'Strings Attached' celebrates music teacher Jerry Kupchynsky's 'benign dictatorship'

by Luke Taylor, Minnesota Public Radio
December 24, 2013

St. Paul, Minn. — Some people may feel slighted if a teacher's most effusive praise is a terse, "Not bad." But for music teacher Jerry Kupchynsky — "Mr. K" to his students — that expression was high praise indeed.

Mr. K is the subject of a new book, Strings Attached: One tough teacher and the gift of great expectations.

The title pulls no punches; Mr. K was certainly tough. "Right before the book came out, I said to my co-author, 'We're going to need to pull on our flak jackets'," laughs the book's co-author and editor Joanne Lipman. "We fully expected pushback from readers because Mr K's methods fly in the face of everything we think we know about education. But what has surprised us is that the reaction from readers has been overwhelmingly, 'Amen! Hallelujah! Let's bring back some tough love.'"

The book — co-written by Mr. K's former students Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky, who is also Mr. K's daughter — provides a pupil's-eye-view of learning music under a teacher who declared, "Orchestra is not a democracy; it's a benign dictatorship." Mr. K had no problem giving sardonic feedback ("Who is deaf in first violins?") or making blunt accusations ("Who is the slob who played the wrong note?"). But what slowly emerges over the pages of Strings Attached is a portrait of a man whose love for music was only outstripped by his love of teaching. "His methodology wasn't about bullying us," Lipman says. "It was really about optimism. It was his faith in us students that we had the ability to achieve more. His methods gave us confidence that we could achieve more."

And achieve they did. Co-author Melanie Kupchynsky is a professional violinist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Lipman is a successful journalist who, among many credits, has worked at the Wall Street Journal and whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek and on CBS and NBC. Many others among Mr. K's alumni have gone on to notable careers as professional musicians, teachers and journalists. As Lipman describes in the book:

"...the fact is, Mr. K did push us hard; harder than our parents, harder than our other teachers. He scared the daylights out of us. Through sheer force of will, he made us better than we had any right to be.

"It didn't hit me, until [later], how much we loved him for it."

As the story of Mr. K's life unfolds, it's a wonder he survived to have that legacy at all. Born in the Ukraine, Mr. K suffered the privations, bereavements and forced migrations brought about by Nazi occupation in World War II. Following a period of political imprisonment and time in a displaced-persons camp, Mr. K found his way to a supportive community of Ukrainian expats in the U.S. He received education in music and went on to teach his favorite subject. But his adulthood was far from devoid of hardships — a wife stricken with MS, an adult daughter who goes missing. Yet despite the many challenges he encountered, Mr. K's commitment to his students and to his family never wavered.

It's the powerful life story of Mr. K that makes Strings Attached such a captivating read. Far from any kind of allegory intended to sell a philosophy about music instruction, the book is a gripping account of a remarkable life, told from two perspectives that richly complement one another. "Melanie and I really did want to tell the story as a story," Lipman says. "The book is described frequently as a non-fiction novel. I didn't think there was any such thing, but it seems an apt description. We wanted to take the reader on a journey."

Strings Attached is a journey with an emotional mix of trials, tears and celebrations. It is, after all, the story of a life well lived.

Kupchynsky slide show:


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