Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations

Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations

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Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations by Joanne Lipman, Melanie Kupchynsky


If you're lucky, somewhere in your past is that one person who changed your life forever. The one who pushed you to dream bigger and to reach higher, and who set you straight on what matters in life. Perhaps it was a coach, or a professor, or a family friend.

For Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky, that person was a public-school music teacher, Jerry Kupchynsky, known as Mr. K—a Ukrainian-born taskmaster who yelled and stomped and screamed, and who drove his students harder than anyone had ever driven them before. Through sheer force of will, he made them better than they had any right to be.

Strings Attached tells the inspiring, poignant, and powerful story of this remarkable man, whose life seemed to conspire against him at every turn and yet who was able to transform his own heartache into triumph for his students.

Lyrically recounted by two former students—acclaimed journalist Joanne Lipman and Mr. K's daughter, Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist Melanie Kupchynsky—Strings Attached takes you on a journey that spans from his days as a forced Nazi laborer and his later home life as a husband to an invalid wife, to his heart-breaking search for his missing daughter, Melanie's sister.

This is an unforgettable tale—a captivating narrative that is as absorbing as fiction—about the power of a great teacher, but also about the legacy that remains long after the last note has faded into silence: lessons in resilience, excellence, and tough love.

Strings Attached is for anyone indebted to a mentor and for those devoted to igniting excellence in others.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781401324667
Publisher: Hyperion
Publication date: 10/01/2013
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Joanne Lipman is one of the nation's most prominent journalists and commentators. She was a Deputy Managing Editor of The Wall Street Journal and she founded and was Editor-in-Chief of Portfolio. Currently, she is a Newsweek columnist and advisor to news organizations such as CNN and New York Public Radio. She is a frequent television commentator, appearing on CNN, CBS, and CNBC, among others.

Melanie Kupchynsky has been a violinist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for more than 20 years, during which time the symphony has won 21 Grammys. She began studying violin at the age of four with her father and the subject of the book, Jerry "Mr. K" Kupchynsky. Melanie began her career with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra under the direction of John Williams. With the CSO, she has performed around the globe under the world's greatest conductors and with the world's most prominent soloists. She remains an active chamber musician as well, most recently performing as part of the Chicago Symphony's "Citizen Musician" outreach program in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and with Yo Yo Ma in Chicago.

Read an Excerpt

Strings Attached

One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations

By Joanne Lipman, Melanie Kupchynsky


Copyright © 2013 Joanne Lipman Melanie Kupchynsky
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4013-2466-7


The Debut


The meanest man I ever met came into my life when I was five years old. I first saw him from behind. Shoulders hunched, he was flailing his arms wildly, straining the seams of his black suit jacket so ferociously that I feared it might rip right apart. He looked like the villains I had seen in my big sisters' comic books: any moment now he would burst out of his civilized shell, shredding the clothes that restrained him, and terrorize the high school auditorium.

I shrank into my seat, squirming in my hand-me-down party dress and the ugly Mary Janes that pinched my toes. My feet didn't quite touch the concrete floor beneath the fold-down seats. Next to me, my mother shot me a look that silently commanded: "Be still!"

Onstage, the terrifying man still had his back turned to us. He was gesticulating even more maniacally now, looking as if he might careen right off the raised wooden platform where he loomed, impossibly large and menacing. One hand had a death grip on a pointy stick that he waved frantically to and fro. I could swear I could hear him grunting. In front of him sat several dozen kids—big kids, these were, at least nine or ten years old—each fumbling with a musical instrument and each looking up at him in abject horror. One of them was my big sister.

He was conducting the East Brunswick Beginner String Orchestra.

They were playing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

The man's arms waved faster and more wildly, as if he were straining to extract each note by brute force. Then he made one last furious swing with his pointy stick and the orchestra—almost in unison, save a few stragglers—struck the last chord. As they did, he stretched out his arms and held them wide. The music stopped. The kids froze. Their instruments remained motionless in the air, their bows still poised on the strings, their eyes unblinking as they looked fearfully toward the man.

The auditorium erupted into applause. The scary man slowly lowered his arms and turned around. I winced. His face was fierce, even more frightening than I had imagined. He had narrow black eyes and a thin mustache perched over an unsmiling mouth that seemed cast in plaster into a rigid, straight line. Though my big sister was now standing with the rest of the orchestra, proudly clutching the neck of her rented three-quarter-size violin, I paid no attention to her. I couldn't look away from that fearsome, mesmerizing presence.

And then it happened. It was just a flicker, and it disappeared in an instant.

But years later I remember that moment: as the applause swelled, a glimmer of a smile, with the faintest hint of mischief, passed over Jerry Kupchynsky's face.

