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Perseverance Pays Off, An Interview with Flute Talk Competition Winner Jennifer Binney

Flute Talk Editors | June July 2021

   Jennifer Binney, winner of the 2000 Flute Talk Competition, once hated the flute. "The piccolo was my first love after a high school band visited my school and I heard it played. Every day I begged for a piccolo until my mother finally gave in. We went into a local music store and asked to try a piccolo, but the owner asked if I meant the flute. When I insisted on playing piccolo, he stated that I had to learn to play the flute first, an idea I adamantly opposed. We started to walk out of the store when he relented and found a piccolo for me."
   Binney proudly showed the piccolo to her father but couldn’t get a sound out of it. "Within five min­utes my father produced a great sound, which made me furious. I locked myself in my bedroom and didn’t come out until I could get a sound. To this day our standing joke is that he could play notes before I could. Before every contest or performance he asks if I want any reminders about how to play." At age 9 Binney began studying the piccolo privately with a local flute and piccolo teacher. There was no band in her small grade school in Wisconsin, and she was quite content to simply play the piccolo.
   After two years and with braces on her teeth, Binney was forced to switch to the flute. "I absolutely hated the flute because it was big, clumsy, and hard to blow compared to the piccolo. I used to bang my flute against the headboard of my bed because I hated it so much. The headjoint had a row of dents that matched the dents on the headboard. I wanted my piccolo back."
   Binney studied with Jackie Trettin for four years until she moved away. "In retrospect I realize that my first teacher was very good. I still have notebooks of hand-written examples and exercises. She even taught me music theory."
   A later teacher, Cynthia Stevens, introduced Binney to method and etude books. "I had no clue what she was talking about. Then she asked if I knew all of the scales. I replied that I had learned these years ago and didn’t play them anymore because I was beyond that point. She began teaching me scales and wanted to hear two octaves of major and minor scales in one breath by the next week. I never worked so hard in my life. It was a challenge to memorize all the scales in one week."
   Stevens marked Binney’s progress on a chart, and over the next three years filled in the gaps in her technique. "Because I didn’t want her to think that I was incapable of anything, I worked very hard. Some things came naturally, such as vibrato. I had no idea how I did it; it just happened, and we never talked about it. For a long time I had a singer’s type of vibrato, beginning a note with a straight tone and gradually adding vibrato. This is wonderful for an effect now and then, but is not suitable for everything."
   By her junior year in high school, Binney audi­tioned for Robert Goodberg at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, who put the wheels in motion for a full scholarship. "I breezed through my senior year of high school and did not worry about taking more auditions or filling out other applica­tions. My home was only about 30 minutes away, and it was important to me to be close to home, in Menomonee Falls." She commuted to college. "Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if I had pursued other options, but I wasn’t ready to move away from home. When it was time to work on a graduate degree, I was ready to move away." As the eldest of three children, Binney is the only musician. "One brother played saxophone in high school, both played some guitar, and my father played the accor­dion, which embarrassed me greatly when I was a child."
   Majoring in music was not even a consideration for Binney because she was trained to be a ballerina and also studied tap and gymnastics. In high school she injured her knee severely in a modem dance class. This stemmed from a birth defect, and doctors told her to stop dancing or end up in a wheel chair by age 30. "Although I danced through high school, I decided to pursue music. When I had to give up dance it was hard to become enthusiastic about another course. Not until after some hand surgeries did I realize how important the flute was to me. It wasn’t simply something to pursue in place of danc­ing but had become an integral part of my life. Now I truly believe that I would not have been as happy in dance as I am playing the flute."
   This year was Binney’s fifth experience with the Flute Talk Competition, having placed second in 1995 and fourth in 1996 and 1998. Since 1995 she has been a student of the renowned master teacher Walfrid Kujala at Northwestern University, where she is now studying for a doctoral degree after com­pleting a masters degree there in 1996. Last year she didn’t make it to the semifinal round and almost didn’t enter this year. "Last year I put the tape together rather half-heartedly at the last minute. I thought it would be good enough, but it wasn’t. This year has been so busy that I didn’t even tell Mr. Kujala that I had prepared a tape." However, the tape was wonderful, and she placed third in the taped round. She prepared the music without listening to a recording of it and booked a hall for the recording session. "I basically learned the music by studying it without playing. Later I taped myself and analyzed what sounded good and bad and relied on my instincts more than anything else."
   In both the semifinal and final rounds Binney played with dynamic contrast, changes in tone color, and good musical expression. Binney learned to play expressively by listening to recordings of music in various styles from opera to Latin jazz. "One of the hardest things was to learn to trust my instincts and to learn the boundaries of what is too much or not enough. I have also learned to take risks, knowing that if I didn’t make that extra push, I would never get ahead. If you play conservatively, it shows. I would rather risk cracking a note than wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t taken a chance."
