I was flattered to receive a message on this blog from a Biana Kovic – a cellist and film maker in New York – asking if I would like to review a film she had made entitled Virtuoso. The subject matter of this lovely, short film was Biana’s giving cello lessons to ebullient beginner, Matty Kahn , then aged 89, now approaching 93! This came about as part of the project, never2late.
Alongside scenes from lessons (8 hours-a-day, one day-a-week for one month) the film features interviews with music therapist Dr Concetta Tamaino and geriatrician Dr. Veronica LoFaso. The benefits conferred upon those learning an instrument are outlined in addition to those more specific to people in later life e.g. reducing risk of fracture, building muscle mass etc.
The striking opening words of the film (spoken, I imagine, by Concetta Tamaino) concern the ability of music to address – and therefore to stimulate – the brain on a variety of levels. Balance and co-ordination are cited as specifics. This would appear to endorse music’s position as a key ally in the “use it or lose it” approach to maintaining brain health. Advocate of the brain plasticity, Dr. Norman Doidge, is said to believe that learning languages is one of the best ways to encourage new pathways to form in the brain. I would contend that, for a beginner (of any age) music is a foreign language – or rather one that has become foreign to many, thanks to our species’ relatively recent tendency to outsource almost every aspect of life to experts.
One of the things which nudges this film from the category of documentary into that of art film is the lovely film score, written and performed by Biana Kovic. There is also a very striking still life moment where she and Matty, seated at a table, are framed by a cello and a music stand. The beauty of the cello and the functional elegance of the folding music stand are taken for granted by many of us who are sufficiently privileged to be able (mistakenly) to consider these items as office furniture. This shot alone exemplified one of the best descriptions of what makes something art which I ever heard (from Ian Spence – a Modern Studies teacher at Ross High School – some years ago): art is anything that makes us look at the familiar in new ways. This sounds very much like the sort of thing which keeps us young – because the young unconsciously encourage us to re-examine the familiar.