A man like Jerry Kupchynsky had no business being in a place like East Brunswick, New Jersey. It was one of those featureless suburbs that sprouted out of dairy pastures and chicken farms, a muddy expanse of new developments with streets named "Tall Oaks" and "Evergreen," after the trees that had been plowed into oblivion to make way for cookie-cutter houses with new-sod lawns. The town's local highway—home to the International House of Pancakes and the drive-in McDonald's boasting Over 1 Billion Served—roared with the sound of teenagers gunning their Mustangs and Camaros. There was no real center of town in East Brunswick, no quaint shop-lined streets. The height of local culture was the drive-in movie theater.

Some families, the leftover farm families, had been there for years. But most had moved in more recently, like my parents, who bought our brand-new house because it was near my dad's first job. Their college friends back in Queens had laughed at them for settling in "the sticks," and it's true that when you stood in our front yard, you could hear the gunshots from the cattle slaughterhouse down the road. But my parents didn't mind. The neighborhood was new, the families were young. Like my dad, the other men in our neighborhood were up before the sun, commuting to bigger towns or taking the bus to New York City. The kids—three or more to each family—spilled out into the streets, roller-skating or playing curbside basketball when the weather was good, huddling at the corner school bus stop when it wasn't.

East Brunswick barely had a music program back when the foreign teacher with the impenetrable accent and the funny last name came to town. The school board had figured he could whip up a marching band to cheer on the football team or maybe pull together a glee club. Instead, he ordered up storerooms full of violins, violas, and cellos and began drilling his students on the finer points of Mozart and Bach. By the time my big sister started the violin a decade later, his program was giving lessons to five hundred kids.

Mr. K ruled with an iron will at East Brunswick High School, an inelegant complex of low-slung brick buildings situated atop a hill, with a steep driveway and a sloping lawn perfect for sledding down on cafeteria trays in the winter. There, in the cavernous practice room, where the dust of violin rosin was so thick you could see it swirling in the sunlight slanting through the grimy windows, his voice would echo clear into the disinfectant-scented corridors. He was so loud that the football players running laps around the outside of the building would catch snippets of his shouted commands every time they passed.

"Who eez deaf in first violins?" you'd hear him yell.

If you peeked through the door into the rehearsal room, you'd see him putting the orchestra through its paces at almost any time of day. Standing atop his little box, waving his big stick wildly, he'd lurch forward like he was set to grab the kids, his tie flying, his sleeves pushed up past his elbows, his mouth wide open, spit flying right into the students' faces. When somebody played a wrong note, he'd stop the whole lot of them, glare at everyone in turn, and snarl, "Who eez slob who play wrong note?"

The kids weren't even sure what he wanted half the time, what with the Boris Badenov cartoon-villain accent that made him sound like he was plotting to foil Rocky and Bullwinkle. "Cellos sound like hippopotamus rising from mud at bottom of reever!" he screamed at the players fumbling in the back of the section when they drowned out the better players in the front. Backstage, he yelled at the students waiting to go on for acting like mahnyiaks. After much consternation and speculation—was a mahnyiak some kind of strange Ukrainian marsupial?—one of the violinists finally screwed up her courage to step forward and ask him.

"Idyot!" he replied. "Everybody knows what mahnyiak eez. A crazy person. M-a-n-i-a-c. MAHNYIAK!"

Every spring, he corralled all the kids into a big concert, attended faithfully by the families that liked to think themselves the more cultured residents of town. The performance began with the beginner orchestra and culminated in a performance by his showcase high school orchestra.

That's why we were here, with me squirming in my seat as my parents proudly watched my sister Michele take her place in the second violins. To my great annoyance, Michele, the oldest of the three Lipman girls, was pretty and smart and so impeccably behaved that she charmed every grown-up we knew. Of course, the adults weren't there to see when she picked me up by the armpits and dangled me over the upstairs banister, teasing and threatening to throw me down the stairs.

But that day, up onstage, Michele was the one who looked terrorized. She was peering at Mr.K through frightened saucer eyes. It seemed as if she weren't breathing. I knew she sometimes came home from orchestra rehearsals in tears, and that she dreaded that the conductor might pick on her. I knew she was even more of a perfectionist than usual when it came to practicing her violin. I finally understood why.

Not far from Michele onstage sat a tiny girl no bigger than me. She was wearing a pretty pinafore with a big bow in her short red hair, and holding the smallest violin I had ever seen. It looked like a toy. Her legs didn't reach the floor. The "Twinkle" triumph finished, Mr.K was now waving her over to the front of the stage. She hopped off her chair and walked toward him. Remarkably, she didn't seem afraid. As he helped her climb up onto the podium, I could see she was smiling right at him.

