Robert Willoughby has had a profound and far-reaching influence upon the American tradition of flute playing. The Willoughby legacy continues to flourish, not only through his ongoing teaching, but also through the teaching and performing of his former students.
Robert Willoughby’s musical talent emerged from a modest beginning. He did not have the benefit of a great flute master in his early studies, growing up in Grundy Center, Iowa, but he had a good woodwind teacher. The summer of 1938 at the National Music Camp at the Interlochen Center for the Arts dissuaded him from pursuing a career in law. Instead he attended the Eastman School of Music, where he studied with Joseph Mariano. Upon graduation he enlisted in the Army Air Corps to serve in World War II. Following two and a half years flying a B-24 (including 35 missions over Germany), he returned to school, pursuing a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory with George Laurent.
Willoughby went on to play assistant principal flute with the Cleveland Orchestra with George Szell (1946-55). In addition to keeping up with the demanding pace of an orchestral career, he decided in 1949 to take a part-time teaching post at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. In 1955 Willoughby opted to teach full time at Oberlin, where he was named the first Wheeler Chair in Performance. At Oberlin he was able to explore his passion for chamber music, becoming a founding member of both the Oberlin Woodwind Quintet (1950) and Oberlin Baroque Ensemble (1959). He taught traverse at the Baroque Performance Institute, which began in 1971. He also performed regularly with the Smithsonian Chamber Players in Washington, D.C. Willoughby took a leave of absence from Oberlin in 1959-60 to become principal flutist with the Cincinnati Symphony under Max Rudolf. Later he performed as solo flutist of the Festival Orchestra and teacher at the Congregation of the Arts program at Dartmouth College during the eight week summer sessions from 1967-69.
Following 37 years at Oberlin Willoughby served on the flute faculty at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore for ten years. Since 1997 he has taught at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In addition to his degree work with Mariano and Laurent Willoughby studied with William Kincaid over several summers. His own teaching style is reflective of the influence of all three of these men: the big sound and relaxed embouchure of Mariano, the intense, analytical approach of Kincaid, and the uncompromising discipline of Laurent. One of the elements in Willoughby’s teaching is his ability to ask just the right question. He is a charismatic, yet demanding teacher. Mark Sparks, principal flutist of the St. Louis Symphony, said, “With each Willoughby student the mold is broken and a star is born.” Many of Willoughby’s former students occupy key positions in major symphony orchestras and other performing ensembles and are active as teachers.
Robert Willoughby’s musical tastes and interests cover the repertoire across a broad spectrum. He has been actively involved in the baroque performance movement and was one of the pioneers of baroque flute playing in this country. Moreover, he has championed new music, taking an active role in commissioning and performing new works.
In 1996 Willoughby received the National Flute Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the flute world. In addition, a tribute concert was presented in his honor at the National Flute Association convention in 2000. For his 80th birthday students from around the world commissioned John Heiss to write Apparitions, which was premiered at a gala concert in his honor at the Longy School of Music.
Robert Willoughby resides in New Castle, New Hampshire, a tiny island town on the Atlantic coast.