When I first met Malcolm Williams, he was trying valiantly to teach me how to examine the back of a child’s throat without getting bitten or having the patient throw up on my white shirt and tie. He was only partially successful. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know Malcolm well, in various contexts. Such continuing and evolving relationships are one of the real blessings of training, practicing and living in a relatively small medical community. Malcolm is now an Emeritus Professor and former Head of Otolaryngology. He’s also an accomplished musician, traveller and observer of humanity. Moreover, and more relevant to this article, he is a master storyteller. In fact, he’s what you might call a raconteur. Blessed with a resonant baritone voice, impeccable delivery, and personal connections with most of the citizenry of Kingston, he truly spins a great yarn, and can do so anywhere, anytime.
Recently, he told me about an encounter he and his wife Denny (also an accomplished musician) had experienced during a trip to Italy. He mentioned he had written about it, and I asked if he’d agree to me sharing it on this blog. He graciously agreed. And so, in the words of the master…
Every string player knows (or should know) of Cremona, Italy. After all, that is where Antonio Stradivari hung out his shingle in the late 17th century, when Canada was only in its infancy. My wife Denny and I moved to Kingston (now in a somewhat more developed country!) in 1969, without ever having visited Italy. Two years later, the International Congress of Otolaryngology was being held in Venice, so we went.
Venice was extraordinary that June. The sun shone every day, the water sparkled, and there weren’t too many tourists. St. Mark’s Square was filled with music from a dozen café orchestras playing in the open air, just far enough apart to avoid cacophony, and the shops were full of wonderful leather, glass and fashionable garments, which we thought were unfortunately too expensive at several million lire each. We had actually returned home before it dawned on us that the lira was worth so little (at several hundred to the dollar) that we could have purchased that lovely pair of red high-heeled shoes after all!
After the meeting ended, I asked our very obliging hotel concierge to arrange a self-drive car for us. The conversation went something like this:
Concierge: “Where to, Signore?”
Concierge: “But, Signore, there is nothing in Cremona!” (This, with much waving of hands and other negative body language.)
Me: “Look, my wife and I are players of stringed instruments, and we are determined to make a pilgrimage.”
Concierge: (with heavy sigh) “Signore, you will be wasting your time, but I see you are quite determined, so please let me advise you on your journey. I will have a very comfortable automobile waiting for you after breakfast. You will drive it to Verona, where you will have coffee at the Amphiteatro, which is very beautiful and historic, so you will enjoy it a lot. After coffee, you will drive along the Autostrada to the Village of Sirmione, on Lago di Garda. The village is inside the walls of an old castle, and there is a beautiful hotel with a terrace bar, which overlooks the lake, where you will sit and have an aperitif before lunch. And you will enjoy it. You will ask to see the luncheon menu, you will decide it is too expensive and go down instead to the Trattoria Verdi in the village, which is owned by my sister. You will have a delicious lunch, which you will enjoy very much. And, after that – if you still want to go to Cremona, go!” (And on your own heads be it!)
We are still glad that Giovanni planned our day so well. We did everything he suggested, including eating a wonderful lunch (trout from the lake and a simple salad, with local white wine) at Trattoria Verdi. We did go on to Cremona, to find only a miserable display of two violins in glass cases in the silent, cavernous Town Hall, where we were the only visitors. The fiddles were nice enough – a Nicolo Amati and an ordinary Stradivarius (if there is such a thing), but there was no display of tools, wood, drawings etc. The attendant spoke little English, and did not even know where Stradivari had lived.
The following morning, we were warmly greeted by Giovanni, who asked about the trip. I said “We enjoyed the day as you said we would – but there is nothing in Cremona!” With a smile and a shrug, he sighed: “Ah, Signore!” as he took my generous tip.
He was not to know that the tradition of violin-making would be revived later in Cremona, including a well-respected school and a very impressive museum! This was brought to light in an interesting documentary on TVO as recently as January 2013, which I would urge readers to look at, whilst noting that the presenter’s style is a little brash and superficial for my taste! I wish we could go back and see it all in the flesh, though.
Venice itself was not a total loss in instrumental terms, however. Half-way up the stairs inside the tower of St Mark’s Basilica is a glass-covered niche in the wall containing the most extraordinary double-bass I have ever seen. It was made for the virtuoso Dragonetti in the early 1700s by Gasparo Da Salo, and is one of only two or three in existence. The ROM in Toronto owns a similar one, and I have seen it, although it is no longer on display there. I have only recently become aware that as Denny and I sat on that hotel terrace in Sirmione, we were looking directly up Lake Garda to Salo, where Gasparo was born.
We have no Italian instruments now, although for years my wife played a 19th-century violin made in Genoa by Eugenio Praga. We do have a well-thumbed copy of the book “Italian Violin Makers” by Jalovec, and also the fascinating “The Violin Hunter” by William Silverman, and we treasure them. My 1849 English bass, which I played in the Kingston Symphony Orchestra for a long time, was sold when I left the orchestra, as it needed to be used professionally. However, I soon realized that I still wanted an instrument of my own to play in The Community Strings, and bought one on eBay! This had been brought through the Iron Curtain in disguise, its varnish covered over with black sticky house paint and its strings tattered and frayed, to avoid confiscation at the border, finishing up in Mississauga, Ontario. Three years and a lot of work later, it has been restored to its former glory, and I am not ashamed to take it out of its bag any more. It sounds good, too.
The Venice connection was reborn recently as well. I was asked if I would lend my bass for a “show” at the Grand Theatre. The last time I did anything like this was to lend my big bass travelling trunk to the theatre as a prop for a murder mystery play, in which it would conceal a dead body. This time, the instrument itself was needed by the very good Venetian group, Interpreti Veneziani. I was happy to see it used, and to find that it sounded very good in hands more expert than mine. Music is alive and well in Venice, Kingston, and, I know, now also in Cremona! Long may it last.
Malcolm has always reminded me of the essential role of storytelling as an educational tool. From kindergarten to medical school, much of what (and how) we learn is delivered as accounts of real life or imagined experiences, expressed in ways that stimulate the imagination, provide vivid imagery, and therefore not only entertain, but embed key messages in our memory to be recollected, re-considered and extended to future situations and circumstances. In the words of the Youth, Educators and Storytellers Alliance of the National Storytelling Network: ”Storytelling is an art, a tool, a device, a gateway to the past and a portal to the future that supports the present. Our true voices come alive when we share stories.”
In medical education, how much of our early and ongoing learning relates to accounts of clinical experiences, formally and not-so-formally passed between teacher and learner, and between colleagues? Our best teachers and mentors are not simply reservoirs of facts and figures – they’re able to contextualize into familiar and memorable accounts, weaving what we need to learn into engaging and memorable narratives that engage and persist in our memory.
Malcolm is one of those people. He reminds us that whether the message is about respecting local culture, maintaining our artistic passions, or assessing pharyngeal pathology, the delivery can be as important as the content, and certainly as enduring.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education