Sometimes it’s hard to unravel a story of the present moment back in time to its “beginning,” and it seems that every beginning is simply the continuation of some previous moment or story, too. As I’ve pondered how to honor the life of Bob Willoughby, it seems important to wander backwards a bit, and share some of my own journey as well. For it is in sharing my own life’s meandering path that gives a fuller understanding to the impact of this great man on my own life. I am certain that if you were to ask any of Bob Willoughby’s students, their own stories would be just as awesome, and so I humbly offer my own. It is with an immense heart full of gratitude that I share this.
Just before Christmas when I was 9 years old, my grandmother died. She had been more like a mother to me at that point than my own mother, and I was devastated in ways that I couldn’t even speak about, as a child who had never known grief and loss before. One day the following spring, I rocked in the rocking chair on our screened front porch, and created (or channeled, possibly) a song for her, and ran into the house, excited to share it with my mother. Certainly deep in her own grief, I was instantly dismissed, and still remember the cut of her words, saying something like “I’m busy, and what do you know about writing a song anyway…” I was crushed.
In a few weeks, the elementary school band teacher came to our 4th grade classroom and demonstrated all of the band instruments. I knew that I wanted to play the flute from that day onward, and when summer came, we went to try instruments for the summer band program for beginners. I chose the flute, and my grandfather was kind enough to rent a flute for me to use. Within a few weeks, it was clear that I had found my joy, and my grandfather bought the flute.
As an introverted and empathic child, not only did the flute fill me with joy and beauty, it also gave me an opportunity to be in solitude each day, and by the time I was in my 2nd year of playing, I had torn through everything I could get my hands on. As other students were still finding their way in playing simple tunes, I had learned all of my major scales and could play everything in our instruction book for class. I was blessed to have one after another teacher who encouraged me, and handed me something new and challenging all along the way. I still remember a conversation with my high school band teacher in my freshman year of high school ~ he was tutoring me in the place of a flute teacher, as I didn’t have a teacher yet. He asked me what I wanted to do with my career and life, and I was already certain that I wanted to be a musician. He attempted to steer me in the direction of becoming a band teacher as well, but that didn’t land with me. In my sophomore year of high school, I finally was directed to a teacher, Tom Crawford, who was amazingly supportive, pushed me as hard as I wanted to be pushed, and pointed me in the direction of the sky, with encouragement to follow my heart’s calling.
As Tom Crawford and I pondered my career path at the beginning of my senior year of high school, it was clear that I would audition for music schools, and he suggested some of the best schools I knew about. He didn’t give me even a moment to doubt myself, and simply began to plan along with me. As other people spoke of “fallback options,” and “fallback careers,” Tom wouldn’t let me entertain anything but my real vision. I applied and auditioned at a handful of dream schools, and he coached me in my preparations. He told me that the most important part of my choice in a music school was my primary flute teacher ~ that I should choose based on who would guide me as a flutist first and foremost. Peabody Conservatory was my top choice, and this amazing teacher, Robert Willoughby, was a dream to me. I didn’t put so much energy into whether or not I believed I could get into a world class music school with such a competitive enrollment process. I just put in my time, practicing hours every day, knowing what I wanted. Financial support came from unnamed sources beyond my own family, and I was given the ability to have pre-audition lessons with a couple of key teachers, and went in person to audition at all but one of my preferred schools. As spring came and went, I began to receive letters from schools. I was wait listed at one, and accepted immediately at one, and declined admission from several others. I didn’t take it personally, and was thrilled that I would be going to music school no matter what.
In the days leading up to my high school graduation, a call came to my house. Someone from the admissions department at the Peabody Conservatory was calling to offer me admission to the studio of Robert Willoughby! I was blown away!! My dream, my first choice. I accepted admission immediately. It turned out that Peabody had space for only one or two flute students that year. I was third in line, and was called when one of the others declined. As a girl from fairly rural Appalachia, who had never heard a major symphony orchestra play, and who had never even had a flute playing flute teacher, I was stunned. Bob Willoughby had given me a chance!!
Looking back on that pivotal time in my life, I now understand that that moment was much bigger than me being accepted into a prestigious music school, or into the studio of a master teacher. It was the opportunity that led me out of my life in east Tennessee, out of the closed-mindedness, religious dogmatism, and limited career options. I am certain that no matter where I landed in music school, I would have found my way out of that, or died trying. As someone who had been gut-level uncomfortable with things I experienced during my teen years, including racism, evangelical Christianity, and the dynamic of two dominant conservative factions ~ rednecks and uber conformists ~ my creative soul would have fled somewhere eventually. But the gift of having the opportunity to study with one of the great master flutists of my time, and to do that at one of the world’s best conservatories, lit me up.