The year before, my parents had taken us all the way to Philadelphia to see The Sound of Music. The movie was long and we were wearing our most uncomfortable fancy dresses, but the three of us—aged three, six, and eight—loved it so much we sat through it twice in a row. Now, up on the podium, the tiny girl with the tinier violin began to play. And out from her hands came a remarkable sound: the strains of "Edelweiss."

As the audience murmured in astonishment, my mother leaned down to whisper in my ear. "That girl is just about your age," she said. "Her name is Melanie. She's Mr.K's daughter."


"Melanie! Time to play violin! Let's go!"

I can hear my dad yelling. Looking back to the very beginning, to when I first learned "Edelweiss" and my family was still whole, that is what I remember. He is downstairs in his basement studio, calling for me to start my lesson. I am upstairs on the floor of my bedroom, playing with my Barbie dolls. My dad has been teaching me the violin for a few months now, since I turned four years old, though he disguises my lessons as a game we play together in his studio every night after dinner.

I never used to be allowed in his studio, with its teetering stacks of music, jumble of stereo equipment, and string instruments and cases of every size, spilling out across the couch and floor. But now every night I enter the inner sanctum, just like the big kids who parade through our house every weeknight from six until ten P.M., bumping up and down the stairs and scratching the walls with their cases as the strains of Vivaldi and Mozart fill the air. I like playing the violin, but I love getting to spend time with my dad and having his attention all to myself.

"Eez time for windshield wiper game," he says, positioning my right hand on the violin bow. "Pinky curved on top. Now sweep the bow back and forth een the air, like windshield wiper. Here we go, one, two, one, two, back and forth, back and forth."

"My pinky hurts, Daddy!"

"Just a few more, back and forth, back and forth ... Eet weel make your pinky stronger! Keep going! Keep going! Okay ... There, you're done. Good girl!"

The pain is worth it. I live for those last two words.

"Melanie!" Daddy is calling again, impatient for my lesson to begin. I can still hear him, all these years later, his words echoing from the basement while my Barbie dolls stare up at me from the pink carpet. He's anxious because we are preparing for my first solo performance, when I will play "Edelweiss," my favorite song, at the annual spring concert. He says it that way—"first"—as if there will, of course, be many more. My mother has arranged the music herself, penciling the notes on manuscript paper and composing a piano part, too, so that she can accompany me on the stage. Sometimes my mom and I practice together, with me on my one-quarter-size violin that we nicknamed Violet, and she on her beloved big black grand piano that seems to swallow up the whole living room.

Carefully, I put my Barbie dolls in their place on my bookshelf and slide the little black violin case from under the bed. I flip open the latches, gently grasp Violet by the neck, and unhitch the bow from its felt-lined clasp. That's when I hear the thud. And then crying. Feet come pounding up the stairs, and at first I think that Daddy is mad at me for not coming right away when he called me. His favorite expression is "When I say jump, on the way up ask how high!" But the feet stop at the end of the hallway, at my parents' bedroom.

Now I can hear my mother sobbing and my father trying to calm her down. His voice sounds different than usual. My father never talks like other kids' dads. He's loud, has a thick Ukrainian accent, and gives orders that make me, my mom, and my little sister, Stephanie, snap to attention. People always turn to stare when they hear him, which I figure is because he is important, though Mom says it's just because they can't understand a word he is saying. But now, his voice sounds ... shaky. I have never heard him like this before. I creep down the darkened hallway, my feet soundless on the thick brown carpeting, and stop outside their door. It is open a crack, and I peer inside.

At first I can't understand what I'm seeing. There is a shoe, an elegant high- heeled pump, lying on its side on the floor. And a pair of legs crumpled nearby. One foot is still wearing the other shoe.

Mommy and Daddy fight a lot about how much money my mother spends on her wardrobe. Her closets are filled to bursting with brightly colored dresses, funny-shaped boxes holding hats that have little nets and veils hanging from them, and stacks and stacks of shoes. Sometimes she lets me play dress-up and I wobble around the room on something called a Cuban heel, which has an exotically curved heel set almost in the center of the sole. Lord only knows how anyone can walk on those things.

She loves costume jewelry, too. She says it is important to always look nice, which is a corollary to her other rule: "Always be a lady!" Before I was born, when she was a school music teacher, she prided herself on never letting her class see her wear the same thing twice. And she made sure to shop for dresses with interesting backs. When she conducted her chorus, she always said, the audience deserved to have something nice to look at other than her behind. Daddy never stops fretting and fuming about how much she spends, so usually I close my bedroom door and pull out my Barbie dolls when the screaming and door slamming start.

But now I am puzzled. Why isn't my mother getting up? Is she hurt? Daddy can fix anything. Why isn't he fixing this? Something is wrong, but I'm not brave enough to push open the door to find out what.

