In Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations, journalist Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky, a Chicago Symphony Orchestra violinist and Mr. K’s daughter, tell the story of Jerry Kupchynsky (Mr. K), a beloved music teacher who demanded perfection.
Should teachers and parents learn from Mr. K’s teaching style?
JL: It’s very hard to imagine a Mr. K in today’s world. We didn’t want to sugarcoat his methods [which included screaming at students], yet they led to success, not just in music, but also in other fields.
How did Mr. K influence your parenting styles?
MK: I tried to instill the same values in my kids that my father instilled in me: the value of education, that working hard brings happiness, and that music is a gift to be shared. I have high standards just like his. I probably yell at [my kids] more than I’d like, but in terms of punishment, I’m much more lenient.
JL: Something that I’ve tried with my kids comes from what another Mr. K student said—the most important thing he taught us was how to fail and how to pick ourselves up again. We want our kids to try and work out problems on their own.
Have you received responses disagreeing with Mr. K’s methods?
MK: Everyone ultimately realized it was good for them, but we tried to include the perspective of the kids we felt he was too hard on. I did get some responses on the parenting aspect, that one smack he gave me; some people were appalled.
JL: I was having lunch with a CEO of a large company, and he said he gets thousands of résumés every year, hires these young people, and they’re terrible employees, waiting for a pat on the head and for someone to tell them what to do. He wanted to know: how do you teach self-motivation? Mr. K taught us how to raise the bar for ourselves.
You’ve said that a teacher like Mr. K is hard to imagine today. Does this book aim to change that?
JL: I’d like to see this book start a conversation. At Mr. K’s memorial service [in 2010], 40 years’ worth of students had flown in from every corner of the country. Everyone should have that person who pushes you beyond what you think you can do, but also inspires self-confidence. It’s the guys who are the biggest pains in the ass that you appreciate later. In a sense this book is a big “thank you” to those people.