Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations
Jennifer Conlin is a regular contributor to the New York Times.
Strings Attached could have been called Tiger Teacher. Its subject is a fiery classical music educator, Jerry Kupchynsky, who urged decades of students toward success by being “an equal-opportunity terror.” But this emotional and multi-layered memoir/biography is far more than a guide to forming ambitious young adults. It tells the story of a dedicated mentor whose own sufferings never sapped his belief in his pupils and their talents.
The book is written in alternating narratives by two of Mr. K’s (as he was called) former students: Joanne Lipman ’83, now a successful newspaper and magazine journalist (as well as a board member of this magazine); and Melanie Kupchynsky, a long-term violinist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and one of Mr. K’s two precociously musical daughters. The first half will make readers wince as the coauthors describe Mr. K’s disciplinary tactics—his “formula of discipline, repetition, and hollering”—in detail. Kupchynsky recalls her younger sister, Stephanie, being hit so hard by her father’s bow that it splintered. Lipman, a viola player, describes her fingers nearly bleeding from the imprint of the strings. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that all this bullying is leading to something more than blisters and bruised egos. “There was something intoxicating,” writes Lipman, “about a teacher who had such absolute confidence—faith, really—in my ability to do better.”
Anyone who remembers Lipman’s 2010 New York Times tribute to Mr. K upon his death will find it satisfying that the many complex passages of his life, briefly sketched in that column, are detailed here. But most poignantly, this book begs us to think back on all the “Mr. K’s” in our own lives.