Pianist Kimball Gallagher & The 88-Keys of His Success

One fiery autumn afternoon, pianist Kimball Gallagher sat down for lunch with Notes On The Road at Hastings on Hudson, a charming stone-house waterfront café situated just north of Manhattan.

 

Gallagher, a young entrepreneur distinguished for his maverick fundraising savvy, was understatedly striking in jeans and a blue button-down, his matching-colored eyes intent and focused, his vibe relaxed but unmistakably serious.

To describe Gallagher as a “reticent” character would be doing the man a great disservice, for his politeness belies a fierce ambition, which in recent years has elevated him -- and his tales of triumph -- to near urban legend status on the New York concert scene.

Notes: OK, let’s get down to it. The burning question: Is it true that you financed your first piano by selling off all eighty-eight keys?

[laughter] Sort of. You heard about that?

Notes: Yes, it’s a famous story! Care to retell for our readers?

Sure. The story is that I’d just finished Juilliard, needed a piano, and had no money. I talked to everyone I could about how I might be able to get a piano. I looked at a lot of available deals. A wonderful mentor of mine gave me the idea of taking the full cost of a grand piano and dividing by eighty-eight, and raising money on a key-by-key basis. That idea started to incubate…and several months later I met Judi Cantor, who is such a well-respected member of the arts community. She mentored me in stewardship, which is basically the art of properly showing appreciation to those who have been kind to you, thus cultivating a support mindset.

I was constantly on the phone, telling people: “Here’s what I am trying to do. I’ve never done it before, would you be able to lend any advice?” It soon became a movement of sorts, because people were excited for me and wanted to help, so a lot of people became involved soon after I hit the ground running with the idea.

Faust Harrison Pianos allowed me to host a concert in their store, and one of the owners, Michael Harrison, was incredibly supportive of my idea. To promote the concert and the 88-Key Project, I sent out invitations with pledge cards and self-addressed stamped envelopes. And every day in the run up to the concert, it got more exciting, because I would come home from a concert and find another envelope. I had $7,000 in checks before the concert even happened! The first concert itself raised $12,000 – so I was more than halfway to the piano. Two fundraising concerts later, I was able to purchase a piano, so the project had turned into a great success!{module 251}

Notes: Pledge cards. What a great idea!

I really wanted to make the audience feel as if they were a part of the event itself, not just attending a regular concert. My mother – who is wonderful with collage works– created a picture of a piano keyboard for me and I put that up at the concert for people to sign their names when they bought a key. The pledge cards had categories: “one key,” two keys was “trill,” then “major third,” “perfect fifth,” “glissando club” and “crescendo club.”

Notes: Sounds like a fun experience from the audience’s perspective.

Well that’s really it. I realized that people want to be a part of the process not just an onlooker. I think the reason the project was successful was really because people were really part of the process, not just looking on. And it wasn’t a one-shot deal. I felt honored by the support I received and I maintain relationships with the members of the 88 Key Society (I couldn’t resist coining that name.) Relationships to your audience members should be long-term. Like any other relationship which is important to you, it is continuous – and if you are earnest and personal in your appeal to people, people will almost always respond.

Notes: How much money did you raise in the end and how many donors did you have?

A little over 25K and there were 54 donors in total, and the fundraising initiative in total took about one year.

Notes: Did you encounter any skeptics throughout this whole process?

[smiles] Yes. I think some people do have a tendency to be skeptical of any idea which hasn’t been done before – but honestly, I find sometimes it is more because it puts them in touch with their own inaction, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

There weren’t too many naysayers, though, but the funniest negative reaction I got was this guy who said to me, “You know, I don’t think people are going to be interested in donating for a piece of equipment.” And so I had these sudden realizations– moments when I thought, “Well, am I really just asking these people to give me money?” – but no, I didn’t see it that way. For me, it was more about the “law of attraction” and asking people to join me in an initiative. It was also a test of my own character; challenging myself to have the courage to convey my beliefs on what I was doing out in the open. I believe that if you are genuine, people will be genuine in return. I never lied about what I was raising money for, I basically said, point-blank: “I am raising money because I am a pianist and I need to have a piano.” I was extremely straightforward and I think that is part of what people responded to most of all. One person who was initially one of the biggest skeptics ended up sending me a thousand dollars!

