Kid’s got some nerve—being this good, this successful, this soon.
Wait, our bad—he does have 22 years behind the keyboard. We’ll overlook that it’s out of only 24 on the planet.
“My dad had me sitting on his lap and playing,” says UNLV pianist/composer/instructor Otto Ehling, on one of those days he wasn’t caressing the keys for Mannheim Steamroller or Cirque du Soleil’s O or at celebrity nuptials. “It’s been a part of me, and it’s weird when I’m away from it.”
Give junior his kudos. At an age when most of us are busy being parent-terrorizing toddlers, Los Angeles-born Ehling was a 2-year-old finding his way around the ol’ 88s en route to a career at age 24 that most musicians would be grateful to reach by AARP age. Families often track the growth of their kids by etching height marks on a wall. Inside the Ehling home, it must have been accomplishment marks:
At 4: giving recitals. At 6: winning an elementary school piano scholarship. At 8: soloing at L.A.’s Ford Theatre in the Brazilian Summer Festival. At 10: Performing Beethoven at L.A.’s Greek Theatre. Not that it was an uninterrupted rocket ride, mind you.
“I loved it until middle school, then I hit a slump,” he admits. “I was the lame kid playing the piano, and I wanted to be a football player. But my dad sent me to a music camp in Vancouver, and that slapped me in the face. I was playing with peers playing at my level, they had people from Juilliard there. It just clicked in my mind that that’s what I wanted to pursue.”
So sterling was Ehling’s growing rep that at age 16 he was summoned by celebs, most notably to perform as Ashton Kutcher wed Demi Moore in September 2005. Spotted, he says, by an entertainment manager at a competition, he wasn’t immediately told the secretive nature of the event, though it quickly dawned on him upon arrival.
“We arrive, and I’m like ‘Holy shit, that looks like Bruce Willis! Oh, my God, it is Bruce Willis!’ I couldn’t say anything; I had to sign all these release forms. But they were so sweet to me. Lucy Liu was really passionate about my playing. I tried not to stutter much. And I played at [actress] Talia Shire’s house a lot. She would call me and want me to accompany her and hang out.”
Since he started shaving? Vegas beckoned, thanks to UNLV, where he enrolled in 2006. “Very few places allow you to pursue both a classical and a jazz degree,” he says. “UNLV was the place that gave me the opportunities I thought would help me.”
Now he’s working on his doctorate in classical music at UNLV and serving as a graduate teaching assistant. He has also performed with the school’s respected Liberace Jazz Quartet.
Simultaneously, he’s grabbing Vegas-style opportunities, including scoring the keyboardist gig when Steamroller is in town, and the Cirque job playing behind the aquatic acrobats of O. Elsewhere around town, you can spot him at a host of venues, including the E-String in Henderson, the Flamingo Library Theater, the Winchester Cultural Center and sitting in with David Perrico’s big band, Pop Evolution.
Long-term goal? Composing movie soundtracks. “That’s my passion. There’s just something about looking at a picture and being able to create an emotion through music,” he says. “There’s always something to find in music. It’s a forever search. That’s why it’s an ongoing engine for the rest of my life.”
One other thing, Otto: This piano-prodigy business—does it help you with the ladies, if you get our drift?
“Yes,” he says, a wide grin lighting his face. “Yes, it does.”