Flutist professor diversifying the ranks, repertoire of chamber music

By Michael R. Malone

Flutist professor diversifying the ranks, repertoire of chamber music

By Michael R. Malone
Jennifer Grim, board president of Chamber Music America and Frost School of Music associate professor, aims to continue to diversify, innovate, and expand chamber music.

Jennifer Grim, an associate professor with the University of Miami Frost School of Music, fell in love with the sound of the flute when she was in third grade and listened to it at a school assembly. She practiced and played joyfully for years, but it wasn’t until she was midway through her pre-med degree studies at Stanford University that Grim pivoted—shifting her studies and committing to pursue a career as a professional classical musician.

That transformation was so long in coming in large part because Grim, today a renowned soloist and chamber performer, never saw other musicians that looked like her across the landscape of classical music. 

“I never really thought I could become a successful classical musician—it wasn’t something my parents advocated for or against,” she explained. “I identify as Black and biracial, and I just never saw anyone who looked like me play classical music.”

Grim began teaching at the University in 2019. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, she also serves as artistic advisor and has been instrumental in developing the Frost School of Music’s involvement in Festival Napa Valley, a summer music academy for advanced collegiate musicians.

This past July 1, she was named the new president of the board of Chamber Music America (CMA) and became the first woman of color to head the organization in its 45-year history. Grim’s focus for the organization parallels that of her teaching and administrative responsibilities at the University: to encourage musicians of color to enter and sustain careers in the field of classical music and especially chamber music—her passion.

“There is an air of excitement in the classical music field, and part of it is coming out of the pandemic and being able to play again, yet also with the increased awareness of inclusivity,” Grim said. “It’s very encouraging seeing more organizations starting to hire people of color. The field is still very white, but we’re seeing progress and momentum, not only in who gets hired but also for the repertoire for these concerts.”

Grim, who earned a Master of Musical Arts and a Doctor of Musical Arts from Yale University, has performed both as a soloist and with renowned chamber ensembles around the world. She has given master classes at some of the most prestigious music schools in the country. She is the flutist of the award-winning Zephyros Winds and president of the National Flute Association in addition to her new leadership position with CMA.  

Her entrée into music, however, was resoundingly flat. When she was 6, Grim’s parents rented a violin for her to play. “I was absolutely terrible at it and knew right away it was not the instrument for me,” she remembered. After the three-month rental was up, her parents let her quit.

Yet soon after, in a school assembly, she heard an older classmate play the flute. “I thought it was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard,” she said. Soon she was taking flute classes in the band with her classmates. Within the year, the fad had worn off for her friends, but Grim was hooked on the magical wind instrument. She practiced and continued to play as a pastime. 

At Stanford, she practiced flute when she needed a break from pre-med studies. The breaks became increasingly frequent. “I realized I was doing a lot more study breaks than actually studying this subject that I didn’t care that much about and made the decision to switch studies,” she said laughing. 

On graduating with a double major in music and psychology, her flute teacher at the time urged her to apply to Yale and its music program. One of her teacher’s inspirations, a protégé of the French flute master Jean-Pierre Rampal, taught there.

“It was there where I loved playing small ensembles,” said Grim, adding that she thrived with the intimacy of playing in a chamber, defined as two to eight musicians playing together without a conductor. “When one plays in an orchestra, they’re part of a large machine that makes a powerful sound, yet when you play chamber, every voice is a soloist. So, you get to be a soloist as well as a supportive partner—that’s what I love about it. 

She admits that her musical resume was not that strong to enter the program and is grateful for the innate talent her teacher, Ransom Wilson, recognized in her. 

“I spent every waking hour in the practice room and went from being one of the weakest players to one of the strongest,” she said. “I ended up getting a chamber music career right out of Yale.”   

Grim worked as a freelance chamber music professional in New York City for several years and moved within the circles of some of the world’s best musicians. In 2007, she took at position to teach at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. There she taught and founded a chamber music series for which she brought in string quartets, wind ensembles, brass ensembles, and chamber groups to perform and give master classes, oftentimes with the music friends she had made in New York. She also won a “Teacher of the Year Award” in 2017. 

She’s especially proud to have recruited a diverse studio in Las Vegas, drawing on the Indigenous and Latino populations from the areas around the famous casino city.

Grim holds that same intention for her efforts at the University of Miami.

“My job is mostly teaching flute, but chamber music is my passion—it’s what I do as a performer the most—and I strive to attract students who are also interested in chamber music,” she explained. “I’m crossing my fingers as we come out of the pandemic and seek even more opportunities for musicians of color, looking to form new collaborations and new possibilities here at UM and elsewhere.”

Both with the CMA and through her efforts at the University, she’s also intent on creating music hubs outside of the Northeast and the historic music mecca of New York City.

Grim noted the growth in the art world through Art Basel and other artistic organizations and said that she believes the same opportunity exists in music.

“We have the Arsht Center and other venues, and there is potential to create hubs for chamber music in Miami, though not just here but also more hubs across the country,” she said. She’s intent, too, on fostering collaboration with emerging groups and musicians coming out of local schools, especially those who are often overlooked. 

To diversify the student music base, she is intentional about venturing to schools that are often disregarded because of the neighborhoods they serve. The long-followed formula of recruiting young musicians from only the highest performing schools is flawed, she noted.

Grim thinks back to an experience she had years ago when she visited Cheyenne High School, a Title One school in North Las Vegas. 

She remembered that the students observed her curiously and listened intently to her talk and then one little girl spoke up: “I’ve never seen a black professional flute player before.”

“That was maybe five years ago, but I remember it clearly,” she said. “It reminds me that I have to keep doing this. Again, COVID has made things more difficult. But that’s something I want to do here in Miami as well—recruit from all over the community.”