Karen Geoghegan  -  West Calder High School to concert stage

Article in the Konect Directory, Calders edition, September 2010

With two albums under her belt and another due to be released in October, Karen Geoghegan's  music career is well under-way.  

A former West Calder High School pupil, she graduated this summer from the Royal Academy of Music in London with a first class honours degree.  I caught up with Karen in Livingston during her brief visit home this summer to learn more about the musician's life and her slightly unusual instrument, the bassoon. 

Karen Geoghegan

Karen was introduced to the bassoon in her first year at West Calder High School.  She had been playing the violin but it didn't come all that naturally to her. The school needed a bassoonist for their band and Karen said she'd give it a go, without really knowing anything about it at all.  And “everything just seemed to click into place.”  Karen wonders how many other children are struggling with a musical instrument that they are not really suited to, and how they might fly ahead if they tried something totally different.   So she dropped the violin and concentrated on the bassoon.  In fact “concentrated” is putting it mildly!  After one year of lessons with the music teacher at West Calder High School (Russell Cowieson) she joined the junior department of the  Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, which meant going across to Glasgow every Saturday for a full day, 10am – 5pm.  In addition she was playing in the school band, with the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra where she played lead bassoon and the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland.  The staff at West Calder High School were extremely supportive, which Karen appreciates enormously looking back.  She auditioned for Young Musician of the Year one year, which took place in Newcastle, and Head of Music Jim Degnan arranged a bus-load of Karen's fellow pupils to go down to Newcastle to support her, a fantastic gesture on their part.  Likewise, her family has always been very supportive without ever being pushy.  Her mum, who is a music teacher,  goes to every performance she gives.

Her first recording contract came about after she performed on BBC's Classical Star in 2007 whilst studying at the Royal Academy.   She was contacted by Chandos and an album followed quickly, which included the Hummel concerto that she had performed for the show, as well as a mixture of other pieces.  She has also recorded an album of French bassoon works, and another album is due out next month, which she finished recording in January.    “The recordings took place on two separate occasions, one in November last year and one in January.  Each time we recorded for  two days with two days of rehearsals”.  Chandos chose one of the pieces, Karen was free to choose the other three.  She has a five year contract with Chandos, so we can expect more recordings to come.  

Karen Geoghegan Chandos cover

One of Karen's missions is to promote the bassoon as a solo instrument.  It is often overlooked on concert programmes, she says, and there’s a lot more bassoon repertoire than people realise.  She is often asked to perform Mozart and Weber, and they are the most familiar bassoon concertos, but hardly anyone realises for example that Vivaldi wrote 42 bassoon concertos! 

Karen performed at the BBC Proms last year, and has a busy schedule of performances all over the country. I ask her how much work is involved in preparing a performance.  “I give myself a minimum of six weeks to prepare a performance. Obviously for a very difficult piece or one that I don't know at all it would take longer.  To play a concerto you're generally expected to play from memory and a lot of concentration is required.”

Has she ever forgotten the notes part way through a performance?  “Yes, just once, towards the end of a piece my fingers slipped and I totally lost it for a bar.  But you just keep going, it happens to everyone!” But actually she finds orchestral work more stressful. “As a soloist, you're leading and the conductor really follows you to an extent.  However as part of an orchestra you're following the conductor and it's much more of a team effort, you can't let the team down.  We're seated next to the clarinets, which are able to play very softly, a whisper really, so the quiet parts are very stressful to manage -  not to have the bassoons honking away when they shouldn't be!”

So what is she up to now she has graduated?  She's busy doing trials with  two different orchestras.  She explains that to get a place in an orchestra typically you work with them for a few months to see if you and they are a good match for each other.  She sees her career as being a mixture of orchestral work and solo performances.  “A violinist or pianist for example can make a living just doing solos, but a bassoonist would struggle to get enough work on solo performances only”.

Bassoonists often make their own reeds, as this way they can get the best sound.   The reeds are a very important part of the sound of the instrument and are very changeable. You need a range of reeds for different types of performance – for example one set for orchestral playing and a different set for solo.  They require regular adjustment.  Karen explains, ‘‘You can wake up one morning and all your reeds have changed.  Just before a performance, it's very stressful!”  You purchase the flat cane and shape, trim, file and adjust.  And adjust again. It sounds complicated.  “Oh it's not too difficult, you can do it in front of the tv!” says Karen. ‘‘But getting it just right is the difficult bit - scrape slightly too much off and you’ve ruined that reed!’’

She likes to accept requests for performances back here in West Lothian and the Central Belt whenever possible, as she explains “it’s always nice to come home, and after all, this is where it all started!”  She has a performance lined up in Perth for November.

As I write this piece up I'm listening to one of Karen's concerto performances in the background.  Far from being the honking joker of the orchestra that it is often portrayed as, under Karen’s touch it’s a beautiful rich lyrical instrument.  Congratulations to Karen for a brilliant start to her career, and we look forward to hearing more from her in the near future!

Helen-Jane Shearer  

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