Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky

All of us have many teachers over our lifetime. Some of them teach us in school, some coach us in sports, and some just teach us about life. Among those many teachers are those couple who leave a lasting impression, who push us to be better than we ever imagined we could be. We all have at least that one teacher in our lives. The lucky among us have several. For me, over the years, I can point to a couple of swim coaches, a geometry teacher, and a Russian teacher who all took the time to not only teach me about what their field was but to develop me as a person and to teach me about what I could and should expect from myself. Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky have written a tribute to the teacher, and in Melanie's case, father, who had that same sort of dramatic impact on their lives in their non-fiction book, Strings Attached.

Opening with Melanie dreaming of losing her sister and Joanne answering the phone to hear a voice she hadn't thought of in years, this is the story of Mr. Kupchysky, or Mr. K, the school orchestra director in East Brunswick, New Jersey, his life, the terrible sorrows and hardships he had to overcome, and the impact he had on countless children's lives. Told in alternating chapters by Joanne and Melanie, they each describe Mr. K and his methods as a music teacher. Melanie, being his daughter, saw the impact his hard life had on him, not only his escape from WWII Ukraine but his wife's debilitating illness, their tough marriage, and then the disappearance of their youngest daughter, Stephanie. As they describe Mr. K. though, each of them also tells of her own life and growth as a musician and as a person.

Each of them details the incredibly high standards to which Mr. K. held his musicians and the heights to which those expectations led them. Both Lipman and Kupchynsky excelled at their instruments, earning honors and accolades, learning invaluable lessons from their hard but proud taskmaster. Mr. K.'s methods as a teacher are not ones that are often seen or embraced, especially in today's educational environment. He did not praise where no praise was earned. He intimidated. He didn't couch his honesty in easy to swallow platitudes or soften the blow of his disappointment. He didn't subscribe to the school of only positive reinforcement. In fact, he was the sort of teacher who ruled through discipline and determined repetition. His lofty expectations for anyone lucky and talented enough to study under him shaped them all. And it clearly worked.

While this aspect of the story was mildly interesting for a reader with no musical knowledge and no interest in teaching, the story really drew me much more into it when Stephanie went missing and the focus was on the impact of her disappearance and the way that Mr. K.'s former students rallied around as he faced yet one more tragedy in a life rife with them. It is Stephanie's disappearance that is even the catalyst for Lipman's reconnection with the Kupchynskys and the driving force behind looking back at what defined and drove Mr. K., and what made him the inspiration for so many young musicians. I have to admit I didn't love this as much as I had hoped to, perhaps because the pacing of the narration in the 60s and 70s was much slower than that of the 90s, or perhaps because music and teaching are not particular interests of mine. But as a book, it did get me to reflect on the people who have been so very important, and not always adequately acknowledged as such, in my own life, a worthy outcome to reading it, I think.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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