Dr. John S. Willis Memorial Scholarship in Music

This award was established in 2003 by Mrs. Lydia Willis in loving memory of her husband, Dr. John S. Willis, for students of violin, viola or cello in the undergraduate or graduate program at the School of Music at the University of Victoria.  

John Willis was born in Hamilton, Ontario, the oldest of four children.  When he was five, his father decided to take his family to China.  John grew up in Shanghai with very little music in the house.  This was the time before television, and the family did not own a radio.  Shanghai had its own municipal orchestra, staffed by quite a few European refugees, but the family never attended concerts.  John’s mother, although deaf since the age of 16, was a gifted pianist.

Young John yearned for music.  When he received a little money he went to the only European music shop in Shanghai and bought himself a clarinet and taught himself to play. He then spent many happy hours playing hymns and some tunes with his mother accompanying him on the piano.  It was only when John went to university and wanted to join the orchestra that he discovered that he was playing an E-flat clarinet, a very rare instrument indeed.

It was at that time that John also bought his first violin and taught himself to play it.  He would have loved to become a professional musician, but his parents decided that a medical career was more suitable for him.   Later on, music became less important since John was building up his career as a medical practitioner and raising his own family. 

At age 46, John was transferred to the Canadian mission in Hong Kong and, although he personally examined thousands of immigrants, he found time again for his music.  Hong Kong had a very active music society and somehow attracted lots of famous artists.  He finally heard outstanding string quartets and soon acquired an old Venetian violin, a viola from England, and when someone left a cello in his apartment for safekeeping in the humid Hong Kong climate, he soon taught himself to play it.  Shortly after, he had his own string quartet and even recorded the Haydn Kaiser Quartet by playing each part separately.  He continued his music-making in India and eventually in Rome, always finding gifted amateurs and the occasional professional to play with.

It was finally after his retirement to Victoria, that he took violin lessons from Mr. Humphreys, and cello lessons from Mr. Hunter at the Victoria Conservatory of Music.  He encouraged and helped young students and enjoyed music until his death. 

The Dr. John S. Willis Memorial Scholarship has been established with a donation from Mrs. Lydia Willis with funds from the sale of a violin owned and played by Dr. Willis.  Mrs. Willis wished to commemorate the memory of her husband by offering this scholarship in the hope that it will help gifted musicians of string instruments to achieve their goals.

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