I don't know many musicians who are self-taught-- especially in the classical music world. Teachers of music make a lot more impact than performers do-- they give students the gift of experiencing music from the inside, generating music, not just consuming it. Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectation by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky is the story about a mentor, a father, who gave this gift to a generation of musicians in mid-late 20th-Century suburban New Jersey. Most of my musician friends can also point to a select teacher who shaped their life in music, and influenced their personalities almost as much as their parents. I certainly had one such teacher-- he passed away the summer before my senior year of high school and to this day I follow his path as a music educator and performing musician.
Melanie Kupchynsky and Lipman tell the story of Jerry Kupchynsky (Mr K), a Ukranian World War Two refugee, Korean War veteran, American immigrant, and passionate music teacher. His style was gruff combination of an idealistic quasi-soviet-propaganda work ethic combined with a 19th-century Romanticism plopped into post-war suburbia. “Again!” “Sharp! Flat! Who eez deaf in first violins?!” He would yell at his students day (in public school class) and night (in private lessons at home), dedicating his life to a maniacal insistence that his students play in tune and with good technique. As a music teacher myself, I could relate to how difficult the task is and how rewarding it can be. Just reading about Mr. K’s demanding discipline inspired me to exact higher standards in my own teaching the next day. I was taken back to my childhood when I was the student and frustrated teachers molded my left hand fingering positions and right hand bow hold.
“Kids too coddled these days” Mr. K would complain. This was in the 60’s. If only he could see today’s classrooms. So often today, teachers sweeten their pedagogy with “Good job!!!” and “Great!” at every turn, even when not really deserving. Sure, positive reinforcement works, but there is also something to be said for demanding excellence from the very beginning, always aiming for perfection. “He yelled not because we'd never learn but because he was absolutely certain that we would.”
Lipman became a well-known reporter at the Wall Street Journal and Kupchynsky is a violinist in the renowned Chicago Symphony. They take turns telling their life stories, playing together in Mr. K’s orchestra class and string quartet. The two narrators have similarities and differences. Joanne’s story is told with with a cool journalistic urgency-- a fast paced plot-oriented narrative. Kupchynsky’s prose doesn’t read as fluently but she reveals more deeper emotions and more intimate experiences. They are held together by Mr. K’s influence: diligent practice and a commitment to music. The interplay between an extrovert and an introvert’s voices gives the story an interesting double dimension. Reading about both of their diligent practice habits also inspired me to put down the book and practice some scales.
The book is strongest when it gives detailed descriptions of its hero, Mr. K but the narrative spends too much time on high school drama. Sure, it gives the narrators more depth of personality but it’s not always interesting to read. Like many captivating stories, this collection of memoirs is bookended by tragedy. A foreshadowing in the first few pages frames the entire collection of memoirs with a nostalgic aura tinged with tension-- an often-used cinematic technique. Expecting the foreshadowed moment to hit at any moment, the story reaches a heartbreaking climax and then settles on a satisfying conclusion. I recommended this book for musicians, students and especially for teachers, not only of music.