Robert Willoughby, Legendary Flute Professor and Performer, Dies at 96

April 24, 2018

By Erich Burnett

Robert Willoughby
Photo credit: Courtesy Oberlin College Archives

Master of modern and historical flute devoted 37 years to teaching at Oberlin, leaving a long list of distinguished former students.

Robert Willoughby was an esteemed professor of flute at Oberlin for 37 years, a tenure during which he developed the craft of countless future performers and teachers while maintaining a vibrant playing career of his own. He died March 27, 2018, one year after friends and family had established an endowed scholarship in his honor at Oberlin.

Born in Grundy Center, Iowa, Willoughby took up flute in the fifth grade but planned for years to follow his father into a career in law; with his father’s encouragement, he ultimately accepted a full scholarship to the Eastman School of Music instead. He earned his degree in 1942 and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, training as a B-24 bomber pilot. From his station in southern Great Britain, he flew the first of three dozen career missions on his 23rd birthday: a run over the English Channel to Normandy on June 6, 1944—D-Day. (Once asked why he didn’t simply join a military band, Willoughby replied: “I thought every joy I had for music would disappear if I went into a military band!” according to a 2010 interview with Flute: The Journal of the British Flute Society.)

Willoughby returned to music after the war, taking up graduate studies in flute with Georges Laurent at the New England Conservatory. “Laurent made me work my tail off,” he told Flute. “I practiced four or five hours a day and made as much progress in one year as I had in four years at Eastman.”

a young Robert Willoughby
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

After a year at NEC, Willoughby became assistant principal flute of The Cleveland Orchestra under famed conductor George Szell. He remained with the orchestra for nine years, six of which he also spent teaching part time at Oberlin. (His master’s degree from NEC was conferred in 1949, the same year he began at Oberlin.) When the demands of working two jobs finally took their toll, Willoughby left northeast Ohio to be principal flute of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. After a year, he was lured back to Oberlin with the offer of a full-time position. In 1957, he married children’s book author Elaine “Mac” Macmann, and they settled in Oberlin for the next three decades.

A master of modern flute—Flute magazine went so far as to call him “the American grandmaster"—Willoughby was an avid performer in solo settings and chamber ensembles. In 1970, he took up playing the Baroque flute after studying it in Europe during a sabbatical year, making him among the first major American flutists to cross over into historical performance.

Willoughby was a founding member of the Oberlin Woodwind Quintet in 1950 and the Oberlin Baroque Ensemble in 1959, and he was a fixture at Oberlin’s annual Baroque Performance Institute since its founding in 1971. He was also a member of the Smithsonian Chamber Players, an ensemble that included his violinist colleague Marilyn McDonald. His many recordings have appeared on the Gasparo, Vox, and Coronet labels, among others.

Robert Willoughby playing the flute
(courtesy Oberlin College Archives)

In 1979, Willoughby was named Oberlin’s first Robert W. Wheeler Professor—a title that pays tribute, somewhat ironically, to a prominent Cleveland lawyer. (The Wheeler Professorship is currently held by voice professor Salvatore Champagne ’85.) Willoughby was widely published in Flute Talk, The Instrumentalist, and other publications, and he was a charter member of the National Flute Association, which bestowed upon him its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996.

Over the course of his career, Willoughby taught more than 200 private students, many of whom went on to enjoy standout careers of their own in top orchestras around the country and at major music schools. Gentle, introspective, and humble, he was beloved by all who knew him.

“I fondly remember his easy friendliness,” says Professor of Musicology Steven Plank. “Though professionally he was Olympian, his manner and interactions were warm, easy, and genuine, and I was very grateful for that.”

“When one hears Bob Willoughby's students, there’s almost a guarantee that no two will sound the same,” says Wendy Rolfe ’74, a professor of flute at the Berklee College of Music and a driving force behind the establishment of the Robert Willoughby Scholarship Fund. “He always encouraged us to think for ourselves and to make our own informed musical decisions.

“Bob seemed to look for potential students who had their own musical voices, and to encourage us to develop as intelligent artists. We all thought he would live forever, and we realize he does—in each one of us who was privileged to study with him and to become part of the musical family he and Mac created.” 

By 1987, Willoughby and his wife traded Oberlin for a newly built island home off the coast of New Hampshire. He taught for a decade at the Peabody Institute, flying to Baltimore each week, then transitioned to the faculty at the Longy School of Music in Boston, where he continued to teach until his death.

Willoughby is survived by a son and three grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife.

Learn more about Willoughby and contribute to the Robert Willoughby Scholarship Fund at

Robert Willoughby 90th birthday celebration photo
Bob and Mac Willoughby returned to Oberlin in October 2011 for a celebration of his 90th birthday. (photo by Jennifer Manna)


You may also like…

Peter Takács—A Half-Century Celebrated

May 4, 2024

This spring marks the official conclusion of Takács’ tenure, after an incredible 48 years of teaching. Many of his former students from around the world are set to convene for a celebratory concert in Warner Concert Hall on May 12
man seated in front of grand piano