex
thing." Three years after discovering his talent, Ethan is
practicing on the Samick grand piano his parents bought for him. He
plays for an hour or two each day, his parents say. On this day, he
begins with "Rondo Alla Turca," the final movement of Mozart's Piano
Sonata No. 11, entirely from memory.
"He's thinking about something," his dad says, noting that
Ethan's eyes are closed. "You can tell. I just don't know what goes
through his mind." Later, Ethan tries to explain: "My heart starts
beating faster and faster. It's like, I'm getting really excited."
After lunch, Ethan grabs a plastic dragon from his toy chest and
bolts down the block to play with his cousins.
"We have to prepare ourselves," says his father. "When he's 8, he
could decide that he's done with the piano. We'd be OK with that.
We'd have to be."
There are plenty of distractions. Ethan is always asking to visit
Parrot Jungle Island. He loves animals.
Ethan's ambition in life: to own a zoo. (He'll play concerts for
the animals, he says.) At Gulfstream Montessori, where Ethan attends
kindergarten, the boy can be quiet around his classmates. He refuses
to play sports, his dad says -- he worries too much about hurting
Still, Ethan's effect on the other children is clear. Gulfstream
Montessori has had to hire an additional piano teacher to
accommodate all the kids who want to take lessons, Ethan's dad says.
Ethan himself plays charity events and private parties. His pay
rate ranges between $400 and $5,000 per concert, according to
an entertainment booking site.
Aside from whatever Ethan earns, the Bortnicks live comfortably
in an exclusive gated community along the border between Hallandale
Beach, Fla., and Hollywood.
Life has not been without its bumps. Nathan's heart condition has
been a financial drain. And four years ago, Bortnick was indicted on
charges of wire fraud, bankruptcy fraud and money laundering
stemming from a $22 million business loan.
Court documents say he was sentenced to seven days in custody and
five years of supervised release. He was also ordered to pay $7.3
million in restitution and $1 million in punitive damages. Bortnick
says he did nothing wrong and that, in any event, the episode has no
bearing on Ethan or his aspirations.
"His mother and I just want to help him realize his potential,"
That night, Bortnick strolls around the Britto Gallery on Miami
Beach's Lincoln Road as Ethan, decked out in a tiny tuxedo, plays a
dozen compositions on a Steinway grand.
The concert was not advertised, but Ethan draws a crowd. Dozens
of tourists file into the gallery, some snapping photos of the boy
on their cell phones. After the performance, Ethan shakes hands and
"He's really something special," says his father.