Landing in Baltimore in the fall of 1994, I was nervous, intimidated, and very shy. I had always been the big fish in the small pond of my region, and had been offered paid gigs as a flutist since I was 13 years old. But at Peabody, I was surrounded by other students who had already been competitive on a national and international level for years. Students who had attended prestigious preparatory programs, who had already been studying music theory and history, who could converse with each other about things I had only read about in books. But I held my own. Every week, I worked my ass off for my lessons with Bob Willoughby, and while I think that I missed more than I could ever hope to recover because of my own lack of understanding, I took in his teachings in a deep way. My great joy was hearing him respond to something I had done well with “jolly good!” I lived for those moments!
At the end of my junior year of college, Willoughby retired from Peabody, and I was left hanging. I was upset, confused, and too far along to transfer to another school. I spent that final year with Mark Sparks, who was also a former Willoughby student, and learned immensely helpful things that pushed me as a flutist. But what Willoughby had brought to me (and I imagine all of his students) was a gentleness, a positivity, a desire to find what was right and good, and a constant stream of encouragement. By this point in my life, I had become clear that I didn’t want to follow an orchestral path, and in the wake of such an abrupt transition, I did not pursue graduate school upon my graduation from Peabody. In some sense, I became adrift as a performer. I often wonder what would have happened if I had really leaned into my relationship with Bob Willoughby, and how he would have guided me onward ~ at the time I was so passionate about contemporary music, and as an advocate of that himself, Willoughby had made some recommendations. But without the clear guidance of a mentor, I made no move.
Now, nearly 20 years since my Peabody graduation, I can reflect back on this amazing man and the opportunity he gave me. One thing leads to the next, always. An opportunity to study with Willoughby at Peabody landed me in a creative and open environment that allowed me to question things that were always off limits before. I began to explore religions other than Christianity ~ and honestly, before being at Peabody, I didn’t even realize there *were* other religions. I began to study Earth-based spiritual traditions, Buddhism, and Hinduism. In my sophomore year at Peabody, I ended up with a performance injury, and began to explore movement meditation practices, as well as holistic healing modalities. As I moved away from the orchestral career path, I became deeply devoted to experimental music, as it offered more capacity to express and create original work. After Peabody, I began to teach and practice yoga, which led me to the path of Nada Yoga and meditation. As I moved deeper into those things, I also began to travel, which landed me on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. From there, I continued to travel and study pilgrimage and spirituality, and pursued a master’s degree that allowed me to cultivate my own creative voice through writing. That path led me to Peru and my mentors there, who have helped me to navigate the path of self-healing and transformation, which brought me full circle to music, once more.
And now, as a Sound Medicine practitioner, I lean into those deep teachings Willoughby brought to my life, the ones that create an inner sense of the shape of a musical phrase, and the flow of breathing, and the subtlety and nuance that are more energetic than overt. As I sing ~ and sometimes also play the flute ~ I know that his teachings about musicality were bred into me at a level that is below my conscious access, and allow me to create with a sense of fluidity and attunement that feel intuitive to me now, like the flow of the river. What a wild and amazing ride it is to have followed the unfolding of my path to this moment in which I can stand here in such deep appreciation for a man whose presence transformed my life!
And so, Bob Willoughby, I honor you. I honor your good naturedness, your gentleness, your respect, your encouragement. I offer my gratitude for the ways that you pushed me to excellence, and made me really consider how I wanted to express myself. I thank you for all of the times you responded to my playing with “jolly good,” and hope you know how much it brought me joy ~ it was the fuel that pushed me onward in those days. I was always excited for our early morning lessons, and amused by the few afternoon lessons in which you would occasionally drift off for a moment. As a young woman from a place with little possibility and hope, and with a huge spirit of artistry, you gave me a chance, and I hope that I always lived up to your expectations. Your wisdom, your words, your character, and your presence have stayed with me all these years, and will continue to live through me. May your journey into the realm of Spirit be filled with music worthy of your greatness, and may your own ancestors, and the ancestors of the lineage of great flutists, meet you with open arms.