Among the names and slogans pianist Jason Farnham, 38, uses are the “21st-Century Victor Borge” and “Beethoven on Steroids.”
He makes much of his living performing concerts of his own original music along with popular classical tunes. But just as with the late comic/pianist Borge, the Unmelancholy Dane, Farnham’s shows are not merely hushed recitals. Farnham is a showman.
He visually wows crowds by playing the piano upside down, or he’ll play the famous Peanuts theme Linus and Lucy on an actual toy piano, or he’ll break out his adrenalized techno version of Beethoven’s Fur Elise redubbed Fur God Sakes Elise Let’s Dance!
He also keeps his shows interactive, luring audience members onstage to “help” him perform John Cage’s famous piece 4’33”, which consists of someone sitting quietly at a piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. During his holiday shows, such as the one he’s bringing to the Canton Palace Theatre on Nov. 30, Farnham will grab a dozen people out of the audience and get them acting silly onstage as part of the 12 Days of Christmas.
The Canton native’s interest in music led him to major at Ohio University in audio production, with music as a minor. After graduation he found a job as the “audio/video guy” for Kent State’s Stark campus, where he met his wife, Lisa. Her appreciation for native Clevelander Jim Brickman’s smooth and popular piano pop inspired him.
“I was always into music, and when I met my wife she was listening to Jim Brickman,” Farnham said from his home in Santa Rosa, Calif. “I wasn’t really into it. But I thought I should be able to do something like that, and that’s where the concert stuff started coming from, and since then I’ve added a bunch of stuff to it to make it different.”
Farnham and his wife moved to Los Angeles in 2006 for its legendary music scene, though he admits he didn’t have a plan beyond doing “something” in the industry. Farnham started a band and began playing “synthy-rock” in clubs on the Sunset Strip, but found climbing that ladder to be a difficult proposition.
“I figured out I couldn’t make any money doing that, so I pursued the Jim Brickman route, where I started going to booking conferences for performing arts centers,” he said.
“I just kept crafting my show and then I started getting some concerts. And at the same time I started composing and I met some people, just a little bit of networking. I don’t get hired for big production shows, but I’ve got a network of people that’ll call me if they have something going on, which is great.”
Farnham got into licensing and composing for hire through connections and having his music impress the right people at the right time. His first credit was having Morning Coffee, from his album Barriers, featured on American Airlines’ in-flight Filter Magazine Channel, and Rock Star from the same album found its way into the soundtrack of the film American High School.
“It’s a really bad film. I don’t recommend seeing it. But the song’s in there and I got paid so I’m happy,” Farnham said laughing.
His music has appeared in car ads, Web series and a puppet-themed Folger’s commercial. Farnham has composed for Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, writing the opening music for the Dr. Oz Show and Winfrey’s “No Phone Zone” campaign. He scored the independent film Hiding in the Open and the 2012 documentary The Brick People.
Between his two primary money-makers, Farnham says he leans toward the visceral pleasure of performing.
“Right now I like the concerts a little better just because I can do what I want and I don’t have somebody telling me to change little things, here and there. Composing is fun but it can be very stressful,” he said.
After seven years in L.A., the couple has grown into a family of four with Henry, 3, and Sammy, almost 1. They moved to the quieter and slightly cheaper environs of Northern California, forcing Farnham to trade the connection capital of California for a more family-friendly place.
“I thought about it. I won’t be able to make more connections. But I wasn’t getting a whole lot of composing jobs when I was there,” he said. “I was actually booking more concert jobs and I can do that from anywhere, so I wasn’t that disappointed about it and I guess we were both getting a little sick of L.A.”
Farnham said his family traded up from a two-bedroom apartment that “felt like a dorm room” for a house with a yard and a two-car garage in Santa Rosa.
“It’s a good thing. It’s just cleaner out here, it feels a lot more like Northeast Ohio out here because it’s a small town and the people are friendlier.”
Hitting the road
Farnham said to be productive he must be at the piano at the crack of dawn, before the rest of the family wakes. He averages about one long weekend of concerts a month, and tries not to stay out on the road too long because he is the boys’ primary caregiver during the day while his wife works as a banker. He augments his income giving piano lessons, and when he’s on the road the Farnhams often get help from both grandmas.
For Farnham the dream is not to be the next Jim Brickman, but to line up enough steady gigs to quit teaching, to allow him to work on his original music and ideally allow his wife to quit her job.
Perhaps harkening back to the Midwestern values with which he was raised, Farnham says being a “star” isn’t really the goal.
“I went to L.A. and had a little bit of that, but I don’t have that personality,” he said.
“You live in L.A. for seven years, and obviously I’m around normal people too, but I’ve seen that kind of lifestyle and I don’t want it. A lot of those people just seemed like they’re surrounded by the wrong kind of people all the time. I’m perfectly happy making a living at music, and yeah, it would be great if I was a little more known where somebody comes up to me. But I guess I wouldn’t want that kind of stardom because you lose the privacy.”
For anyone thinking about making the move to start their rise to fame, Farnham said, “I would tell them to go and see what happens, but have some kind of plan and don’t be disappointed if things go a different way, because it might take a turn that you didn’t expect. Have your dreams, but have a pragmatic backup to those dreams.”
Perhaps most importantly, one’s goal should be more than just being mobbed in the shopping malls of America.
“The love of doing it,” Farnham said. “If you love doing it, you’ll find a way to do what makes you happy.”