An Interview with Catherine Chen, Principal Bassoon of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
"The bassoon is a very difficult instrument. It’s an underrated instrument to begin with and not many people know what it is outside of the music world. I like to compare bassoonists to unicorns. They’re highly desirable but there are so few of them."
- Catherine Chen
“Assured and startlingly lyrical, [her solo] signaled an orchestra-wide philosophy”
- Philadelphia Inquirer
“Elegant, buttery tone“
-The Shepherd Express
“One rarely hears the Mozart bassoon concerto and, for that matter, rarely hears bassoonists performing concertos. Chen’s performance was a lovely reminder of the lyrical and technical possibilities of the instrument. She played with a polished, warm sound, full of color and nuance…the cadenzas, which she had written, revealed some technically pristine, wonderfully musical playing”
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Catherine Chen began her musical studies playing the piano at the age of four and the cello at the age of five. She moved with her mother and siblings to the United States when she was six years old, and continued playing both piano and cello until beginning to play the bassoon at age fourteen. She started her bassoon education under the tutelage of Joyce Kelley, former Principal Bassoon of the New York City Opera, and went on to study with Marc Goldberg, former Associate Principal Bassoon of the New York Philharmonic at the Pre-College Division of The Juilliard School. Catherine later received her Bachelor of Music from the Curtis Institute of Music, where she studied with Daniel Matsukawa, Principal Bassoon of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Currently, Catherine is Principal Bassoon for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, holding the Muriel C. and John D. Silbar Family Bassoon Chair, a position she has has held since 2017 at the age of 24.
We had the chance to interview Catherine Chen in February 2022.
BB: Hi Catherine! It’s such an honor to have the chance to interview you. As someone who is also Asian American, you’ve been such an inspiration to me, and I'm sure to many others. You are such an amazing bassoonist, and thought it would be wonderful for younger bassoonists to know a little bit more about you. Can you share a little bit about your childhood and when you started playing the bassoon?
Catherine: I was born in Taiwan and I came to the US when I was six years old. I started my musical training with piano at the age of four and the cello at the age of five back in Taiwan. I didn’t start playing the bassoon when I was about to start high school at the age of fourteen. Every musical experience I had was a teachable moment for me regardless of what instrument I was playing. Having played the piano and cello only helped me become a more well-rounded musician.
BB: What made you decide to switch to bassoon?
Catherine: I was about to start high school and I wanted to join the band. My siblings were in the band program and I wanted to follow in their footsteps, but I had been playing the piano and cello all this time. The high school band teacher recommended that I play the oboe or the bassoon. I picked the bassoon and fell in love with the instrument. Of course, it was difficult in the beginning, but I kept at it and was excited to improve and see where it would take me!
BB: What do you think makes the bassoon different from other instruments?
Catherine: The bassoon is a very difficult instrument. It’s an underrated instrument to begin with and not many people know what it is outside of the music world. I like to compare bassoonists to unicorns. They’re highly desirable but there are so few of them. The bassoon is often portrayed as the caricature and considered the “buffoon” of the orchestra. Furthermore, the bassoon is the most vulnerable instrument in the orchestra because it has the most difficulty in terms of projection. Other instruments’ sounds like the clarinet or the trumpet for instance, will carry through in a hall much more than a bassoon would. The bassoon has a sweet and mellow tone that plays in the bass and tenor range and when playing with higher sounding instruments, the bassoon sound often gets blended in with other instruments’ sounds. We can make up for it with clear articulation and by creating resonant colors with our sounds to the collective sound. One typically cannot pick out the bassoon in the orchestra unless one knows what to listen for and/or if there’s a major bassoon solo in the piece. It may seem like there is a lot going against us bassoonists, but my life’s mission is to show how beautiful the bassoon can sound!
BB: What is life like as a professional bassoonist?
Catherine: With any kind of job, it comes with a lifestyle. As a professional bassoonist, I spend most of my time working on my craft and making reeds. To be able to play at a high professional level every week, the most important thing is to have comfortable reeds to play on that allows you to play your best with the highest expression. Having confidence in my reeds gives me the confidence to produce great performances.
Hand-crafted Professional Reeds made by
Catherine Chen, available on her website.
BB: What do you think are the biggest challenges today for young musicians considering the bassoon?
Catherine: I think there are two big challenges to playing the bassoon. The first of course is the reed making. Eighty percent of our playing is our reeds. That’s why double reed players are constantly making reeds, because we want our reeds to be the best representation of us as a musician. Secondly and most importantly, it is very easy to play the bassoon and let its undesirable tendencies be known. A huge part of our job is problem solving and figuring out ways to play the bassoon musically to convince the listener of its lyricism.
BB: Do you have any tips on bassoonists when they are starting off on bassoon?
Catherine: I remember when I started playing the bassoon, the biggest challenge for me was learning all the fingerings and making them become a part of my muscle memory. Many of the fingerings can be awkward. All of the keys have different shapes and sizes and every bassoon’s keys are placed differently. There are nine keys just for the left thumb and four (sometimes five) keys for the right thumb. At first, it can be very overwhelming, but with time and consistent practice, you will become more and more comfortable. Fun fact - the bassoon is the only other instrument besides the piano and harp that require all ten fingers. For someone who is starting on bassoon, or younger bassoonists wanting to progress further on the bassoon, I would recommend listening to orchestral recordings and to just enjoy all the wonderful and beautiful bassoon moments that we have for inspiration. I would also work on bassoon pieces that gets you excited and makes you want to learn them. Most importantly, do it because you love music and you are passionate and tremendously interested in it!
BB: That's so cool. I had no idea that the bassoon is the only other instrument besides piano and harp to require all ten fingers! I'm sure many musicians who may be considering the bassoon or just be starting off on their bassoon journey will find all of the things you've taken the time to share really valuable! Thanks so much Catherine for making the time for this interview!
For more information about Catherine Chen, including her background, projects, and videos, please make sure to visit her profile page.