The New York Times
February 28, 2010
And the Orchestra Played On
By JOANNE LIPMAN
The other day, I found myself rummaging through a closet,
searching for my old viola. This wasn't how I'd planned
to spend the afternoon. I hadn't given a thought to the
instrument in years. I barely remembered where it was,
much less how to play it. But I had just gotten word that
my childhood music teacher, Jerry Kupchynsky - 'Mr. K.'
to his students - had died.
In East Brunswick, N.J., where I grew up, nobody was feared
more than Mr. K. He ran the town's music department with a
ferocity never before seen in our quiet corner of suburbia.
In his impenetrably thick Ukrainian accent, he would berate
us for being out of tune, our elbows in the wrong position,
our counting out of sync.
'Cellos sound like hippopotamus rising from bottom of river,'
he would yell during orchestra rehearsals. Wayward violinists
played 'like mahnyiak,' while hapless gum chewers 'look
like cow chewing cud.' He would rehearse us until our fingers
were callused, then interrupt us with 'Stop that cheekin
Mr. K. pushed us harder than our parents, harder than our
other teachers, and through sheer force of will made us
better than we had any right to be. He scared the daylight
out of us.
I doubt any of us realized how much we loved him for it.
Which is why, decades later, I was frantically searching
for an instrument whose case still bore the address of my
college dorm. After almost a half-century of teaching, at
the age of 81, Mr. K. had died of Parkinson's disease. And
across the generations, through Facebook and e-mail messages
and Web sites, came the call: it was time for one last
concert for Mr. K. - performed by us, his old students and
Now, I used to be a serious student. I played for years in
a string quartet with Mr. K.'s violin-prodigy daughters,
Melanie and Stephanie. One of my first stories as a Wall
Street Journal reporter was a first-person account of being
a street musician.
But I had given it up 20 years ago. Work and motherhood
intervened; with two children and long hours as an editor,
there wasn't time for music any more. It seemed kind of
frivolous. Besides, I wasn't even sure I would know how.
The hinges creaked when I opened the decrepit case. I was
greeted by a cascade of loose horsehair - my bow a victim
of mites, the repairman later explained. It was pure agony
to twist my fingers into position. But to my astonishment
and that of my teenage children - who had never heard me
play - I could still manage a sound.
It turned out, a few days later, that there were 100 people
just like me. When I showed up at a local school for
rehearsal, there they were: five decades worth of former
students. There were doctors and accountants, engineers
and college professors. There were people who hadn't played
in decades, sitting alongside professionals like Mr. K.'s
daughter Melanie, now a violinist with the Chicago Symphony
Orchestra. There were generations of music teachers.
They flew in from California and Oregon, from Virginia and
Boston. They came with siblings and children; our old
quartet's cellist, Miriam, took her seat with 13 other
They came because Mr. K. understood better than anyone the
bond music creates among people who play it together. Behind
his bluster - and behind his wicked sense of humor and taste
for Black Russians - that was his lesson all along.
He certainly learned it the hard way. As a teenager during
World War II, he endured two years in a German internment
camp. His wife died after a long battle with multiple
sclerosis. All those years while we whined that he was
riding us too hard, he was raising his daughters and caring
for his sick wife on his own. Then his younger daughter
Stephanie, a violin teacher, was murdered. After she
vanished in 1991, he spent seven years searching for her,
never giving up hope until the day her remains were found.
Yet the legacy he had left behind was pure joy. You could
see it in the faces of the audience when the curtain rose
for the performance that afternoon. You could hear it as
his older daughter Melanie, her husband and their violinist
children performed as a family. You could feel it when the
full orchestra, led by one of Mr. K.'s proteges, poured
itself into Tchaikovsky and Bach. It powered us through
the lost years, the lack of rehearsal time - less than two
hours - and the stray notes from us rustier alums.
Afterward, Melanie took the stage to describe the proud
father who waved like a maniac from a balcony in Carnegie
Hall the first time she played there. At the end of his
life, when he was too ill to talk, she would bring her
violin to his bedside and play for hours, letting the
melodies speak for them both. The bonds of music were as
strong as ever.
In a way, this was Mr. K.'s most enduring lesson - and one
he had been teaching us since we were children. Back when
we were in high school, Mr. K. had arranged for Melanie and
our quartet to play at the funeral of a classmate killed
in a horrific car crash. The boy had doted on his little
sister, a violinist. We were a reminder of how much he
loved to listen to her play.
As the far-flung orchestra members arrived for Mr. K.'s
final concert, suddenly we saw her, that little girl, now
grown, a professional musician herself. She had never
stopped thinking about her brother's funeral, she told me,
and when she heard about this concert, she flew from Denver
in the hope that she might find the musicians who played
in his honor. For 30 years, she had just wanted the chance
to say, 'Thank you.'
As did we all.
Joanne Lipman, a former deputy managing editor at The Wall
Street Journal, was the founding editor in chief of Conde
Nast Portfolio magazine.
The CLASSICAL mailing list is powered by L-Soft's renowned LISTSERV(R)
list management software together with L-Soft's HDMail High Deliverability
Mailer for reliable, lightning fast mail delivery. For more information,
go to: http://www.lsoft.com/LISTSERV-powered.html