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Remembering Robert Willoughby (1921-2018)

compiled by editors | May 2018

    Robert Willoughby, 96, died Tuesday, March 27 after a short illness. Described by Flute magazine as the “American grandmaster of the flute,” Bob was an American classical flute player and flute teacher, playing both Baroque and modern flute. He received numerous awards over his career including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Flute Association in 1996.
    He served as assistant principal flute in the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell and first flute in the Cincinnati Orchestra under Max Rudolf. He taught for many years at Oberlin College, the Peabody Institute, and at the time of his death was teaching at the Longy School of Music of Bard College. At Oberlin he was the first Robert Wheeler Professor of Performance and a founding member of the Oberlin Baroque Ensemble and the Oberlin Woodwind Quintet. He was also a member of the Baroque Performance Institute and the Smithsonian Chamber Players.
    He is survived by his son John, daughter-in-law Bonnie, and their three children Courtney, Chelsea, and Colin, as well as countless grateful students. He was preceded in death by his wife Elaine “Mac” Willoughby who passed away in 2012. 

    The Robert Willoughby Flute Scholarship at Oberlin was created in his honor. For more information, go to

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Thank You Mr. Willoughby

Katherine Borst Jones 
    If you are lucky, you will meet the right teacher at the right time, a time that will change your life forever. I am lucky. In 1966, I became aware of Oberlin College and the teaching and playing of Robert Willoughby. It became my dream to study with him. I worked diligently, preparing Anderson etudes, Griffes Poem and other pieces. The fateful audition day arrived. I flew from my home in New Jersey to the small town in Ohio. My audition with Mr. Willoughby was an hour long, and I learned so much. He listened to all of my material and then worked with me. “Can you change the speed of your vibrato? Where is the high point of that phrase? Can you play the skeleton for me?” And then, the fateful sightreading. I still can visualize the difficulty. I must say it stumped me. I did not do well with all of the rhythmic complexities. Mr. Willoughby was kind, helpful, friendly and to the point. I left wanting to go to Oberlin more than ever. 
    Months later the envelope arrived. I was not accepted. Tears and disappointment! So off to another college I went. In the winter of my sophomore year, I saw a poster on the bulletin board for the Congregation of the Arts Program at Dartmouth College, Robert Willoughby, flute. Without telling anyone, I boarded a bus for Boston to play an audition for Mario di Bonaventura, director of the program. I was accepted! 
    For eight weeks, two summers in a row, I was one of six flutists accepted to study with Mr. Willoughby and to play in the orchestra with him as well as experience the rest of the program, which featured the music of an important composer for two weeks at a time, (i.e. Luigi Dallapiccola, Alberto Ginastera, Easley Blackwood). We heard them lecture, heard the faculty play chamber music by them, and performed some of their orchestral music. 
    My first summer studying with Mr. Willoughby focused on music-making of the highest order. Style, phrasing, balance, pitch, rhythmic control, sound, practice techniques, and much more. I practiced a lot and was inspired by his playing, his attention to detail and his sense of humor – both in lessons and in orchestra rehearsals. He had an innate sense of when to inject humor to lighten a moment of frustration. Lessons were fast paced and full of high expectations. A question asked was not quickly answered by him. Instead his patience and hints finally brought the student to an eventual answer. He also had a way of inspiring confidence with thoughtful comments. I always left lessons with a sense of excitement and a keen knowledge about what I needed to work on. It was always about the music. He would say, “Make me love it or make me hate it, but don’t bore me.” 
    Eight lessons that first summer provided me with enough concepts and ideas to work on for the entire year. When I arrived the second summer, he was most positive about my improvement on the ideas from the previous summer. However, he was concerned about the lack of flexibility in my embouchure. Pitch control and tonal flexibility were not up to par. He suggested that I should overhaul my embouchure. I had previously tried to find a more flexible embouchure but could not seem to find the right muscles. After trying various ideas, he said, “Use a bulldog face.” Finally, I was able to move my jaw and lower lip to form a cushion that was adjustable. While it took a few weeks to adapt, the change turned out to be essential. I was then able to produce what my ear already heard. Everything was easier. I will be forever grateful! 
    Later I was asked to teach with him at Oberlin, an opportunity that allowed me to observe his studio classes and spend more time with him learning about pedagogy. After I had left to take a full-time job, I wanted to learn more and give more flute students the chance to work with this master teacher. We started a week-long summer masterclass at the University of New Hampshire, since Willoughby and his wife Mac had moved to New Castle, New Hampshire. For seven years numerous students were treated to his lessons of flute, music and life. 
    Robert Willoughby had his own sense of adventure. He was well read, an Anglophile, a wine and food enthusiast, a man with discipline and the highest ideal of integrity. His learning and exploring ways of teaching and playing were a constant in his life whether it be flying or flute playing. He treated his life like heaven on earth, making the most of every day, every opportunity. For him, teaching and playing were his passions. He loved what he did and could not believe he got paid to do it. He was open-minded to all styles of music and ideas. He took enormous pride in his students and treated them with respect. I have been so fortunate to have him for a teacher, mentor and friend for most of my life. Thank you, Mr. Willoughby! Godspeed!

