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March 2008

Virtuoso - It's Never Too Late for Cello

by Biana Kovic

I once heard that most people die "with music in their heart." On hearing this statement I felt a strong urge to do something.

Being a cello instructor in New York City, who specializes in teaching adult students, I witness every day the amazing progress possible in older age and it's advantages over youth. The reasons for that are strong focus, openness and an eagerness to learn, which adult students bring to lessons and practice.

I also strongly believe that once we allow ourselves to be immersed in the learning process and not worry about the outcome, fulfilling the music in our heart comes more easily to us. The process, in my opinion, is the end product, which is constantly evolving and naturally bringing the progress.

So in November of 2004, I decided to make a documentary film in which I would teach an older woman with no prior musical education to begin to play the cello. The participant was to receive the cello, bow, music stand, music and one month of intensive cello lessons for free. In return she would allow me to film the process. I hoped that the film would encourage other adults to learn something new.

Immediately I started my search for a volunteer who would be interested in my project, which I named Virtuoso – It's Never Too Late For Cello. It took me one year and four months to find my participant. Her name is Matty Kahn. Her age 89.

Matty Kahn is a very unusual 89 year-old. A self taught painter and sculptor, she is still very active and passionate in pursuing her art. She takes a strong pride in being able to live on her own in a beautiful sunny studio located on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, and still do things such as drive a car, wash and clean and get around the city by herself.

When she volunteered, she said that my proposition presented itself as a great challenge to her and that she wanted to prove to herself and her family that she is still capable of learning new things. She also always favored string instruments and she wanted to go through the experience of learning to play one. I liked her truthfulness and openness and right away we set up a lesson and shooting schedule that would begin in less than a week, in March 2006.

Our first lesson together was the first day of the shoot. Matty and I were very excited. We started the lesson with something that she was already comfortable with – drawing. I gave her an assignment to draw the cello. Once the drawing was completed, we moved right into learning two important aspects of cello hold: sitting properly and placing the instrument.

As a cello player who has spent a lot of hours playing, I am extremely conscious of creating good sitting habits in my students, making them aware of their body center, sit bones and lower back – all three important components which support a good posture. For Matty, learning to maintain a proper posture was a challenge. When I asked her how it felt to suddenly pay so much attention to her posture, she responded excitedly that she finally had a reason to sit "tall!"

On the other hand, placing the cello came intuitively to her. She picked up the instrument and moved it around until it felt comfortable. It was very impressive to watch her adjust the instrument to her own liking as she naturally created a good balance between having it rest against her left breastbone and supporting it with her knees.

As we came close to lunchtime, our wrap-up for the day, my director of photography asked me if Matty could play a short tune. I turned to Matty and asked her if I could teach her one more thing. She agreed and in less than an hour, the crew and I listened to Matty’s very first composition, one that she created by plucking open strings. As we were saying goodbye to her, she gave us a huge grin to signal her victory.

On the second shoot day, a week later, Matty looked nervous. She acknowledged that the restlessness was coming from wanting to repeat the success that she had the previous week. She knew that I was going to introduce her to two new techniques: note reading and bow hold. She worried about having enough vitality in her mind and body to do them correctly. I reminded her that she was doing great and that we were interested in the learning process and not the end product. She quietly listened and very soon we began our lesson.

We sat at her kitchen table as she began to learn the notes. Once we felt that we had practiced enough, we took a short break and then moved on to learning how to hold the bow. Throughout the morning I watched Matty undergo a transformation as she willingly worked on allowing her mind and body to let go of constant expectations. By doing so, she was able to immerse herself in the learning process, which naturally brought progress.

On the third and fourth shooting days, which were also a week apart, we focused on learning new concepts, integrating the ones that she already knew and allowing both, old and new to point us in the direction that we needed to go. We came to the conclusion that her right wrist was weak and that we needed to change the size of the bow, from full to quarter size. We became aware of how much the position of her head, which was slightly angled towards her right shoulder, affected her sitting. We were pleasantly surprised with her left arm and fingers, the strength and the precision with which they handled the strings. Matty realized that consistent practice, even if it is only for five minutes, is more effective than longer irregular one. She discovered that the cello is like a person, it responds to both, neglect and support that occurs through touch and hold.

Together we concentrated on trusting the process and being aware of the pressure that comes with wanting to attain a certain goal. She said this helped her to focus more on her internal experience, which she found pleasurable.

After four weeks of filming her lessons, I asked Matty where she would like to do the final scene. She suggested her house in Yonkers from where she had moved five years ago when her husband passed away. Upon our arrival, Matty began to reminisce and we spent a few hours learning about her life. As a final act, I asked her to play the first three lines of a very short piece that we were working on. When her last stroke ended, she proudly stood up and took a long bow.

In her final interview, I asked Matty to share some of her thoughts on two subjects that interest me the most: learning and aging. Her response was that learning keeps her going. It is the only companionship she has, especially at times when she feels lonely remembering that most of the people that she has known and loved have passed away.

This remarkable experience served to confirm my strong belief that aging and learning are kinship for longevity and that the learning process fosters "music in our heart" into reality.

Biana Kovic is a cellist, performance coach and a filmmaker. She has performed at New York City's Carnegie Hall and Weill Recital Hall, among others. Ms. Kovic graduated from the University of Musical Arts, the Hartt Suzuki Institute, the Chicago Suzuki Institute, and the NLP Center of New York. She is a founder of It’s Never 2 Late Inc. – Cello Studio for Adults. In her studio, Biana uses an accelerated learning technique which makes learning fun and easy for people at any age and any stage of their lives. Her process-oriented method has resulted in many success stories. Biana and her students have been featured in various television and in newspaper stories. Buy the Virtuoso docufilm on Ms. Kovic's website.