The Gift of the Gold Flute

If you were to gather all of America's most successful flutists and ask if they studied with Robert Willoughby, a wave of hands would rise in unison. At age 93, Willoughby has earned a reputation as a mentor and gifted teacher for some of the most highly skilled flute players in the United States, including past and present principal flutists from the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra and more.

Recently, he donated a gold flute, handcrafted by legendary flute maker Jack Moore, to Interlochen Arts Academy. The instrument will be used by students who do not have the financial means to secure a professional quality flute of their own. It is another example of how Willoughby, who was first inspired to pursue music as a career while attending Interlochen Arts Camp in the late 1930s, has helped shape the professional lives of young musicians.

"He has such a sense of true commitment and caring in helping students find the best of their potential," says Nancy A. Stagnitta, Instructor of Flute and Chamber Music at Interlochen Arts Academy and a former graduate student of Willoughby at the Peabody Conservatory. "He has so much personality and such wit. He's had a huge influence."

Stagnitta learned of Willoughby's intention to donate the flute after visiting with him this past summer during a day-long visit. As part of a sabbatical project, Stagnitta is interviewing former instructors to better understand their approaches to teaching.

The Science Behind the Golden Flute

What is it about a gold flute that makes it special? That was the question at hand when Taoufik Nadji, Instructor of Physics, Astronomy and Pre-Calculus, joined with Nancy A. Stagnitta, Instructor of Flute and Chamber Music, and student Indigo Fischer to conduct sonogram tests on different types of flutes.

“Every single handmade flute will vary in its sound,” says Stagnitta. Sometimes, though, those sounds can be difficult to distinguish, leaving some listeners skeptical as to the real differences.

In this classroom test, Fischer played the same piece of music on three different flutes – one made of all silver, another made from silver but with parts rendered in gold and finally, the Willoughby gold flute.

"We generated sonograms, a map of different partials or harmonics of the tune she played," says Nadji. "We could definitely see the differences in the preliminary data. You could actually see quite a bit of difference between the three. There was a different distribution in the higher harmonics."

Those differences arise from the materials themselves. "From the physics point of view, different elements in nature have their own frequency," Nadji says. "When you strike it, its molecules will vibrate in a way distinctive to it. That’s why in violins different types of wood are used. For flutes, they probably tried copper and zinc and other materials before gold and silver. It all depends on what type of sound you want."

For the musician, these objective measures of sound quality are perceived as subjective differences in resonance, projection or the tone color, often matters of personal or artistic preference.

Nadji was careful to point out that it is impossible to draw any sweeping conclusions based on tests from three flutes, each from a different maker. The experiment, however, served as a perfect example of how academics and the arts interact at Interlochen, helping students understand the science behind the music they produce. "Science enriches and adds a layer to the students' understanding of how their music is coming across," Nadji says. "In so much of what they do, they're relying on the subjective. We can bring a little bit of an objective side to it. Our students have the ability to understand things in the moment. Our school offers a lot of that. It’s so neat to be able to do this."

During the discussion, Willoughby opened up about the influence of Interlochen on his life. As a young man growing up in Grundy Center, Iowa, he originally planned on becoming a lawyer like his father despite his enthusiasm for the flute, an instrument he first picked up around the age of 10. In a small town like Grundy Center, he could not find professional instruction – there were no flute teachers – and he did not have his first flute lesson until after leaving high school. It was then that he went to Interlochen and abandoned all other career plans. He fell in love with the place quickly. "I was there two weeks and I thought, 'I'm in heaven,'" Willoughby says. "I fell in love with music and I've been in love ever since."Beyond inspiration, his time at Interlochen set his future in motion. "If I hadn't gone to Interlochen, I wouldn't even be in music," Willoughby says. While he was there, the head of Eastman School of Music came through for a visit "and he offered me a full, four-year scholarship. I'm grateful Interlochen got me into music."

Soon after winning a spot as a graduate student at the New England Conservatory in Massachusetts, Willoughby's talents earned him a position as assistant principal flute in the Cleveland Orchestra, performing under legendary conductor George Szell. It was the start of a professional career that would launch him into the orbits of some of classical music's most compelling performers, including Aaron Copland whom he welcomed to his home for dinner one memorable evening.

It was during his tenure in Cleveland that Willoughby began his teaching career and discovered an unmatched gift for instruction, launching a career that would take him from the
Oberlin Conservatory, to the Peabody Institute and most recently, the Longy School of Music.

"His ability to engage students and help them examine their own strengths and flaws makes him a remarkably adept and inspiring teacher," says Stagnitta. This Socratic style still motivates Willoughby as a teacher today. "He told me that he felt fortunate that he still enjoyed teaching at the age of 93." No doubt that unflagging passion for teaching inspired his gift of the gold flute to Interlochen, contributing to a fruitful and inspiring experience for today's students.

Indigo Fischer, an Academy senior, recently used the gold flute in a performance of Aaron Copland's "Four Dance Episodes" from Rodeo. The experience meant so much to Fischer that she wrote Willoughby a note to thank him for his generosity and the opportunity to play such a special instrument:

"Each time I assemble your flute, I am humbled and amazed knowing that it has so much special history behind its unique story," she wrote. "It responds very well, as if it has just been waiting to get back to music making. I cannot express to you how thankful I am that you donated the flute to Interlochen, and it warms my heart knowing that it will continue to bring joy to many more generations of Interlochen flutists. Thank you so much for entrusting us with its care."

Igniting students' passion is deeply important to Willoughby. "I love working with young people," he says. "I love that passion that you can bring to students. Sometimes people are so concerned about technique but you have to have passion when you play. To make beautiful music and to make it exciting – for me, it's my life."