Friday, September 13, 2013

Strings Attached

Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations
by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky
New York: Hyperion 324 Pages

This book is at once a portrait of the Kupchynsky family, a memoir about growing up and "coming of age" in New Jersey between the 1960s and the 1980s, and the story of a man who, deprived of a childhood, came to love music as a young adult, and gave his children and thousands of other children the opportunity to have music become a vital part of their lives.

Jerry Kupchynsky, or Mr. K., as he was called by his students, first fell in love with the sound of a violin at the age of 15. In 1946, at the age of 18, he came to America after having a very difficult life (to say the least) in the Ukraine, and went to study music (from scratch) with Roman Prydatkevitch, a fellow Ukrainian immigrant who taught at Murray State University in Kentucky. He studied violin and cello there, and then studied violin with Samuel Applebaum at Rutgers. He married a pianist who was also a choral conductor, and they had two children. Mr. K. made sure both of them began the violin as soon as they were big enough to play a quarter-sized instrument (in the pre-Suzuki days a 1/4 sized fiddle was the smallest one available). He gave his daughters lessons every evening after dinner.

Mr. K., who started teaching in a small orchestral program in East Brunswick, NJ in 1956, became the supervisor of music for the city in 1967. He conducted the orchestras in all the schools, and taught many of the string students privately. He gave tests to assess aptitude, and filled his students with a sense of "old-world" exoticism by yelling at them, and demoralizing them. But he balanced out his flights of temper with an overabundance of support and genuine affection. Such behavior from a school music teacher would never be tolerated in the 21st century.

Joanne Lipman studied viola with Mr. K., and she played in the East Brunswick school orchestras. She describes his conducting as erratic (at best), writes about his terrible sense of rhythm, and introduces him to us as the "meanest man" she ever met. There is no point where Melanie Kupchynsky, Jerry Kupchynsky's prodigious daughter, mentions the quality of her father's playing (which I imagine was never as high as her playing as a child). Both Joanne and Melanie describe Mr. K.'s method of teaching: he sat at the piano and forcefully encouraged his students (and daughters) to play the right notes in tune, and to play with good form and good technique. He took his daughters and his students through some rudimentary repertoire, and when they moved beyond his ability, he sent them to other teachers. His daughters went to Samuel Applebaum, and Joanne went to study viola with the ever gracious Paul Doktor.

Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky went to school together, and they played in a string quartet along with Melanie's younger sister Stephanie. After many years away from one another, they collaborated on this memoir. The two friends were opposites: Melanie was a star violinist at a young age, and Lipman, who loved music and wanted to play, was considered untalented by her parents. Mr. K. noticed her desire, intelligence, and will, and after she got a good score on his aptitude test, he decided she would make a good violist. He was right. She also became an excellent writer, and is now one of the editors of the Wall Street Journal. After spending time in the Pittsburgh Symphony, and after taking 19 auditions, Melanie Kupchynsky joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Both credit their success to having studied with Jerry Kupchynsky.

Some readers might take this book as an example of "tough love," and others might disagree loudly with Kupchynsky's teaching methods. My parents were more like Joanne's parents because they never insisted that I practice. I kind of envied my friends who had parents who did insist they practice, but my dedication to music came from within, and eventually I spent more time practicing than I probably should have. I find this look into the Kupchynsky household of the "spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child" mid 1960s at once fascinating and disturbing. The book offers an accurate account of a time of transition in public education and in culture in general (I was there and I remember). Some would say that it was a time of unregulated innocence, and some would say that it was a time of unregulated abuse and terror.

This is not a veneration, as so many portrait-memoirs are, and it is not a glimpse into a life of tremendous personal artistic accomplishment, talent, or genius. It is an honest and well-rounded picture of a person in the "trenches" (as some of us teaching music in the hinterlands refer to our task) of string teaching, where there is little in the way of glamour, but there is a lot of camaraderie, and there is a lot of hard work.

I imagine that Mr. K. will be compared with the "Tiger Mother," but Amy Chua wanted to give her daughters the kind of upbringing she had, and Jerry Kupchynsky wanted to give his daughters the kind of musical childhood he never had. He didn't have the example of a father (he grew up with a strong mother who kept her son from getting killed and saw that he made it through high school), and I doubt he had any kind teachers during what should have been his childhood. He served in the the Ukranian guerrilla army (fighting the Germans) as a teenager and in the U.S. Army in Korea early in his American experience, so Mr. Kupchynsky had models of military discipline to draw upon when attempting to get people to work together. And that's what he used with his students.

He made it clear to his daughters that he wanted them to be music teachers. He sent Melanie to the New England Conservatory where the music education students were treated as second class citizens. Melanie was a dutiful first-born daughter, and she wanted nothing more than to please her father, but she became a performance major. Stephanie was a rebellious second-born child, and she fought her father during every step of her adolescence, but she became a violin teacher when she grew up, and she used a far kinder and gentler method of teaching than the method her father used. The story of Stephanie is compelling. I will leave it to you to discover.

What attracts me most about Strings Attached is the quality of the writing, the organization of the book, the subject matter, and the honesty of the writers. Lipman and Kupchynsky alternate chapters, and they often tell the same story from different personal perspectives. This technique I usually associate with fiction works brilliantly here because it allows for an enticing mix of the subjective and objective. There is sure to be a lot of well-deserved discussion following the release of the book.

Strings Attached will be avialable on October 1, but you can pre-order it through Good Reads and Amazon.

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