   Binney finds that it becomes harder every year, not easier, to compete. "Knowing what to expect should give me more confidence, but I have found just the opposite to be true. It takes more guts to come back each year, especially when friends have high expectations. I didn’t want to let anybody down, including myself. With experience I now realize the control it takes to play at a high techni­cal and musical level. With different judges each year the circumstances changed and another group of judges may have chosen other players. When I made it to the final round the first time I was elated . to place second. The next two years I probably tried too hard to play conservatively and should have taken more risks. I was too worried about cracking a note. This year I decided to have a good time and go for broke. It worked."
   Because of her hand surgery, Binney had to take time off from practicing the flute and became profi­cient at learning music by studying the score and practicing it mentally. "I began to understand how the flute part interacts with the piano or orchestra. I developed a good system to learn music. I wouldn’t recommend hand surgery as a way to figure this out but this system works and ultimately saves time."
   It is physically impossible for Binney to practice five hours a day. "I spend time thinking about the music without playing. Many flutists feel guilty if they don’t put in long hours; but if they practice scales without thinking about how they sound or how to correct problems, they are simply going through mechanical motions. I don’t have the lux­ury of so much time, which would damage my hands, but I have learned that my system is a more efficient way to practice."
   Binney teaches and freelances in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas and occasionally plays as an extra in the Chicago Symphony. Recently she turned down a call from the Chicago Symphony because she hadn’t practiced while sick with an upper respiratory infection. "If I get out of shape briefly, I can regain everything quickly; but I would rather be healthy and play well than to risk a mediocre performance."
   After going through music in her head, Binney listens more carefully and associates "a pitch I see on the page with a pitch I hear in my mind. Only within the last few years, during my recuperation when I could not play, has this become clear. I had nothing to lose by trying this method of learning the music." When asked about how well this works for tongue and finger coordination on technical passages, she says, "These have to be worked out, but the overall phrasing and shape of a piece are most important. I learned these by studying the score." Although she can easily hear melodic pro­gressions when reading a score, Binney admits that some harmonies are more difficult to hear in your head than others. "More things are predictable in Mozart or Bach than in 20th-century repertoire. I have recently worked on Schwantner and Taktakishvili and can visualize the phrase shapes, but cannot hear the unusual harmonies in my mind until I hear the piano part."
   Some flutists feel comfortable playing from mem­ory. Binney does not and uses memorization as a tool to learn a work. This she says stems from her early training when memorization was not required. "In high school I had to play from memory for some competitions, but it was probably more tactile (fin­ger) memory than auditory. With experience we focus on the music, not just how the fingers are moving. Even if l know a piece perfectly from mem­ory, it is a security blanket to play with the music." Most musicians rely on different types of memory, from aural to tactile and photographic, and Binney incorporates all of these elements when practicing. "I know how the music feels, what it looks like, and how it sounds. It takes great concentration for all three aspects to work together."
   Binney makes a conscious effort to bring out dynamic contrasts, but this aspect of her playing has become obvious only in the last couple of years. "I have tested the boundaries and pushed the softs to be as soft as possible and fortes to be as loud as possible. The markings on the page aren’t enough. In the Taktakishvili, for example, the dynamic markings are scanty, especially in the second move­ment. If a flutist only follows these markings, there will not be enough contrast and the interpretation will be pretty bland. It takes a lot of creativity and imagination to play musically." The aria in the Taktakishvili is one of the most beautiful move­ments in flute literature, and Binney learned to shape phrases by listening to string players. "All woodwinds have to breathe, but pianists and string players do not. Wind players sometimes lose the element of continuity that other instrumentalists can convey more naturally because the line is not interrupted by the breath.
   "Flutists often ignore their noisy breathing or take too much time for a breath. In the Bach Partita, players frequently add extra beats to take a breath. All flutists should listen to the Bach Piano Suites to hear the musical flow that comes from not interrupting the line with a breath, then emulate that on the flute. Breathing should be quick and inconspicuous." An advocate of sniff breathing, Binney remembers the huge leap of progress she made by taking little catch breaths between eighth notes. "I could play longer lines and not interrupt the musical flow with a huge breath."
   Breathing can also improve by tape recording practice sessions and listening critically every day. "Mr. Kujala requires us to tape record our lessons with him. I remember that in the first few lessons my breathing was quite noticeable, and I worked to improve it. Breathing should be efficient and silent. Good breathing is the most important aspect about flute playing; without it a flutist cannot develop a proper embouchure or tone quality."
