William Kincaid
Grandfather of the American Flute School

Early Years

William Kincaid was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1895. It was a time when metal flutes were coming into vogue in the US, replacing their 19th century wooden counterparts. Faure, Tchaikovsky and Mahler were actively composing. It was the year X-rays were discovered, the Nobel Prize was established and the first movie theater was opened in Paris.

Young William left home in 1911 and headed to New York City where he attended both Columbia University and the Institute of Musical Arts (better known today as Julliard). While there, he studied under the legendary Georges Barrère, finishing his studies in 1913. If you do the math, you’ll see that Mr. Kincaid entered two of the Big Apple’s most prestigious institutions at the tender age of 16 and completed his studies two years later. Was he exceptionally gifted, or were the times very different? Perhaps a little of both. At any rate, Mr. Kincaid found himself in New York City with his musical credentials in hand at the age of 18.


After leaving school, Kincaid took a position with the New York Symphony playing second flute next to Barrère who played principal. Kincaid moved on to the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1921 where he was principal flute until his retirement in 1960. Some years later, after Kincaid’s departure, the New York Symphony merged with the Philharmonic Society to become the New York Philharmonic in 1928.


In addition to a distinguished career on stage, Kincaid was a long time faculty member at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Curtis is an extremely elite school only accepting the most promising students, all of whom attend on full scholarship. With an enrollment of approximately 165 students, Curtis is considered the most selective school in the US. Kincaid joined the faculty in 1928, a mere four years after the school was established.

During the course of his long teaching career at Curtis, Kincaid taught many talented students who went on to have distinguished performance and teaching careers. Some of his more notable students are: Julius Baker, Robert Cole, James Pellerite and Elaine Shaffer.

Grandfather of the American Flute School

William Kincaid is sometimes referred to as the Grandfather of the American Flute School. By this, it’s meant that the majority of flute players today can trace their musical ancestry to Kincaid. You’ve heard of the Seven Degrees from Kevin Bacon? This is seven degrees from William Kincaid. It’s likely that your teacher had a teacher who had a teacher who was a student of Kincaid (give or take a generation).

Where do I fit in? I’m his pedagogical “great granddaughter”. My college flute professor was Ernestine Whitman who studied with Robert Cole who was a student of Kincaid’s. He’s also my great great grandfather. (Admittedly the flute family is a little inbred.) Ms. Whitman also studied with Paula Robison who was a student of Julius Baker who was a product of Papa Kincaid. My other grandfather, Michel Debost studied with the legendary Marcel Moyse. Amazing, I can almost feel the royal flute blood coursing through my veins.

Our familial closeness to so many great flutists is not surprising when you consider that the greatest performers are often prolific teachers as well. Their best students go on to teach at great music schools producing other outstanding performers as well as many strong amateurs. The amateurs like me play in community bands, orchestras and churches and teach in schools and studios everywhere.

Want to learn who’s in your flute family? Visit The Flute Geneology Project and see what you can find out about your musical ancestors.

Platinum Flute

Kincaid owned a very special Powell flute. His instrument featured a solid platinum body and silver French style open hole keys. Originally created for display at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, the flute was purchased afterwards by Kincaid. The headjoint sported the Trylon & Perisphere logo, symbol of the ’39 fair, engraved by Verne Q. Powell himself. It’s said that the flute was under armed guard throughout the fair as it was so valuable.

Shortly before his death in 1967 Kincaid gifted the famous flute to his dear student, Elaine Shaffer. Unfortunately, Ms. Shaffer only outlived her teacher by six years, succumbing to cancer at the age of 47. Eventually the flute made its way to Christie’s where it was auctioned off in 1986. The successful bidder was noted chemist, author and art collector Stuart Pivar who paid an astonishing $187,000 for his prize. It’s said that Mr. Pivar was accompanied by artist Andy Warhal the day he successfully bid for Kincaid’s flute. Today this famous Powell resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and has the distinction of being the most expensive flute in the world.

William Kincaid died on March 27, 1967 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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