Remembering the Genius of Tom Nyfenger

Remembering the Genius of Tom Nyfenger
Originally Published April, 2011
The New York Flute Club Newsletter

It has been 30 years since we lost Tom Nyfenger. His passing left a void in both the world of performance and in music education. It is not often that a world-class player is also a world-class teacher but Nyfenger was precisely that! He was that rare bird who could play at the highest musical levels possible and could also explain and defend every note in his interpretations based on sound musicological and physiological truths. Blessed with a phenomenal ear for hearing pitch and harmony, great inner rhythmic sense, enormous theoretical knowledge, and a brilliant technique, Nyfenger could detect any weakness in a student’s musicality. In addition, his pianistic ability allowed him to play the keyboard parts to any flute sonata or concerto and he would often demonstrate improvisational skills that would result in accompaniments to a single-line work at lessons. (He would often create piano parts for JeanJean Etudes or Telemann Fantasias on the spot.) In essence, Tom Nyfenger was the equivalent of a world-class jazz player contained within the body of an internationally acclaimed classical musician.

He was the flute world’s “answer man”—the flutist everyone would go to address musical and technical problems that their regular instructors (often famous players) were unable to solve. It didn’t matter if one were the principal flutist of a major orchestra, a woodwind doubler, a relative beginner, or an adult returning to the flute after many years, he was always willing to teach those who were serious and committed to improvement. His ability to diagnose problems and find solutions by employing the elements of music, the laws of nature, and common sense along with a desire to share his thoughts and ideas, made him a most valued player/teacher in the New York music scene for three decades. His students have included such prominent players as Michael Parloff, Marya Martin, Keith Underwood, Julia Bogorad, Linda Toote, Philip Dikeman, Susan Palma-Nidel, Patricia Spencer, Aralee Dourough, Adam Kuenzel, Valerie Potter Alan Cox,  Eddie Daniels, etc., among many others.

For those of us who had the good fortune to know him personally, his desire to discover and explore new means of musical expressions combined with a determination to achieve musical perfection made him rather unique. He would often play two or three different flutes from different historical periods at a recital in order to explore more tone color possibilities and to approximate the stylistic aspects of a particular composition. He could be tremendously generous, warm, a prankster, and the most supportive person one could imagine when a student accomplished a new technique. It must be also said that along with these traits he was overly sensitive, child-like, vulnerable, unable to accept any mistakes, and sometimes impossible to be around. All of these combined to make him a beloved, tragic, Shakespearean-like figure. His death at age fifty-four mirrored that image.

A number of  years ago when I began to assemble papers that Tom had written in the 1980s in the hope of creating a second book of his thoughts and ideas (Beyond The Notes is a sequel to his 1986 publication, Music And The Flute), I found it extremely difficult. This was not because of the actual musical philosophies and examples yet to be compiled but rather the image that he portrayed and the examples that he set with regard to the study and performance of music. It felt as if I was working to convey and justify the thoughts of someone who was larger than life, the flutists’ Superman. While this may sound melodramatic, anyone who knew him well or studied with him would agree.

In order to get a more complete picture of the man, I thought it appropriate to include a brief biography and some anecdotal remembrances from former students and colleagues.

Tom Nyfenger (1936–1990) was a native of Cleveland, Ohio, and received his formal music training at the Cleveland Institute of Music from which he received BM and MM degrees. He was the first wind recipient of the Beryl Rubinstein Memorial Scholarship and an Artist Diploma in performance. A very competent pianist who also played bass, he began his flute studies in high school with Maurice Sharp. After a brief stint as solo piccolo player with the Indianapolis Symphony (1961–1963), he moved to New York City in 1963. He quickly gained a formidable reputation as a free-lance player and teacher. Ultimately, he was hired as a regular member of the New York City Ballet Orchestra and began long-term associations with the Aeolian Chamber Players, the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, the Festival Winds, and the New York Woodwind Quintet. He served as the principal flute of the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, the New York Chamber Symphony, the Mostly Mozart and Casals Festival Orchestras, and the New York Chamber Soloists. Other prestigious work included collaborations with renowned string quartets such as the Tokyo, Guarneri, Composers, Fine Arts, and Lenox, as well as the Lincoln Center Chamber Ensemble, the New Baroque Quartet, and the Midnight Bach Concerts. As an educator, he taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Sarah Lawrence College, Vassar College, Rutgers College, S.U.N.Y. Purchase College, Queens College, the Mannes College of Music, the Manhattan School of Music, Oberlin Conservatory, and Yale University, where he served as chairman of the wind department. He also maintained a private teaching studio in New York City. Throughout his lifetime he was a frequent concerto soloist, recitalist, and in-demand studio musician, and clinician. He was involved with the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival for many years as the flute teacher and a chamber music coach. He recorded for the Columbia, CRI, RCA, Nonesuch and Delos record labels.

