Matthew Karr has dedicated his life to making yours a little brighter.
The son of artistically inclined parents, Karr and his two brothers were exposed to music early on, performing musicales as a family ensemble for their friends.
An accomplished musician, he has played bassoon for the Louisville Orchestra since 1979.
A skilled and creative woodworker, his work has reached an international audience, with his recent work showcasing his Jewish faith.
But in 2013, both careers almost ended tragically in a band saw accident at his workshop.
Yet today, Karr continues to play the music he loves while taking on more ambitious woodworking projects than ever.
As a child, Karr learned about wood and the natural world from his father who had his own woodshop. From his mother, he developed an appreciation for architecture and design.
Sharing and building on both those interests, Karr took small steps to acclimate to his woodworking projects, starting when his wife Kathy, also a member of the orchestra, gave him a table saw as a Chanukah present.
“She allowed me to build my shop off the back of our house with one caveat: ‘No wood dust will ever come from the shop into our house.’”
Karr’s woodwork grew from there. He started with easy things, like coffee tables. Over time, though, with the purchase of a band saw and some experience under his belt, Karr’s designs became more curvy and intricate.
Then, on May 11, 2013, his work took a dangerous turn, when the band saw cut into four fingers on his left hand.
He needed 2½ hours of surgery, 70 stitches and two metal pins to reattach his digits, but he lost all sensation in his thumb and index finger, and 50 percent in his middle finger.
“The surgeon told my wife that day that I would never play the bassoon again,” Karr said, “and I was happy to prove him wrong.”
So he did. Karr endured 26 weeks of therapy committed to rehabilitating his hands. During that time, he wrote a book, which he described as a balm for his mental and emotional well-being.
“It was a tough summer,” he admitted.
But he learned things about himself.
“The injury helped me redefine what was important to me, which is being a musician, working in the shop, riding my bicycle, and mountain climbing,” he said. “I wanted to get all that back.”
Raised in a Jewish family, Karr spent his youth active in his synagogue in Toledo, Ohio. “Judaism,” he said, “and the spirituality and the moral compass of Judaism have always been in my life.”
About 20 years ago, Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone, then spiritual leader of Keneseth Israel, asked Karr to make him two yads (a Jewish ritual pointer, used by the reader to follow the text during the Torah reading). Soon, other rabbis were asking for their own yads, and parents of b’nai mitzvah kids.
“I just became the yadmeister,” he quipped.
That cottage business has since led to bigger, more ambitious projects, including work at his congregation, Temple Shalom – an honor for Karr.
But in his biggest project to date, Karr is building five pieces of bima furniture for Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, California, on a project that has grown to include five pieces in total.
“Initially it was just the ark doors,” Karr said of the undertaking. “They liked the kind of work that I did and asked that I build a Torah table. Then they said that it would only make sense that the eternal flame match the Torah table, so they asked for that.
“After that, they wanted a donation box to be out in the main lobby. They wanted off in the distance to see a glowing box, which is sort of a caricature of those ark doors, except it’s 18 inches tall.”
He described the California project as “a whole different animal.”
“It’s different to jump through the hoops of a committee. Usually, I’m just building a table and dealing with a wife, and you just do what she wants. It’s always difficult to work with committees.”
His first passion was music. Pushed to work with the bassoon by his band teacher in high school, Karr’s first job after college was with the Chicago Civic Orchestra. He took up his current position with the Louisville Orchestra in 1979.
Keeping his music career after the accident would require more than courage; it would take ingenuity as well.
“When it got to the point that I could move my fingers around a little bit, and I had a friend that’s a metal worker, we rebuilt the bassoon to my needs,” Karr said. “We literally rebuilt the left-hand keys on the bassoon. I think we modified eight keys, nine keys. I went back to work on the first of September. I was able to be successful.”
As a musician, Karr feels twice blessed: to interpret the works of great composers and to be a student working continuously toward self-improvement.
“A life in music is a wonderful thing,” he said. “My bosses are geniuses. Beethoven is a great mind. There is a downside to that, which is that you’re never good enough. You work in service to the composer.
“If you’re continually striving for perfection, the road never ends,” he continued. “It’s why musicians love what they do and why they keep doing it.”
Nevertheless, he said his greatest legacy is neither his music nor his woodwork.
“My biggest legacy is my children and grandchildren, he said. “My grandson, Noah, likes to ask “Pop Pop shop,” because he wants to go to the shop. It makes a big sound when you turn on the light. It’s kind of a boy thing. That’s legacy number one.”
This story previously appeared in Community, Louisville Distilled’s news partner, and appears here with the permission of the paper.