ELDERSBURG — Being a touring musician is hard. Trying to balance a world tour with your first week of high school is tougher. On Wednesday, Liberty High School music students had an opportunity to take in a concert and lecture from someone unique — a contemporary.
More than 200 students from band, chorus and other musical tracks packed the Liberty auditorium for an early performance and lecture by musician Ethan Bortnick, sponsored by Carroll Live on Stage.
Bortnick, only 14, has toured the country and appeared on television shows like "Oprah," "Good Morning America" and "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno." In 2012, Guinness World Records named him the youngest performer to headline a solo performance tour, for his work when he was 9. Bortnick has performed in Japan, South Africa, Brazil and is about to start a 65-date tour throughout the U.S. between October and May.
Bortnick, who just started high school two weeks ago, said he doesn't get as many chances to perform for fellow students as he'd like.
"It's awesome, especially to perform for kids who are really into the art, and especially for kids my own age," Bortnick said. "I love doing things like this where it's very informal."
The musician began Wednesday's event with a brief video montage before performing an instrumental piece and singing Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." Instantly, the first difference between the Bortnick who came to fame and the singer on stage was evidenced — his voice.
Bortnick said he's currently going through puberty, as are most high schoolers, be they music stars or not. Over the past year, Bortnick's voice has begun changing, cracking and deepening in the midst of concerts.
"Does my voice crack? All the time. And it's not just with a symphony, it's every single night," Bortnick told the students. "You guys would know about it. Unfortunately, I can't stop it. I joke about it in the show, and the audience gets a kick out of it."
Sophomore Olivia Hiller said she's had a passion for music for a long time, one that was stoked by seeing Bortnick perform.
"It's such an inspiration," Hiller said. "He's only 14. He's our age and he's done so much. That's so exciting. It makes me think that it's something I can do."
Bortnick said he is the first member of his family to exhibit any musical talent. He said he first became interested in music when he was 3 and attending a Montessori school.
"I was in classes with a lot of kids who were a lot older than me," Bortnick said. "I saw a lot of them take piano lessons during the day during school. I was a curious 3-year-old. I asked my parents, and they said 'No, you're not going to take piano lessons. You're still in diapers.' "
Bortnick said his parents changed their tune when he started recreating songs he heard on the radio and television on a toy keyboard, translating them to piano tunes by ear. When they discovered his talent, he said, they immediately enlisted him in piano lessons.
Bortnick emphasized he's just a normal teenager — when not playing sold-out shows alongside Katy Perry and the Black Eyed Peas. He said fellow students generally treat him normally when he is in class, except for when they're looking for an autograph.
Bortnick performs a mix of genres, from modern rock 'n' roll to classical pieces from Bach, Beethoven and Chopin.
"When I met Elton John for the first time, he asked if I had heard any Chopin music, and because I was 8, I said no," Bortnick said. "But when Elton John tells you to learn Chopin music, you learn Chopin music."
When not on tour, Bortnick enjoys drawing and plays a lot of video games in his downtime. He said his favorites are sports games like the "NBA 2K" and "Madden Football" series, as well as "Pokemon." Upon the mention of "Pokemon," the high school crowd erupted in cheers, leading Bortnick into an impromptu performance of "Gotta Catch 'Em All," the theme song of the original "Pokemon" cartoon series.
After that, Bortnick showed off his composition skills by inviting two volunteers from the audience up on stage and asking them to play their ringtones. Bortnick listened to each 20-second jingle twice before sitting down at the piano and composing an entire 3-minute song, using the ringtones as the building blocks.
The entire event concluded as Bortnick led the crowd in Bill Withers' "Lean on Me."
As the auditorium emptied, Bortnick said he's excited to mix the exciting life of a touring musician with the mundanity of school attendance.
"Of course I would love to go to school every single day," Bortnick said. "But I love doing this so much, I can't imagine doing anything else."
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