To most people, I’m Karen White, the writer. To my family, I’m Mom, errand-girl, organizer of all things family-related, and repository of all teenaged angst. To my dog, I’m everything. Seen through his sweet eyes, I hung the sun and the moon. Which is why I allow him to stay despite such habits as shredding tissues from the garbage can and distributing the tiny pieces throughout the house. But I digress.
I’m also a musician. My grandmother played the piano, and my mother was a music major in college (for piano and—believe it or not—the alto sax!). I suppose it was a natural assumption that when I was old enough to reach the pedals, I would start taking piano lessons.
So, at the tender age of five, I began taking lessons. I actually loved to play. Or, I should say, I loved the music but not so much the practicing. Still, I kept at it. I played in recitals, and in competitions, and even accompanied my high school choir. But it wasn’t until I was in college that I got really serious about it.
I was a business major, but I had to take several fine arts electives to graduate so I signed up for piano lessons thinking they’d be an easy “A.” All prospective students had to audition in front of the department head, Faina Lushtak—a Russian émigré who’d once played in Carnegie Hall—to be placed with the various instructors. She told me my technique was terrible, but that I was very musical with my expression. I was completely surprised when she chose to be my instructor, her only non-music major pupil.
I did get an “A” in the class—but only through much sweat and tears, and many, many hours of practice (gave me a head start with the experience of toiling for long hours that I would need when I started my writing career). Despite my grumblings, my playing (and technique!) improved drastically, and even though I would get sick to my stomach every time I had to play in a recital with all of those music majors, Mrs. Lushtak was always proud of my performances.
When I got married, I informed my husband that we wouldn’t have a living room but a music room, complete with agrand piano. My mother had always wanted one, but because we moved all over the world every few years it wasn’t practical. I figured it would make sense, then, for me to have one. Unfortunately, my husband—who played the trumpet in the high school marching band—didn’t agree. All he could see was the dollar signs, or, as I referred to it, as the “investment” to get a quality grand piano.
We were at an impasse for ten years. In that time we had four homes, all with an empty living room because I stubbornly refused to buy furniture to put in what I insisted on calling the music room. When we had parties, I’d borrow chairs and occasional tables and lamps from my neighbors.
And then my daughter turned five and we set up an electronic keyboard in the music room for her to practice on. As fate would have it, my husband was home early one day when her piano teacher was there and they started talking. The teacher told us that our daughter was very gifted but that he was afraid she wasn’t developing the muscles in her fingers enough because of the lightweight electronic keyboard keys.
The next day my husband called me from the office. He’d apparently been doing a lot of research into the best pianos to buy (apparently made in America between 1900 and WWII), and where to buy them in the Atlanta area. I was dumbstruck. Within two days, we had traveled to every piano store in the Atlanta metro area so I could play all pianos that met his criteria of a good investment, and my own—amazing sound quality.
We ended up with a 1926 Mason & Hamlin (made in Boston) full-size black satin wood grand. When I played a Chopin Nocturne on it in the store, the resonance of the bass and sweetness of the upper register made me weep. I knew I’d found my piano.
My daughter played that piano until her senior year in high school and became quite good. She only continued with lessons through her freshman year in college before quitting completely. It broke my heart. But without a Faina Lushtak to push and encourage her, I knew that the pressures of her schoolwork would be too much to continue with piano.
My beautiful piano (my daughter calls it hers, but it’s in my house, right?) sits alone and quiet in the music room. Every once in a while, my husband suggests selling it, but I clutch at my heart and begin to cry so hopefully he’ll stop asking. Now that I’m an empty nester, I have plans to begin taking lessons again. A piano like that is meant to be played, and I long for the joy and solace that my piano music always brought to my life before life got too busy.
In The Time Between, my June release, you might recognize the piano that sits in the middle of the story—a 1926 Mason & Hamlin grand. It is through this piano that the two protagonists of the story, 34-year old Edisto Island native Eleanor Murray and 96-year-old Hungarian WWII refugee Helena Szarka, bond. Although from completely different backgrounds, they are united by their love of music, and the feelings and memories it evokes. It is through their music that they both find truth, peace, and healing.
It was such a joy to pull out all of my old piano music and take a trip down memory lane, much as Helena and Eleanor do in the book. This is one of the few times that I’ve pulled something out of my own life to write about—and I think it gives the story an emotional advantage. It is my hope that my readers will hear the music through my words.
Besides being a pianist and writer, I’m also a singer. I’ve sung in weddings, and also sang in a professional choir for five years before I had to give it up to devote my time to writing. But if you ask my children, they’ll just roll their eyes and profess no knowledge whatsoever that their mother can keep a tune. They will never admit that when they were small I’d teach them the words and harmonies to every ABBA song and we’d sing them together in the car. It was adorable—but don’t tell them I said that.