Wendy Rolfe
    Ask an orchestral flutist, ask a Baroque flutist, ask a specialist in contemporary music – they all may say, “Yes, I studied with Robert Willoughby.” Ask a retired flutist or piccolo player or ask someone just starting out on a career as a flutist – they, too, may all say, “Yes, Mr. Willoughby (or Bob to his alumni) was my teacher.” How many flutists can look back at a career spanning almost 70 years of teaching at some of the United States’ top music schools, including Oberlin, Peabody, and Longy School of Music of Bard College – from which he planned to retire at the age of almost 97 this spring. 
    We all thought Bob was eternal, and we all now realize he actually is, with his teaching, his indefatigable interest in every student, and his wisdom being carried forward in the future by so many grateful flutists – and I should also add, by those who were coached by Bob in chamber music ensembles.
    Bob’s experiences as a decorated bomber pilot in World War II, his time as Principal Flute of the Cincinnati Symphony under Max Rudolf and as Assistant Principal Flute of the Cleveland orchestra under George Szell, his work with the Oberlin Baroque Ensemble and the faculty woodwind quintet, all underlay his unique perspectives. He was ever curious, and students who studied with him after he took up the Baroque flute were fortunate that he was exploring Historical Performance along with us. We also were fortunate that he encouraged us to work on experimental contemporary flute repertoire. (I know I am forever grateful that Bob gave me a Charles Wuorinen’s Flute Variations II solo to work on.) 
    Bob was also unrelenting in his insistence that we learn a huge pile of orchestral excerpts in our junior year at Oberlin. He was one of the most discerning and demanding coaches in this repertoire throughout his long teaching career. He knew that even for those (like me) not planning to go the orchestral audition route, these were essential for our ability to find work, to teach, and to achieve mastery of the instrument. 
    Bob and his wife Mac also took delight in sending out their annual Christmas cards to his former students. They hosted us at their home, wherever they were living. He left a formidable legacy for us to live up to, but we are inspired to go forward by this great human being, flutist, and teacher. Thank you forever, Bob!

Mark Sparks
    Robert Willoughby will be remembered by his many interesting, highly varied and artistic students for many things. For me, I think of his preternatural teaching ability, his apparently effortless wisdom and natural understanding of human nature, naturally clear judgment, his natural musicality from a loving heart and curious mind, and the powerful yet somehow naturally unassuming warmth of his personality. Maybe when we encounter such pervasive, authentic greatness in a person, we don’t recognize it immediately. It is easy to take for granted. It seems so simple; so, well – natural.     

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Lessons Learned

    I still find myself quoting Robert Willoughby in almost every lesson I teach. 

What I Learned from Him:
    Patience and high expectations 
    Integrity, honesty and respect for everyone 
    Decision making
    Keep learning, always 
    How to practice 
    Appropriate body movement 
    Warm-ups, tongue-less attacks, whistle tones, 
    Kincaid vocalise 
    Study the complete score 
    Find the structure, skeleton, the focal point 
    Use a sense of proportion 
    Tension, resolution 
    Use time, rubato 
    Flexibility of embouchure, pitch bends 
    Tonal flexibility, light and shade
    Shape notes, 
    Uncompromising intonation 
    Vary the speed and width of vibrato and use it 
    Seamless intervals, play between the notes. 
    Understand the harmonic series. 
    High vs. low, long vs. short, slurred vs. short 
    Baroque style 

What he taught me to ask myself:
    “What is important?” 
    “How long is the phrase?” 
    “What is the relationship of this to that?” 
    “Where would you breathe if you must take 
    another breath?” 
    “How many ways can this phrase be played?” 

Helpful quotes: 
    “Large intervals invite time.” 
    “Keep air pressure up even as you get softer.” 
    “Any fingering that works is okay.” 
    “99% of the time, the peak of a phrase is on 
    beat one or three.” 

– Katherine Borst Jones