Film documents octogenarian's quest to learn to play the cello in one month
By Marie Villani-York
Matty Kahn has always liked a good challenge.
So two years ago, when Biana Kovic, a filmmaker and professional musician, asked the seniors at the 92nd Street Y who'd like to learn to play the cello for a documentary she was producing, Mrs. Kahn's arm shot up faster than her blood pressure.
"My goal was to get someone who was 80 or plus and show that even though you are 80 or plus you can still learn to play an instrument," said Ms. Kovic.
Under the agreement, Mrs. Kahn, who was 89 at the time, met with her teacher for eight hours a day, one day a week, for one month. All the while, the cameras rolled.
The end result is Virtuoso, a 15-minute documentary that aims to inspire and prove what Ms. Kovic has always believed: "It's never too late to learn."
"When I called my family and told them I was going to study the cello, my brotherin- law laughed," Mrs. Kahn says in one of the opening scenes of the film. At 5-foot-1, the spunky octogenarian and her massive instrument stood "eye-to-eye." "It's too big for you to play," he told her.
Luckily, she said, she spoke to her nieces and nephews, who thought it was a great idea.
"Encouragement is a wonderful thing," Mrs. Kahn said.
No prior training
With no musical training, the senior not only needed to learn how to read sheet music and get the feel of running the bow over the strings, but also basic mechanics like sitting and breathing properly.
"At 89, she slouched," Ms. Kovic said. "She was never really aware of how she sits. Lots of people aren't even aware how they breathe."
Mrs. Kahn steadily progressed throughout the film, and after one month was able to play a shaky - but tuneful - French folk song.
But Ms. Kovic is quick to point out, "it's not about the progress, it's about the process."
By making this documentary, Ms. Kovic is hoping to raise awareness - and funding - to boost the number of musical instrument programs offered to senior citizens. She is trying to change the thinking that people like Mrs. Kahn are "too old" to play an instrument.
"It's not about getting to Carnegie Hall. It's about having an experience," Ms. Kovic said.
A star turn
The documentary, released under Ms. Kovic's film company, Fullmoon Productions, has recently been making its way to senior centers across New York City. And so have its stars.
Mrs. Kahn, now just a week shy of turning 91, has become something of a celebrity at the Riverdale YM-YWHA Simon Senior Center, where she studies acrylics and pastels on Tuesdays, and at the Riverdale Senior Center, where she takes an art class on Fridays.
Just this Monday, a gaggle of seniors gathered at the Riverdale Senior Center to watch the short film, and Ms. Kovic and Mrs. Kahn were on hand to address the audience.
The question on everyone's mind? Two years later, is Mrs. Kahn keeping up with her studies? Can she now play Dvorak? That question drew a bout of laughter from the audience.
Mrs. Kahn, who broke her hand recently in a fall, has not pursued the cello. She's already busy enough with her artwork, she said.
Still, she said, she's glad she did it, and she encouraged her fellow center members to be just as daring.
"Instead of sitting at home and doing one thing in your life, as my husband has always said, 'Try. Try and you might learn something new.'"
For more information on the documentary or to purchase a copy, go to www.virtuosodocufilm.com.