Thursday, March 26, 2015

BryonySeries Throwback Thursday: Meet James Onohan: The Musical Sound of John Simons

Meet James Onohan, The Musical Sound of John Simons

By Denise M. Baran-Unland

Self-taught pianist and composer James Onohan produces music that sounds like John Simons played it, but his resemblance to Bryony’s fictional lead vampire doesn’t stop there.

Not only is Onohan close in age to Bryony’s main vampire, but he’s a perfectionist whose happiest moments are onstage performing and whose best creative moments are alone, in a nearly dark room.

“I just close my eyes and play what I’m feeling,” Onohan, 30, of Indiana, said. “That’s how the best pieces come out, from somewhere inside me. It’s something I have to do. It’s like I’m in a whole other world. I wait until everyone is sleeping, put down the lights really low, close my eyes and just play. When I listen to some of the recordings I’ve made, I don’t think I could ever duplicate them.”

Onohan is creating 10 new songs for a CD called The Best-Loved Compositions of John Simons. This CD is mentioned in Bryony when Melissa borrows it from the Munsonville Library.

Included on those tracks is, Bryony. the piece Simons created as wedding present for his young bride and played at the conclusion of every practice and concert. Onohan has already composed that piece and is working on the rest.

Bryony’s web administrator, Sarah Stegall, of North Carolina, found Onohan and his music on YouTube when she was seeking classical piano music for the Bryony website (

Stegall felt the site needed “samples” of Simons’ work, but the only non-copyrighted music she found was organ music. She heard Onohan’s most popular selection, One Last Time, on YouTube and loved it, so she immediately located Onohan’s website and sent him a message.

“I had sat for hours on YouTube and various websites listening to out of copyright classical piano that we could use for Bryony. Nothing fit,” Stegall said. “I was listening to Debussy and I was clicking randomly on the side links. I almost clicked out when I heard James and realized, ‘Oh wow, he's what we are looking for!’

“The enchanting sounds he was plinking out were so captivating, I could see why Melissa played her music box over and over. I immediately found his website and listened over and over. He became my John Simons that night. However, I had quite a few problems. The biggest was that he wasn't out of copyright. I sent him a brief email wondering if maybe, just maybe, he would let us market his songs under the book.”

To her surprise, Onohan responded almost as quickly. Stegall explained her project and quickly summarized the novel for him. Her original request was permission to reproduce some of his musical clips on the website, but Onohan had a better idea. Why couldn’t he write the book’s theme song and create the CD Melissa checked out from the Munsonville Library?

“When Sarah called me about the book deal, I was very surprised, very flattered and very happy for the opportunity,” Onohan said. “I had been finding it hard to get the inspiration to write new music, so doing the songs for this book has gotten me past the writer’s block.”

Onohan and music go so far back in time, he can’t remember when his love for the medium began. His earliest musical memory was sitting near his father while he played organ and picking up one of the music books and flipping to the back. Depicted there was a keyboard marked with the notes. Intrigued, Onohan used that tool to teach himself how to read music.

“Reading music helped me in band and, when I was able to play the piano, in learning more complex pieces,” Onohan said. “When it comes to playing by ear, I’m not that good. I can’t hear something and reproduce it like some people can, except when I’m creating my own music. I just hear it in my head and play it from there.”

At age 8, Onohan learned clarinet for the school band. He later swapped instruments—flute for clarinet--with his best friend. “My voice has a nice vibrato, so it gives the flute a beautiful sound,” Onohan said. “I really liked the music I produced with it.

Each weekend, Onohan and his father traveled to Chicago for sheet music. During one of those times Onohan, now 12, picked up a book of Mozart selections and began learning them. He played one of those pieces to several thousand people as part of a city festival and liked it.

“It was the best day of my life,” Onohan said. “I was overwhelmed by that performance and have wanted to relive it ever since. Just to get onstage and play my music for an audience has been my dream.”

Onohan continued with the flute and band during high school, although he did play piano for the high school jazz band. He also participated in all-city competitions and talent shows.

Eventually, the piano became Onohan’s primary instrument, although he does still play flute. “I’m not a guy who works well with words; I don’t talk a lot,” he said. “The piano lets me express my feelings without speaking. The ideal is for me to feel what I’m playing, so I can pour out my emotions through my fingers.”

After high school, Onohan enrolled in general education courses at a local community college, but his heart gravitated toward a fulltime music career. Eventually, he convinced his parents to let him attend VanderCook Music College in Chicago. He lasted three months.

Once there, Onohan realized the program was slanted toward those that wanted to teach music, not perform it. “It was no the environment I wanted to be in,” Onohan said. “I didn’t want to play music anymore and when I don’t play music for awhile, I’m not at peace with myself. I’ve never regretted leaving.”

Instead, Onohan joined the police force and recently celebrated his ninth anniversary with it. Onohan then bought a fancy keyboard, continued to compose and play—he compares his style to Yanni—and began recording his music and creating sheet music, which helped him recreate his own music. Within eight years, Onohan wrote and recorded over 35 original compositions—many of which are found on his three CDs-- and recorded a Christmas CD.

Although his CDs and sheet music are now selling modestly well online—One Last Time and Only You are his top sellers—Onohan’s first audience was his family, friends, and fellow police officers.

“I sold CDs by hand and passed out CDs to everybody in my academy classes,” Onohan said. “Talk about a bunch of grown men getting copies of romantic piano music! But I got really great reviews from these men about how great my piano music was. That was really flattering.”

Although getting married and starting a family were personal high points in Onohan’s life, it was a dark time for his music, he said, due to lack of free time. “I didn’t even think about playing,” Onohan said, “and then one day, a couple of years ago, I met a producer who had her own little studio. That inspired me to build mine.”

In addition to composing music for Bryony, Onohan’s current projects including writing original music for vocalists and other new artists. He plays only his original music for weddings and other events. Onohan still dreams of the day he becomes a fulltime concert pianist. For now, he is content that others are enjoying his music.

“My biggest fulfillment is when people respond and I read how my music is affecting other people’s lives,” Onohan said. “I know it sounds corny, but that, to me, is priceless.”

For more information and to purchase Onohan’s music visit Onohan is also featured on the Bryony website at

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