Tributes to Robert Willoughby

At the 2018 National Flute Association convention there was a tribute session for Robert Willoughby featuring performances by many of his former students and organized by Kathy Borst Jones

Read the program

Little did I dream when playing the Siciliano from J.S. Bach's E-flat Sonata, BWV 1031, at my Oberlin audition for "Mr. Willoughby", that this would resonate until the moments when I said my final goodbyes to him. At that audition, in a studio at Carnegie Hall, Bob suddenly sat down at the piano and played the accompaniment along with me. What a treat! Many adventures (dinner and otherwise!) later, when it came time to honor Mac as she was laid in her resting place on the shore in New Castle, NH, we played the Siciliano as our farewell. And, for Bob's beautiful April service at his church in New Castle, crafted by John, it was the first music which came to my mind when I was honored to be asked to take part. The Siciliano will always evoke memories of Bob.....

- Wendy Rolfe, DMA
Professor, Berklee College of Music

Robert Willoughby, or Bob as he invited me to call him upon graduating, was an incredibly positive, rational, and life-force giving mentor. He encouraged all his students to question, why: why does this phrase begin here and end here, why are you using this type of vibrato in this passage, why are you playing this appoggiatura long or short? When I came to him as a freshman at Peabody Conservatory in 1989, I thought that I knew something about playing the flute and making music. I quickly realized that there was a whole world of subtleties, structures, and intricacies that I didn’t know existed. Bob was my patient, encouraging, demanding, and intellectually probing guide through this discovery process. His wisdom, humor, and authenticity gave us a platform on which to grow. It was as if he saw the world from 30,000 feet (as a WWII decorated pilot), and could adeptly and lovingly lead his students along the intricate maze of learning how to express music through flute playing. We would come out the other end much more rich in both our personal and musical competencies having been mentored, guided, and encouraged under the steady gaze of those twinkling, clear blue eyes. I count myself so very fortunate to have been taking under his wing, nourished, and set out to fly.

- Leela Breithaupt
Les Ordinaires, Director

There isn’t a single practice session, rehearsal or performance where I don’t think of Mr. Willoughby. He taught me so much about the flute, yes, but he also changed the very definition of the word “music” for me. His wisdom was profound, and he was incomparably graceful in how he passed it along — always direct and succinct, with warmth and a smile I’ll never forget. He was 92 when I began studying with him. My lessons were on Fridays at 8:00am, which I always felt was painfully early (“you’d be up at 5:00 if you were a Willoughby!,” he’d say). If I was early, I would stand out in the hall and listen to him practice. Most often it was Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun...still practicing that solo at 92 years old! He was an icon. I am still learning from the lessons he taught me. He was brilliant! Even now, when I play through things we’d worked on together, I learn something new from Mr. Willoughby! He gave his students this gift of a knowledge so deep that it unfolds for years. I will never forget our lessons, our lunches, tea time, his church...

- Brittney Balkcom

Bob Willoughby was my teacher for 3 1/2 years at Oberlin. After I graduated, I saw him in SF at the NFA Convention many years ago. I told him I was into jazz, and asked him to go to a jazz club with me in San Francisco in North Beach to hear Roger Glenn, a great jazz player and good friend. I ended up sitting in with Roger on a tune. Willoughby loved the music, really enjoyed Roger's playing and we hung out quite a while. I never saw this side of him at Oberlin. Later, when I recorded my first jazz CD, he sent me a lovely note talking about his interest in jazz, favorite players (JJ Johnson on trombone) and others. It was really great to see another dimension of him and how supportive he was of my efforts. He had many interests and was really passionate about many things.

- Jane Lenoir
Flutist and Director, Berkeley Choro Ensemble, Co-Director, Berkeley Festival of Choro
Artistic Director, Third Sunday Concerts at St. Alban's, Albany, CA
Faculty, San Domenico School and Virtuoso Program, San Anselmo, CA

One of my treasured memories of Bob shows his continuing support for our musical work even after graduation. Over lunch in New York, during those struggling years when chamber music players bounce continually from famine to feast and back again, I summoned courage and asked if he would be willing to join a Consortium Commissioning project that Wendy Rolfe and I were proposing to the National Endowment for the Arts. To me it seemed like the kind of project young, unproved professionals dreamed up not only because of the merit of the project but also because we were under-employed and had time to pursue it. For us to be able to include Robert Willoughby, with his stature and renown, seemed all but unthinkable. When he said “yes” with no hesitation I was actually a little stunned. To which his response was “It’s a good idea, of course I’ll do it.” The NEA gave us funding–certainly influenced by the inclusion of such an eminent artist and teacher–and together we commissioned 4 pieces that are still among my favorites in the 20th century repertoire:
  • Thea Musgrave, Narcissus – Robert Willoughby’s composer
  • Salvatore Martirano, Phleu – Harvey Sollberger’s composer
  • Stephen Jaffe, Three Figures and a Ground – Patricia Spencer’s composer
  • Yehudi Wyner, Sweet Consort – Wendy Rolfe’s composer
Bob’s support for this project was just one of many examples of his continuing care and involvement with helping us, beyond graduation and beyond expectation.

