Melanie Kupchynsky has been a violinist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for more than 20 years, and in that time the CSO has won 21 Grammys. She began playing the violin at the age of 4 and her first teacher was her father, known to everyone else as “Mr. K.”
Mr. K ran a fearful music department in East Brunswick, New Jersey where his formula for success was discipline, repetition and hollering. After her father’s death, Kupchynsky and another former student, Joanne Lipman, co-wrote a book recounting the lessons Mr. K taught them in a dual narrative called Strings Attached. The book is a lesson on tough love and the overwhelming power of music.
Read an excerpt from the book, view a slideshow of Kupchynsky family photographs, and listen to music clips from the audio book soundtrack of Strings Attached.
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 slaughter house 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. Th e “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 fl oor. 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 fortheen 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 fi x 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.
Excerpted from STRINGS ATTACHED, Copyright © 2013 Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the written permission of the Publisher.
Listen to "Bach Air" and "Meditation from Thais by Massanet": both were recorded by Melanie Kupchynsky and Sarah Bullen, Chicago Symphony Orchestra harpist, for use on the audio book soundtrack of Strings Attached. Melanie and Sarah are in the process of making an entire CD together based on music from the book.
Listen to "The Lark String Quartet": a recording from the 1970s featuring Melanie Kupchynsky, her sister Stephanie Kupchynsky, Joanne Lipman, and Miriam Simon Cotter.