Saturday, February 27, 2010

And the Orchestra Played On

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 plocking!”

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.
Read the rest here.


Priest David Thatcher said...

So, John -- I'll bite! What touched you about this article about a stern music teacher? Do you have a similar kind of experience, musically?

John (Ad Orientem) said...

Fr David,
Nothing specific to music. However I did have the privilege of knowing a great and much loved professor back in New York who taught political science at the local community college for several decades. Pat O'Neil was quite a character. He was a master of five languages including Latin and was a frequent speaker at all kinds of academic conferences. He was an assistant editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica for all things political and historical and he had a wall full of post graduate degrees. He repeatedly turned down offers of employment from much more prestigious schools.

Pat was among the rarest of minorities, a staunch conservative in academia. He never seemed to worry about tenure despite periodically infuriating the other members of the sociology department by sticking pins in their balloons. I recall a debate on the reform of the British Parliament where he was asked if he really thought Britain needed two houses of Parliament.

He said "No... but I cant think of a decent way to get rid of the Commons."

One of the reasons he may have felt secure enough to turn down more prestigious and presumably lucrative offers of employment as also not worrying about being sacked for his lack of political correctness was that when I knew him, he was financially secure thanks to the New York State Lottery. He won $7 million back in the 1980's. There is a famous story that on the night he won the lottery he called one of his best friends, a staunchly liberal reporter for the local paper at 2AM to tell him the news. He called collect.

Pat had a lot of well loved attributes among them being that he was a great lover of the good life. He was extremely fond of good food, good booze and good cigars (not necessarily in that order). He used to hold court on Friday nights a local Italian restaurant and watering hole with any who cared to join him. There were a lot of really great stories from those nights which space does not permit repeating. But he was something of a legend not just for his command of politics and the classics, but also for his capacity for alcohol.

Not surprisingly he suffered from chronic poor health. When he died seven years ago (he was only in his late 50's) people came out of the woodwork from all over for his wake and funeral. I drove four hours myself.

May his memory be eternal.