- Patricia Spencer
Faculty Bard College, Hoftsra University

The extraordinary thing about Bob's teaching is that he instilled in each of us the ability to teach ourselves. As musicians, we need to keep growing and improving. We were lucky to study with Bob who taught by asking us questions, sparking our intellectual curiosity, guiding us always closer to the composer's intent, and making sure that as flutists we mastered the tools needed to express the music. What a gift! Every minute of the lesson time was valuable and constructive; he was never one to small talk or waste time. I appreciated that. (I remember being surprised at how chatty he could be if you happened to catch him during his free time!) He wasn't one to spoon-feed or lecture. He was able to let you know when your efforts fell short without leaving you feel discouraged. He led by example, as a flutist, musician, teacher and person of great integrity. I treasure the time I spent as his student and feel so fortunate to have known him.

Reflections and Genuflections: A poem for Robert Willoughby

- Mary Kay Fink
The Cleveland Orchestra

What a kind and thoughtful teacher he was, always pushing, listening, nudging, helping you find your way. None of his students sounded the same. I remember spending what seemed like months at the beginning of my first year just playing intervals and learning to fill the space between the notes. (I even woke myself up one morning from a dream, saying, 'Give me that! I'll show you how to play a fourth!')

I remember watching him perform with his colleagues in a wind quintet and seeing him take his piccolo out of the inside pocket of his suit jacket where he was keeping it warm.

I remember him hosting an annual studio tea at his home, with crumpets and clotted cream.

He was the consummate gentleman, quiet, intelligent, and the best at teaching phrasing.

Thank you for everything, Mr. Willoughby. I will miss you.

- Esther Landau

I was deeply moved at hearing of Bob’s passing. I have so many fond memories of his teaching and friendship. He undoubtedly had the greatest input and influence on my musical career. Bob taught me how to perform professionally, and to enjoy every note I played. He led by example and I often remembered his words of guidance throughout my career. He was truly a gentleman, a scholar and a lifetime friend. May he rest in peace.

- Ervin Monroe

Robert ("Bob") joined our faculty in 1997 after decades of teaching at Oberlin College. During his twenty years at Longy, Bob continued to train outstanding flute majors and coach chamber music; while his schedule was increasingly limited in past years, the students who had the privilege to study and coach with Bob called his teaching transformative and deeply inspiring for its clarity, presence, and wisdom.

The word legend is one that is all too often banded about in our profession --- and although he would have balked at such an accolade, Bob Willoughby was a legend. His record of achievement speaks for itself: a member of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, a superb chamber musician and soloist and, above all, a beloved, master teacher. Bob's students have distinguished themselves as orchestral players, soloists and chamber musicians, performers of new music and teachers.

Bob taught generations of students the value of artistic and personal integrity. The lesson to them -- and to all of us who knew him -- was that the pursuit of musical excellence is a rich, ennobling, and enlightening act.

As Bob's son John wrote to us, Bob, "loved his family but teaching was the passion that drove him. I'm happy that he was able to indulge in it right up until the end."

We will long hold the memory of this kind, gentle man in our hearts, remembering how he served music without pretension, but selflessly, with humility and grace, steadfast devotion and joy.

- Karen Zorn (President) and Wayman Chin (Dean), Longy School of Music

Robert Willoughby's legendary teaching was fairly obvious because of the impressive number of successful flutists who graduated from Oberlin under his watch! But it was only recently that I began to understand the depth of their fondness for him as a person. Many of his ex-students, back in Oberlin for reunions, have knocked on the flute studio door, asking about him and offering memories. Bonnie Lake, maybe one of his first students at Oberlin(?), told me many times of riding in Bob's car between Cleveland and Oberlin. I finally made the trek to New Hampshire to meet Mr Willoughby a few years ago. I was anxious and wondering what to say to the master, but Bob put me completely at ease with his wit and a broad smile; "what took you so long?"
Many thanks to you, John, for putting this wonderful website together.

- Alexa Still
Faculty, Oberlin College

This site maintained by John Willoughby