Later, I will learn that this wasn't her first fall. When she was pregnant with my little sister, Stephanie, she lost her balance as she and Daddy were leaving the house and tumbled down the four concrete steps to our driveway. My father rushed to her side and scooped her up in his arms, cursing and berating her for being a clumsy fool. It was only after they were both safely in the car that my mother noticed his hands shaking uncontrollably as he attempted to put the key in the ignition, while tears ran down his cheeks. Daddy has never been a crier. But he is a man of strong emotions—quick to anger, fiercely protective. And he must have known then that for all his cussing and yelling, this was no ordinary fall. It would be a long time before he admitted it, but something was deeply wrong.

But on that day, the day I hear the thud while waiting to practice with my dad for my first solo performance, I know none of that. As I stand on the worn brown carpet peeking through the crack in my parents' bedroom door and hear my mother sobbing while Daddy tries in vain to comfort her, all I can see are my mother's legs, one shoe still on and the other lying on the floor nearby. My mother will never walk on her own again.


The Rehearsal


My parents had a firm rule: Teacher is always right. If your teacher tells you to jump off a cliff, that's what you do.

Once, in kindergarten at Memorial Elementary School over on Innes Road, my teacher sent me to the corner of the cloakroom for talking out of turn during story time. "Don't come out until I tell you," she said, and then promptly forgot about me. You couldn't blame her. I was abundantly forgettable: quiet and shy and perpetually drifting through life in a fog. So I sat silently in the little wooden chair pushed up against the hospital-blue-painted coat cubbies. I stared at the Lost in Space lunch boxes and Bonanza Thermoses tucked inside the cubbies, wondering how long my sentence would last, even as the fire bell started clanging and everybody in class pushed back their chairs with a clatter and—single file, everyone!—lined up to leave. The teacher turned out the lights as she shut the door behind her.

I waited for the teacher to come back to fetch me. She didn't.

Excerpted from Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman, Melanie Kupchynsky. Copyright © 2013 Joanne Lipman Melanie Kupchynsky. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this wonderful book after a friend recommended it to me, and could not put it down. Beautifully written, poignant and heart warming, this is a universal story that speaks to all of us, whether we are musicians or not. In this age of celebrity without talent, hard work and instant success, it's refreshing to be reminded that there are those "unsung" heroes of everyone's life who really do make a difference. Those of us who are lucky enough to have had that special mentor or teacher will relate to Ms. Lipman and Ms. Kupchynsky's recollections of this very special man, Mr. K. As I read this fine book, my own personal memories were jolted as I was constantly reminded of my own personal mentor who influenced me when I was young, and I'm very grateful to have had such an inspirational person in my life. The story is personal, and yet universal. I highly recommend this book!!! 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was absolutely fantastic!!! I sat down to begin reading it before I went to bed, and without realizing it, had finished the book in one night. I also managed to finish an entire box of tissues because the story was so compelling and gripping; I felt the emotions of the characters as if they were my own. This story reached me on a personal level because I know the author, Melanie Kupchynsky. She is an amazing person and hearing not only her story, but also her father's and her sister's, was a profoundly moving experience. Their journey was at times heartbreaking and difficult, but at the same time extremely inspiring. I am honored to have such insight on the lives of these extraordinary people.
lovelybookshelf More than 1 year ago
Strings Attached was such a personal, emotional read for me. It touched on many things I identify with and hold close as a musician and as a music teacher. I found myself thinking fondly of my own teachers who pushed me, inspired me, and demanded so much from me... many of them felt as tyrannical as Mr. K, and I am just as thankful for that as his former students are. However, you do not have to be a musician to enjoy this book! There are so many layers to Mr. K's story: his tragic childhood (he was born near the start of the Holodomor in the Ukraine), his perseverance, his work ethic, the way he dealt with the many challenges and heartaches life threw at him - and joy! There were definitely joys, too. This is a human interest story. When musical terms do pop up, they are explained in layman's terms; very quickly and simply, never interrupting the flow of the story. Mr. K's voice rang out with such clarity and character I felt I knew him. I laughed at his insults ("Cellos sound like hippopotamus rising from mud at bottom of reever!" and "Who eez deaf in first violins?"), my heart swelled at when he offered praise, and I made notes of his wisdom ("you can't teach children an instrument and then hide them in a hole"). Lipman and Kupchynsky's alternating perspectives segue naturally back and forth, often with one picking up where the other left off. The writing style is easy and conversational. Newspaper clippings and photographs often accompany the narrative. Strings Attached is a moving tribute to a man who made a profound impact on the lives of so many. I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation for this review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fantastic story! Enjoyed both Joanne and Melanie each writing how they saw Mt. K. More. K sure had his hands full with his wife's MS and teaching and trying to find solutions to his wife's MS. How sad for his youngest daughter to disappear and not knowing for seven years what really happened to her.
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