Amy White '87

Amy White '87 and husband Al Petteway pursue adventures in music

The music of Amy D. White '87 is an emotional experience--so much so that the composer and pianist often sees tears on the faces of her audience.

"I love being able to perform in a way that's emotional and powerful enough to move an audience to tears with instrumental music," says White. "It's such a treat to be performing and, even on the opening number, to see people weeping. It's great."

One of the most recent such experiences was the sold-out concert for the release of her latest recording, Bittersweet: An American Romance, at the Institute of Musical Traditions in Washington, D.C. The album, the second solo recording of her career, received positive reviews from the likes of the Washington Post and Jazz Times Review, while the concert resulted in an interview with Noah Adams that aired on the National Public Radio (NPR) program "All Things Considered" on Thanksgiving. This all adds up to success for White, who has been performing and composing since she was a member of the Owl Creek Singers at Kenyon.

A multitalented musician who sings, plays the drums, guitar, and mandolin, and loves trees, White sometimes seems like a latter-day flower child. She's dabbled in work for non-profit organizations such as Greenpeace and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, but the arts have always been her first love. In addition to making music, she creates block prints and stained glass, as well as silver castings and carvings. But despite her many talents and her growing recognition as a musician, White has her insecurities, the biggest of which is that she can't read music. Describing her problem as "musical dyslexia," White says her frustration with reading notes on the page began in childhood and remains with her today. Does she plan to learn to read music? "Oh, sure," she says. "Are you asking me if I have feelings of illegitimacy because I can't read music? Yes, I do, but I won't let it stop me. From the response I've gotten to my music, I know it's O.K."

The response she refers to is more than emotional. She and her husband, Al Petteway, who collaborates with White on her music, received the 1995 WAMMIE (presented by the Washington Area Music Association for artistic achievement) for best new artist and the 1996, 1997, and 1998 WAMMIEs for best New Age duo. White has also won two grants from the Maryland State Arts Council for solo performance on mandolin and piano.

The easiest way to describe her music is to call it New Age, but that's only for the lack of a better term. It's tough to pigeonhole her eclectic sound, which draws from several different genres. If she had her way, you'd find her music filed under classical crossover, a relatively new category. "I'm really reluctant to use the term New Age, but that's what I'm tagged as," says White. "New Age has always had a stigma attached to it, but there have been some great innovators in the genre."

White lives in Tacoma Park, Maryland, a suburb just outside of Washington. "It's a haven of liberals," says White, who confesses that she and her husband, who performed with White on her latest album, fit in beautifully as local artists and musicians who make their living solely from their music. During the month of January, the couple were artists-in-residence at Washington's John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Millennium Stage. White says her two-and-half-year marriage to Petteway has brought a sense of completion to her life and career.

Petteway, who was already firmly rooted as a performer in the D.C. area, has helped White more firmly establish her own name. "It's difficult to start out on the coffeehouse circuit and make it," she says. "I was fortunate to meet someone I have an incredible connection with who's already established in the music world."

The tears shed by White's audience may be a result of her own emotions radiating through her music, such as the emotions she shares with Petteway. For years, White says, she wrote in her journal only when she was upset about finding a mate in life, one who could understand her music. Thanks to Petteway, she no longer makes those kinds of journal entries. "I'm so thankful this happened," she says of her marriage. "We're both so thankful. We both end up crying at least once a day because we're so happy. It's not something we take for granted."

Petteway, a guitarist, adds to the White family musical tradition. White's father, Richard White, was an oboist and principal English horn soloist for forty-seven years with the National Symphony Orchestra. Her mother, Jane White, a lyric soprano, has performed and taught in the Washington area, and her brother, Andrew White, is also musically inclined. Even White's sister, Lisbet Searle-White, who appeared on the NPR segment along with Petteway and Richard White, is part of the game.

Lisbet's claim to fame is her mastery of the hand-whistle, a whimsical tradition the sisters learned at camp as kids and developed into a full-fledged musical art form. Accompanied by their own laughter, the two performed the "Coventry Carol" on "All Things Considered." White likens playing the hand-whistle to blowing on a blade of grass. She makes a cavity with her hands, blows down the joints of her thumbs, and moves her fingers to produce a melody. She says it's the ultimate portable instrument.

Where does she see her career headed? "I have no delusions about becoming a great commercial success," she says. "It's pretty obvious I'm not in this business for the money. I just want to make enough money to live comfortably and to afford a grand piano someday. I also hope, very much, to reach that smaller but devoted arts-oriented audience that appreciates more adventurous, less formulaic music."


Editor's note: White's albums are available at the mail-order operations and Public Radio Music Source (1-800-75-MUSIC), at all Borders Books and Music stores, and at her web site,

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