Keith Underwood is an internationally renowned flutist/teacher who studied with Tom Nyfenger at Yale while pursuing a Masters degree.

Early in my first year [at Yale], I was playing a Telemann Methodical Sonata for him when he told me, ‘You have a lot of facility but you’re going to have arthritis in both hands by the age of 27 if you keep shoving the flute into your face every time you get louder. See that angry red mark on the side of your left finger?’

Gulp…. I asked how to avoid that unhappy fate and he told me to alternate two notes (low ‘F’ and low ‘G’) slowly while getting louder and softer, paying attention to making the dynamic changes with no increased hand pressure. Sounds simple buuut… many of Tom’s insights, it was straight to the point having to do with technical independence and musicality, was very difficult to master (still working on it!), and changed my life.

Paul Dunkel, principal flute of the New York City Ballet Orchestra, conductor, and a long-time friend and colleague of Tom Nyfenger, offered these thoughts on Nyfenger’s abilities and influence.

Everyone knew Tom had a great ear for pitch and tone color. He also had a great sense of humor. He combined those talents in his ability to mimic just about every flute player in New York City. This wasn’t so easy to do because in the 60s when Tom arrived in town, there were so many different flute styles—it would have been a lot easier for him now and he (and we) wouldn’t have had as much fun. The folks in the Philharmonic didn’t play like the folks in the Met; the folks in the NYC Ballet didn’t play like the folks at NYC Opera; and there were all those freelance flutists. Tom could do us all and it would be hilarious. Occasionally it would be brutal but we’d laugh anyway.

The same talent made it possible for Tom to infuse his playing with many colors and subtleties. (If you can get his recording of the Debussy Trio you’ll know what I mean.)
He had a ‘sixth sense’ ability to blend beautifully with the other members of a woodwind section because of an uncanny ability to get into the other players’ sounds. He was always the one doing the blending, totally unselfish. He could pick up the intonation “quirks” of players sitting around him—i.e. if the oboe was sharp on the F#. (Aren’t they always!) Tom made no big deal about it and adjusted accordingly. Oh, you might hear about it later over a beer or martini, but on the job nothing was ever said and there was no complaint. And the other player was so happy, deliriously pleased with his own intonation. How many times did I hear this: ‘Nyfenger has no problem playing with me, what’s the problem.’ Well, the problem was that Tom was kind of a freak when it came to rapid tuning adjustment. I don’t know any other wind player who had that facility.

Since Tom came out of the Taffanel-Barrère-Kincaid-Sharp school—he had a ‘way’ of doing things. He had conviction about the tradition of his lineage but was not afraid to experiment. In fact, he questioned approaches to pedagogy so much that he felt it necessary to create his own methods, some of which were revolutionary. Through his own curiosity he taught people to teach themselves.

Loren Glickman, bassoonist, musical contractor and longtime colleague of Nyfenger, had this to add about his experiences working with him.

Although it has been quite a few years since Tom Nyfenger’s passing, my recollection of both his personality and his playing remain as strong as if he were still with us. Tom and I were professional colleagues in various free-lance orchestras in New York. I think I remember him most vividly when we played regularly with the Mostly Mozart Festival and with the New York Chamber Orchestra. Tom’s artistry, his beauty of sound, and his technical facility are qualities which were truly astonishing in their presence at all times—be it in orchestral concert, chamber music, recording sessions, or simply in rehearsal.

I had the good fortune to play with many great flutists of my days, among them: Jean-Pierre Rampal, Julius Baker, John Wummer, Arthur Lora, Murray Panitz, Harold Bennett, and Paula Robison. I loved the playing of each of these artists. But the flutist who touched the depths of my musical soul over and over and over, was Tom Nyfenger.
Not only was his beautiful sound ever-present, it came to this listener in such a variety of ways that I was forever amazed to be witness to his artistic modifications. Darker or brighter tone quality, faster or slower vibrato, phrasing always different, always enveloping this listener. Tom was for me the flutist who had everything to offer, and was the quintessential greatest flutist in my experience.

Flutist Alan Cox played with Nyfenger in numerous freelance orchestral and recording performances and became a close friend of his. Here are his remembrances.

Thomas Nyfenger was the best and closest friend I have ever had. He also was a towering multi-faceted musical genius, who, as he liked to say, happened to play the flute.

We spent a great deal of time together, and it was my great good fortune and a continual inspiration and joy that we performed together often, as we were for many years the flute section of the New York Chamber Symphony. I never formally took lessons from Tom, but the life lessons that I learned sitting next to him in the orchestra changed my whole approach to the flute, and over the years I asked him many questions that he always answered insightfully.

Beyond the amazing musical aspects of Tom (aka ‘The Nyf’), I would like to share some humorous memories of him. Anyone who knew him also knew that he had a highly developed sense of humor.

