I Love My Job: Rich Galassini of Cunningham Piano
In 1891, Irish immigrant Patrick Cunningham began handcrafting pianos here in Philadelphia. 125 years later, Cunningham Piano has an impressive piano restoration facility in Germantown — if you’ve never seen a priceless Steinway or Bösendorfer in a million pieces, you need to schedule a tour now — and a just-opened showroom next to the King of Prussia Mall. Co-owner Rich Galassini tells us all about it.
I was born in … Manhattan. I grew up in Gibbsboro, New Jersey, but I still have roots and family in Manhattan. My father was a New Yorker. I’m a Philadelphian. Giants vs. Eagles and Mets vs. Phillies were always a lot of fun.
These days, I live in … Berlin, New Jersey. I went to school at Temple — I have two music degrees from there — and was renting in Fairmount back then. I wanted to buy a house in Fairmount, but then I met my wife and she said that we’re going to raise a family, and she didn’t want to do that in the city. That was 25 years ago. Sheesh.
I drive a … Ford Fusion.
I’ve been part of Cunningham Piano since … 1987. Coming up on 30 years. I visited the restoration site, and it changed the way I thought. Most people have no idea how complicated a piano is.
Before that, I was … teaching music at Fairhill Elementary School in North Philadelphia. It was one of the worst schools in Philadelphia. Temple really didn’t prepare me as a teacher for walking into that setting. Kids are kids. But outside the school, they had to worry about getting shot at. This was right after crack hit the streets of Philadelphia. If I’d had a better first teaching experience, I might not be part of Cunningham today.
The unique thing about the piano business … is that you’re not dealing with a product. Oh, there’s a spreadsheet, and there’s a profit-and-loss statement, but this is something that people love. And Cunningham itself is different than other piano businesses because we do everything: Manufacturing, moving, service, tuning, church consultation, high-end pipe organs, school pianos, restoration.
Our busiest time of year is … hard to say. It’s unpredictable. While most piano companies are dead in the summer, we could have a spectacularly big June just because we have the right instruments for the right people at the right time.
We decided to make pianos again … in the 1990s. The company stopped doing it long ago. And in the ’90s, we did our research and realized that with all of the extra materials and personnel that we’d need here to do it, we’d have to sell a regular piano for the same price as a Steinway. So we went back to the drawing board. My partner Tim Oliver spearheaded all of this. Today, we have a piano that involves seven factories: The hammers are crafted in Germany, the keys are Italian, some parts are from Japan, we use American maple and spruce, they are assembled outside of Shanghai, and we do the finishing work here. It amazes me that we can have all of these factories involved and yet everything fits together. That’s computer-aided design.
Our most famous customer has probably been … George Gershwin, who composed Porgy and Bess on a Cunningham. More recently, Andre Watts and Marc Andre Hamelin are both customers. And Chubby Checker.
We just opened in King of Prussia because … Germantown was once the second-largest shopping district behind Center City in the greater Philadelphia region. People would come to Germantown because it was fashionable. Well, the neighborhood changed, and now the largest shopping district in the region is King of Prussia. We sold our big Germantown showroom, but the restoration facility remains, with a showroom on the third floor. And Germantown is coming back up, but we realized how much time and money we were spending trying to convince people to come here. I just had a woman call me from Marlton and she decideded to go all the way to King of Prussia instead of coming to Germantown.
One way City Hall could make it easier to do business here … would be to have much better administration within the city designed to help business in general but also small business in particular. If they had a system to help business that worked, we might have never moved to King of Prussia, because there might not have been a need.
Other local businesses I really admire are … craft-based. There’s Mount Airy Violins and Strings, a little shop where they hand-make violin bows. And the craft beer industry is incredible. I love going to Berlin Brewery. I just had a chocolate peanut butter stout there, and three days later it’s all gone, because they make it there in small batches.
Our biggest competition is … apathy. A generation being born that has never had the experience of sitting down and working on something for an hour or two. An entire generation of kids growing up who need instant gratification. That’s not the piano.
The most expensive restoration we’ve ever done … would be in the very high five figures, low six figures. There was a Steinway Centennial Grand Piano from 1876. Only 426 were built. We did number 129. And a Bösendorfer Imperial, the most expensive piano in the world.
When Pope Francis came to town … we donated the Rodgers organ they needed. That’s the instrument he and his musicians prefer when they are outside of the Vatican. And I got to sing in the choir for him — I’m a tenor — at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul and also on the Ben Franklin Parkway with Andrea Bocelli, whom I also performed with at Wells Fargo Center last year.
If you’re picking up one of those free Craigslist pianos … be careful. Every so often, you can stumble on something good, but remember that there are 12,000 parts and literally tons of tension. You risk your health moving it, or you have to pay a lot to have it moved. And then you get it home and find out that it needs a few thousand in work, because it hasn’t been looked at in so long. Nine times out of ten, I’m explaining to people why it wasn’t the wisest move, and then they have this monstrosity in their house that the city won’t take away. Free is not free.
A brand-new Cunningham piano will cost you … as little as $4,000.
For my last vacation … I went to Disney World. Before that, Vienna. Bösendorfer invited me. I took my daughter, and when we toured the opera house there, she told me it was the most wonderful place she had ever been.
The most beautiful piece of piano music ever written … is Chopin’s Etude in C Minor, but there are so many. It changes with my mood. If you ask me tomorrow, I will have a different answer.
The best use of piano in modern music has got to be … the Piano Guys. I am a big fan of them right now. They give a great concert. Lady Gaga does great things. And of course, Elton John, Billy Joel, and Bruce Hornsby. And Tori Amos: holy crap. I love it when pop artists use piano. So much more versatile than electric guitar.
About that $400 keyboard you just bought the kids … Well, it’s not an appropriate choice for a child to learn piano. It works against them in a big way. It doesn’t sound like or look like or feel like a piano. It’s like learning to drive a car by learning to ride a bike. Now a real digital piano, which we sell, that’s a different thing.
Our next big move as a company is … our piano education department. My daughter has a music degree from Temple and has just joined the company to start that division, a conservatory. Although she might tell me next year that she wants to move to Ireland and open up a little pub a little town, because I’ve heard that one before.
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