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A double life: Leading flute historian and history editor Nancy Toff

By Alyssa Bender


One of our history editors here at Oxford University Press (OUP) has a unique second life. She is the author of two of our best-selling flute books on our music list, The Monarch of the Flute, recently released in paperback, and The Flute Book, a staple in the field and now out in its third edition. This editor is our very own Nancy Toff, and to celebrate these releases — as well as her receiving the National Flute Association’s 2012 National Service Award at the annual convention this past weekend — we sat down with Nancy for a Q&A.

How many years have you devoted to studying the flute?

I’ve been playing since the fifth grade. Who’s counting?

What drew you to the instrument?

In the fifth grade I wanted to join the band, all my friends were playing the flute, and I guess it was the right size.

Did you have any memorable music instructors? How did they influence your music career?

My main flute studies were with Arthur Lora, who had been first flutist of the NBC Symphony under Toscanini and of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. We had a total meeting of the minds; he recognized my historical interests early on and he structured lessons accordingly. Of course he gave me a very firm foundation in all the technical aspects as well. In college I studied with James Pappoutsakis, who taught me a great deal about sound production and orchestral interpretation. He was of the “monkey hear, monkey do” school and hearing him play for me once a week was a tremendous learning experience. At Harvard, Luise Vosgerchian was my professor for keyboard harmony, a real trial by fire, but I came away with a thorough grounding in harmonic analysis. What’s more, it was Luise who suggested that I write my undergraduate honors thesis on the history of the flute — and that turned into my first book, The Development of the Modern Flute.

I’ve heard that you attended Harvard along with a very famous cellist. Care to elaborate on that?

Yo-Yo Ma was a classmate of mine. He played as a section cellist in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra — freshman year, at least — and we played together in many concerts in the residential houses. Of course he was the soloist and I was in the orchestra. He has always been a delightful, modest person despite his star qualities — a real model for young musicians (and the rest of us).

What some fans of your books might not know is that in addition to being a leading flute historian, you are an executive editor for our history list at OUP. What brought you down that career path?

A series of happy accidents. For my very first job, I wanted to work in Washington so I’d have access to the Dayton C. Miller Flute Collection in the Library of Congress. I found a job as a picture researcher for Time-Life Books, where I learned how to publish illustrated history books. After that, I held several other music and publishing jobs in New York. In 1991 OUP hired me to set up a new department to publish history books for middle school and high school students, and for a few years I also ran the trade reference department, where much of the list was in history. I did that for 15 years, and then in 2006 I moved to the academic/trade department to publish history for adults.

The Flute Book has become a classic amongst flutists since it was first published in 1996. Have there been any moments in the book’s 15+ year history that stand out as particularly memorable to you?

The fact that the cultural historian Jacques Barzun invited me to write it certainly stands out! Through the good offices of a family friend, Henry Graff, I had gone to talk with him about the possibility of writing a biography for Scribners, where he was a literary advisor. Instead, he asked me to write a companion volume to one they already had on the clarinet. Meeting Mr. Barzun was an awesome and ultimately life-changing experience.

Then it’s always fun to hear from flutists who have used the book. They come up to me at National Flute Association conventions and they send me emails. It’s always gratifying to hear that my book helped them pass their oral exams or write their program notes or find repertoire for a concert. It’s quite amazing how often it’s quoted in doctoral dissertations on the flute.

In addition to The Flute Book, you also have the paperback version of Monarch of the Flute coming out this month. Why Barrère for your first biography?

I got to “know” Barrère through Frances Blaisdell, who studied with him beginning in 1928 and wanted to do something to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his death in 1994. I worked with her on assembling The Barrère Album, a collection of his arrangements, and did some research to learn more about him. That led to an exhibition at the New York Public Library, and I was quickly persuaded that he was a seminal figure in both French and American woodwind music, and a major figure in American musical life in general, deserving of a full biography. He had a huge influence on American flute playing and repertoire.

Do you have plans to research any other famous flutists?

Right now I’m looking into the work of Louis Fleury, Barrère’s successor as director of his Paris woodwind society. It’s too early to say if this will turn into a book, but at the very least Fleury will be the subject of several articles. The fun has just begun!

Finally, to make me feel like an underachiever, you are the archivist and past president of the New York Flute Club, have served on the National Flute Association’s board of directors, served as consultant to the Dayton C. Miller Flute Collection in the Library of Congress and the Department of Musical Instruments of the Metropolitan Museum of Art , were the curator of an exhibition on Georges Barrère at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and are the recipient of the National Flute Association’s 2012 National Service Award, along with being at full-time editor at OUP. Where do you find the time??

I make the time! Anyway I’m not the type to sit on a beach (though I do swim several miles a week in the pool). It’s a great balance — and balancing act — to have two different lives, and sometimes they overlap in neat ways. For example, one of my authors is married to a longtime member of the New York Flute Club, who owns a well-used copy of The Flute Book. He knew who I was long before I met him through OUP. Also, my travel for Oxford sometimes gets me to archives that I might not otherwise have time to visit.

And travel you certainly do! Thanks for taking the time for this Q&A, and congratulations on your award!

Alyssa Bender joined Oxford University Press as a marketing assistant in July 2011. She works on academic/trade history, literature, and music titles (and has thus worked on the marketing for Nancy’s history titles, as well as for Nancy’s own flute books!), and tweets @OUPMusic.

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Image: Nancy Toff at a signing at the National Flute Association’s 40th Annual Convention. Photo courtesy of Nancy Toff.

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One Response to “A double life: Leading flute historian and history editor Nancy Toff”
  1. [...] very own OUP history editor and author Nancy Toff won the 2012 National Service Award from the National Flute [...]

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