All afternoon and from inside his parent’s house, as Bill and I sit outside in the comfort of lawn chairs talking, trumpeters one after another run through their scales, do re mi fa sol la ti do, over and over again. The notes drop from the open windows like fall leaves from the trees. It could get annoying, it doesn’t, and after a bit the repetition becomes soothing.
I reach out and flip open the lid on the large orange ice chest. Into the ice laden water goes my hand and it quickly goes numb. I fish out a cold beer, pass it to Bill then promptly repeat the fishing expedition for myself. It is easy to look forward to the time Bill and I spend with each other, we have known each other a long time, and besides at the very least it is always nothing short of unforgettable.
Like today, my friend and I often sit in lawn chairs out in the grass just a few feet from the back porch of his parents’ house. Sunglasses shield our eyes from the bright sun until it finally tucks itself behind the steep hill that rises upward at the back of their yard. Even then the sun won’t actually set for another hour. So the landscape becomes a black wall of matchstick trees lit by the yellow glow of evening right up until the sky burns out and the back porch light kicks on. Mostly, Bill and I sit and talk a lot about nothing but we do it well. Even so we manage to garner a few epiphanies over the years, some shared, some not, this one wasn’t.
As a high schooler I hated running scales while practicing the trumpet. I thought they were pointless, boring, and stupid. I should be practicing the music, memorizing it note for note, if I want to play it well. But sitting here, two or three beers into my thoughts, remembering what an awful trumpet player I really was, all of the sudden, all these years later, I understood, I got it.
Bill’s dad was a world class trumpet teacher at the university. He is retired but he still gives lessons to advanced students. His biggest lesson, the one he repeats over and over again, the one I heard him tell his last student for today, “if your mind leaves the sound of the horn, obstacles will appear.”
I have heard Bill Sr. say it so many times before but today it hit me differently, it’s exactly what we don’t do when we teach people how to cook. We give people a recipe, much like a piece of sheet music, and expect the cook to be able to play. While we know there are those that have the skill set there are many, many more who don’t. We try to pretend it doesn’t matter, it’s just a recipe after all but it does because the cook never builds the skill set to play at a level satisfactory to their own liking. Hence obstacles appear which prevent real enjoyment. I’ll wager it happens in cooking all the time.
And in this is where the conundrum lies.
I count myself lucky in that I honed my kitchens skills for years in a commercial environment. I can never fully express how much the experience has added to the happiness I feel when I am in the kitchen. Simple things like cutting onions for onion soup might take me minutes while others are in tears for hours, or maybe because I sautéed boneless skinless chicken breast by the thousands I know when they are just the right color of brown and that anymore coloring will make them chewy and dry and how with the push of my fingertip I can tell when they are no longer pink in the middle but still juicy and edible without fear of food born illness.
I don’t think of anything I do as special but I know sometimes friends look on with amazement and wonder while I look back at them through my own naivety as if everyone knows how to do these things.
So the question for me becomes how do I translate my joy to others, how do I create a desire in others to build the skill set needed so they can create the kind of food they like to eat, create it with efficient, quality results and excitement.
It is frustrating for me in moments such as this, not because it makes me mad but rather because I love being in the kitchen and I want people to share in this same joy while being in theirs.
When I started cooking I copied, to the T, recipes of every famous chef and cookbook author whose food I liked. I cooked from cookbooks day-in and day-out. Even when I am cooking full time at a restaurant when I come home I turn around and cook at every opportunity. At first it is hard to build the confidence to cook even with step by step directions at my side but as I progress my fear of cooking without any guidance diminishes. I am convinced my abilities improve because I learn solid cooking technique until I know how to sauté, braise, roast, grill, and poach. My knife skills improve and I work on plating. I want nothing more than to learn to cook.
My style at first is a conglomeration of all those I mimic until one day my style of cooking just “is”. It is easy for people to tell whose food they are eating and before long I find myself edging up to the stove and cooking from experience. I don’t even remember the day it happened because it just did.
I wasn’t born a chef. I started out life as a photojournalist and I never thought I would be anything but but when I decide I want to learn to cook I dive in head first, I expect to come out with a filthy apron, I am passionate about it, and I know I won’t stop until I am good at it.
5 thoughts on “The Music Lesson”
Excellent read! So encouraging! Thank you!
This is so good. I want to read it every morning. It is a great reminder of a life truth.
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This is fantastic, Tom. And beautifully articulates how you became the cook you are. And gives me confidence that with enough practice, some day…
This is great! I heard your tone all throughout! I was there with you while reading. Watching you poke the chicken breast! Smile!
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This is such a special read and what I have found myself re-reading (is this even a word?) often. As always, thank you for sharing and I beg you (yes I meant BEG), please don’t ever stop writing and posting.