   Although singing also helps flutists improve breathing, phrasing, and natural expression, Binney does not call herself a singer. "This year, however, I taught my students how to play and sing at the same time. This technique helps players feel the vocal cords and open the throat. When I sing to demonstrate, it shows that if I am willing to make a fool of myself, then they should feel at ease to sing." Her great great grandfather was a child soprano, quite a well-known prodigy who had the leading role in several operas. "When his voice changed, he turned to a barbershop quartet, but everyone says that I inherited my musical genes from him."
   Binney’s ensemble experience includes playing in the orchestra, wind ensemble, and chamber music ensembles during college. "My woodwind quintet was coached by Barry Benjamin, who taught us how to listen to each other. All the instruments of a woodwind quintet have different timbres and pro­duce sounds differently, so listening and blending is important. The woodwind quintet is the center of the orchestra as well, and players improve their orchestral playing through chamber music." Her many musical experiences as principal flute in col­lege forced her to work hard and build confidence.
   After graduating Binney went directly to North­western for her one-year master’s program, then took a year off before working on her doctorate. She finished her course work and passed all of the exams a year ago and is now writing a paper on the development of the woodwind quintet and its repertoire. "It’s a crazy combination of instru­ments, unlike a string quartet that uses the same method to make tone. I have been researching how the five instruments came together to form the medium of a woodwind quintet, yet dropped out of the picture for about 50 years before enjoy­ing renewed popularity."
   Her theory is that Anton Reicha’s quintet com­positions were overplayed and people grew tired of hearing the same old music. The renewed interest in quintets stems from new, more interesting works that feature each instrument as both a solo voice and a blending instrument. "This topic is a logical choice for me. I didn’t want to write yet another paper on the history of the flute or an in-depth analysis of some work." She anticipates completing her work by June of 2001.
   Binney’s ultimate goal, if she could have it all, is to teach and still perform. Besides teaching, which she loves, she performs and is not willing to give up anything yet. "It would be heavenly to land an orchestral job somewhere near an ocean and form a quintet and play chamber music 24 hours a day. I am keeping my options open and have broad inter­ests. If I were to teach at the university level, I might not have time to teach beginners. I love when their faces light up the first time they produce a sound. It is important to form good habits from the very beginning and keep the students enthusi­astic. I simply want it all."
   Binney’s quintet, comprised of former members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, performed regu­larly in 1997 and 1998 in Chicago-area schools with funding through the Civic Orchestra’s out­reach program, MusiCorps. "Our concerts included lecturing on music and the instruments. It took a lot of preparation to present ourselves well, both for performing the music and speaking; it was a chal­lenge because both take breath control, and speaking causes the mouth to dry out."
   Binney also plays in a flute and guitar duo with her boyfriend. "It is a winning combination. We enjoy such works as Beaser’s Mountain Songs and Villa­Lobos’s Sextet for Flute, Guitar, Harp, Celeste, Saxophone, and Oboe, a work by Ravi Shankar, Piazolla’s Tangos for flute and guitar, and other recent works such as Takemitsu’s Toward the Sea. It’s fun to find new music. The audience is drawn into the softer dynamic of the flute and guitar combina­tion and the delicacy of the musical interplay." They have also transcribed the Bach Sonatas, which are "somewhat watered down in the accompaniment, but the slow movements work really well."
   Researching repertoire is one of Binney’s favorite pastimes. "I enjoy sorting through stacks of unfa­miliar music at the Northwestern Library and checking out 15 pieces to sightread. Last year I per­formed ten works that no one had ever heard of before on a recital."
   Although Binney enjoys flute, she still loves the piccolo. "The day I got my braces off I went to the bank, emptied out my savings, and headed over to the music store. I plopped the money on the counter and pointed to a beautiful new piccolo: ‘I want that one!"’ Binney’s love of the piccolo is one reason she studied with Kujala. "He always has some special trick or fingering. Lessons with him are inspiring, and I owe so much to him."
    In Chicago and Milwaukee Binney is particular about the jobs she takes. "I have no interest in playing with poor community groups that pay $50 a concert. This is not musically rewarding and is generally a distress­ing experience. I would rather get together with a few friends to play chamber music."
   At Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire she teaches 13 students a week plus several private students. "This year I set up a scale contest for students. As they learned scales of one to three octaves and several variations on each, I marked this on a chart, which created a little competition among students. In January I set up a challenge with 28 extended tech­niques. They thought some of this was just for fun but everyone’s tone improved because they practiced more." She adds, "Students at this school are quite advanced in a strong music department that includes five bands. I wish that I had such experi­ences as I grew up, but I am living proof that perseverance pays off!"

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   Since 2012, Jennifer Binney Clippert has been an Associate Professor of Flute at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Northwestern University.