When the initiative really got going, I had the most amazing experiences. Two people gave me a thousand dollars within 10 minutes of having met them!

Notes: Wow, now how do you pull that off?!

Oh! I don’t attribute this to any “voodoo magic” of mine. [laughs] I just think people felt my level of motivation to succeed and that took on a life of its own. People who can afford to cut a check for a thousand dollars because they feel like it are typically very inspired, driven and motivated people. When they recognize that in others, amazing things can happen.

I built so many amazing relationships through the process. And the 88-Key Project opened up an entirely new way of thinking for me. Originally I set out to finance a piano, and I came out with a whole education from a slew of super-savvy people who were willing to take a chance on me.

Notes: Can you elaborate for us on the new way of thinking you mention?

Well…[thinking]…I think there’s a false dichotomy – that art and business can’t coincide in a comfortable way. If you live in a society that’s capitalist, whatever you do, it’s your job to figure out what you can do on an economic level. That’s not your only job, but that’s part of the art itself. So as an artist, I’ve got to think about how I’m going to exist, and business is an art-form equally creative as music. I just think there is an unnecessary divide drawn between the two ideologies, which I believe that is a mistake. I believe they not only co-exist but are in many senses one and the same.

Notes: Is that why you founded PIANOKEY?

Yes, the experience inspired me to found PIANOKEY, which is a salon concert company that provides house concerts to a variety of venues and hosts. Through PIANOKEY, I started the “88-Concert Tour” which is an ongoing series of house concerts throughout the United States. For a fee, performers for house concerts are provided to anyone who would like to host such an event for their friends, peers, co-workers. And it’s more than a concert we are providing; it’s the entire experience of an intimate connection between performers and listeners.

Notes: Do you do house concerts in New York City?

Actually, we do several per month throughout North America. And now, to show our appreciation to all those who have made PIANOKEY possible, we have decided to present a concert at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall in 2012, a culmination of all our efforts thus far. Right now we are laying the groundwork for our fundraising initiatives and raising our visibility on the New York scene.

Notes: In your opinion, what are some of the things that the home concert setting can offer or provide for a performer, which the standard concert hall protocol cannot?

Intimacy, definitely. There is an invisible wall between “the stage” and “the audience,” and that certainly lends a special magic to any live performance. Those in theater might refer to this as the Fourth Wall. House concerts, by contrast, offer an opportunity for the audience member to be more engaged and directly connected to the artist at moments of great intensity. I think of the concert-hall setting, while amazing in its heralded tradition, is a bit like going to a museum and looking an exhibit through a glass window. A house concert is like reaching through that glass window to interact with the exhibit, touch it, become part of it. To my mind, it’s a very special opportunity both for the listener and performer.

Notes: How does someone go about booking a house concert?

I get inquiries all day long about house concerts, and I encourage people to contact me directly at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if they are interested in booking a house concert or have questions. I could have automated this process through using web technology, but I decided not to at this point, because I believe that customer service is about people connecting with people. There is nothing that annoys me more than when I call a company and get a template response. Even though it takes more time to get through all inquiries, I am happy to respond to every inquiry personally. That may be subject to change if inquiry volumes continue to go up the way they have been…but I hope I can keep it under control!

Notes: Some have called you the “Van Wilder” of the New York music scene (minus the whole being-in-college-for-seven-years thing), and we hear that the soirees you hold at your loft apartment are becoming increasingly difficult to get invited to. Care to comment on how these events have become so exclusive so quickly?

The events are part of a series I founded along with my friend David Rosensweig called “Cocktails and Counterpoints,” and it’s a series of evenings bringing together people who share a love of the arts with a small group of artists. We host performances and host Q&A, and we enjoy good food and wine together. People are really eager to ask questions and become involved, and I just love that. C&C consists of a group of young professionals who aren’t directly connected with the arts, per se, but they share a ravenous appetite for the arts – and the purpose is for people to learn from one another, to build friendships in new areas. These are small groups of people at one time, which I think gives them a certain feel of “exclusivity.” It isn’t because I meant to “brand” them that way at all, but really just because demand exceeds supply in this case. My loft can’t comfortably accommodate too many people, and therefore there are people actually clamoring to get on the mailing list every time an invite goes out. Honestly, I would love to host hundreds at a time, because I think there is nothing better than getting together with bright young people and sharing ideologies and hopes for the future.