Saturday, July 20, 2013

Strings Attached

The memoir 'Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations' by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky has been preoccupying my mind lately. The other night I dropped off to sleep after relishing the story to the final page, and conjured up Jerry Kupchynsky in a dream. For the last few days, Kupchynsky has become as present in my life as if he were a member of my own flesh and blood family. "Mr. K." as his students affectionately called him, might have been cut out of the same cloth as my late mother, Frances Kransberg, for his discipline and love for the violin are eerily similar. Perhaps I feel a kinship, too, because my paternal Kransberg roots are from the same neck of the woods as Kupchynsky's: Western Ukraine which borders along Poland. In that vicinity stands my ancestral village of Kranzberg, which after searching and searching, I find has been renamed, Mala Ozymyna. I have wanderlust; my own children know this. I want to return to my roots. But given the region's volatility, the closest my husband will allow me to travel to the Ukraine is via Google Earth.

Jerry (Jarema) Kupchynsky was a survivor, and by dint of his teaching method, so were his students. Born in 1928, Kupchynsky grew up "right into the teeth of Ukraine's Holodomor, a great famine when millions of Ukrainians starved to death." 'Strings Attached' begins in a breezy fashion, alternating mostly humorous glimpses between Melanie Kupchynsky, Mr. K's daughter, now a violinist with Chicago Symphony, and former student, Joanna Lipman, a prominent journalist and founding Editor-in-Chief of Conde Nast.  They fill the pages with reminiscences about their childhood and adolescence in the midst of Kupchynsky's eccentricities. Mr. K's parenting tactics are all too familiar, including one of his favorite expressions: "When I say jump, on the way up ask how high!" But there are also dead give-a ways that he is haunted by a tormented past, a past which includes having been a forced laborer in World War II. One morning at breakfast, little Melanie reaches to her father's bowl of Life cereal, and he slaps her hand away. A mouse has gotten into their cupboard, left droppings in the cereal. Melanie's father won't allow perfectly good food to be wasted. "I'll eat around eet," he shrugs.

In his capacity as music teacher for East Brunswick school district during the late 60s and early 70s, Mr. K would yell at his orchestra, "Orchestra eez not democracy. Eez benign dictatorship." By today's classroom standards, one might be horrified by Mr. K's old school tirades, the singling out of students, the name-calling ("Who eez idiot who play wrong note?!). Lipman observes that middle schools everywhere tend to be the "killing field of musical ambition." She writes that there's even a technical term for it by researchers who have studied the phenomenon: the 'I want to quit' phase. Indeed, I've had several students abandon their music studies simply because they were dissuaded or ridiculed by their peers. But while many teachers would coddle their students, or try to ease up on their expectations, Mr. K. drove his kids harder. As one former student of his said: "Taking lessons with Mr. K. felt like playing for the Yankees. You put up with the shit because it got you to the championships." And indeed, not only did Mr. K's students fill the prominent ranks of national youth orchestras, but many went on to lead highly successful careers in each corner of the world, only to thank their tough-as-nails teacher later.

But the meat of the memoir is Jerry Kupchynsky's heart-rending personal plight. Not only had he survived the war and brutality from his homeland and Nazi Germany,  and served with American forces in the Korean War, but his wife was afflicted by multiple sclerosis. Finally, he was left with the most difficult task of all: to raise the youngest of his two violinist daughters, Stephanie, by himself. Stephanie Kupchynsky, a much sought after and admired violin educator in her own right, mysteriously vanished one day; her disappearance lasted as an unsolved crime for many years until her corpse was finally discovered.

'Strings Attached' offers ample opportunity for readers to search deep in their hearts, to recognize and feel a debt of gratitude towards all those special teachers and parents out there who believed in them,  who pushed them beyond limits. Mr. K boiled his philosophy down to self-discipline. Whether you agree with his approach or not, through sheer force of will, it was said that he made all of his students better than they had any right to be.

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