He was easily able to do absolutely convincing imitations of many other flutists, not only in sound and style but also visually, in the form of admiring slapstick. The most impressive was of Marcel Moyse, specifically of Moyse’s recording of the Mozart G Major Flute Concerto as recorded on 78 rpm, complete with a huge persistent scratch and a gradually slowing turntable.

One time I asked him why a certain conductor we were working with was always criticizing both of us, seemingly not noticing many other problems elsewhere in the orchestra. His answer was immediate. ‘He can only read the top line of the score.’

Alfred Hitchcock once said, ‘The pun is the highest form of literature.’ Tom was a true master of puns. At a party in San Francisco, he improvised a series of puns that exploded like a volcano, one growing from and topping the one just before. This continued for easily 30 minutes. He had us literally rolling on the floor in breathless hilarity. I wish I had taped this!

He referred to Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival as Mostly Moe’s Fault.

He owned a Saab, which he called ‘my sob story.’ He did spend an awful lot of time commuting in it…

Between two rehearsals of the New York Chamber Symphony, a bunch of the woodwind players went to lunch together. Along with Tom and myself, the others were Steve Hartman and Jeff Winter, who were playing second clarinet and bassoon. As was the custom of those long-ago days, we all had a couple of martinis. As we were leaving to go back to work, Tom said, ‘Well, we’re starting with Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. Good thing we’re all playing second!’

Susan Palma-Nidel, a former student of Nyfenger’s, is principal flute of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and professor of flute at Montclair State University.

I had just graduated from Juilliard with my Masters, starting to freelance in New York but not very happy about my flute playing. My good friend, Erich Graf, mentioned this ‘guy’ Tom Nyfenger. So instead of changing careers, I decided to visit Tom for a lesson. And yes, for the first time here was someone who not only played beautifully, but could explain with words and with flute why and how it works. And then he explained why it didn’t and what I could do to make changes. He was brilliant, inspiring, serious and very silly. I had lessons on a weekly basis for over a year. It simply changed the direction of my musical life.

Later, I found out that the apartment in which I have lived since the mid-seventies was Tom’s former New York teaching studio when the tenant was oboist, George Haas. George and Tom were friends and colleagues in the NYC Ballet Orchestra and the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. When on the phone with Ed [Joffe] about the article, I mentioned this. He said ‘Oh, I remember coming to that apartment for lessons. You live there?’ I am certain that all those vibes are still floating around here, 30 years later. It is a lovely thought.

Finally, I’d like to add my own anecdotal thoughts. During the sixteen years that I knew Tom (It was always “Tom.” He detested the need for formal titles that others of lesser talent would demand—maestro, professor, Mr., Dr., etc.), there were many instances I can recall that provided a perspective of him as a unique individual and talent. However, my favorite Nyfenger anecdote occurred during a lesson in the late 1970s. As a woodwind doubler, I had been trying to learn his approach to embouchure and attempted to implement that approach on the job. I would make progress when practicing the flute but then would revert to old habits when having to play the flute along with saxophone and clarinet at work. At the lesson, he asked me to demonstrate what I was talking about. I began to improvise on the saxophone prior to picking up the flute. I had finished just one chorus of the tune and before I knew it, Tom was at the piano playing the correct changes! I did not play the melody of the tune (One Note Samba) or announce the tune beforehand. Rather, he heard the changes through my improvised line and could immediately relate it to the keyboard. I then attempted to show him the problems as it related to switching to the flute from the clarinet. Here, I played the opening movement of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto on Bb clarinet. (It’s written for “A” clarinet.) Again, he was at the piano within seconds of the opening statement playing the reduced accompaniment, perfectly, and in the key of Bb major instead of the original key of A major! After getting through the first page of the exposition, I had to stop. This was too much. I asked him if he had ever studied the score and the response was typical Nyfenger: “No, but I’ve heard the piece before and I know the style.” This was only one instance where he demonstrated his great ears, theoretical knowledge and piano chops. And, oh yes, he solved my problem within a few seconds after I stopped playing: “You’re burying your bottom lip [allowing it to move toward the bottom teeth] when playing the flute after the saxophone and clarinet—Don’t!”

I know I speak for many when I say that he is dearly missed. I still think of him every time I play the flute or listen to accomplished flutists in person or on recordings. Suffice it to say that the current day tendency of conservatories to have their flutists focus primarily on orchestral excerpt performance in order to win a job at the expense of developing the total musician would have been unthinkable to Tom. No one has filled his shoes since his death and I doubt that anyone will in my lifetime.

*Here’s a link to a March 2021 article in The Instrumentalist magazine written by a former student of Tom’s entitled “Thomas Nyfenger, More Than a Flutist.” I think it is a fine description of Tom’s talents as a player and teacher.

Thomas Nyfenger, More Than a Flutist


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