A Lesson In Improvisation And Jargon From A Cooking Show

Improv lessons from a cooking contest show

If you’ve ever watched a cooking competition show – you’ve probably seen some real world improvisation.


The Challenge

  • Contestants have an imposed time limit
  • They have an ingredient(s) they have to use
  • There is a mandated outcome – something that has to be done

How is this not improvisation?  You have a skill set that you need to employ to navigate a series of changes that may or may not be unfamiliar to you.

So how do they get through it?


The Approach

  • Emphasis on fundamentals.  The chefs have the confidence to execute because they have the basic skill set to do what they need to do.  They have a command of knife skills, cooking techniques and have a developed palate to work from.  These are basic things – using a music analogy – there’s no obscure chord scale or advanced reharmonization happening here – just using the fundamentals as a basis to establish an area of comfort and familiarity from.
  • Emphasis on repertoire.  They have a number of other dishes that they’ve mastered to serve as a template for what they want to do.  If you’ve cooked several thousand past dishes and someone says, “I need you to make me a pasta dish” you’re not going to freak out because it’s in a comfort zone.  If you quote tunes in your solos or comping – you quote tunes that you know so well that you can adapt elements of them at will.  Those trills you use on that klezmer tune you play every set – works their way into a phrase, etc.
  • Adaptability and creativity.  This is really a combination of the two points above.  There’s a constant stream of  plays on things, “This is my play on mac and cheese.”  Previous dishes that are mastered are used as launching points for new innovations.  From a guitar standpoint – maybe those string skips you developed to get that piano solo under your fingers you liked are now being used in a different context for your thrash solo.
  • Being in the moment.  They taste their food.  They monitor multiple components and adapt as necessary.  It may be the closest analogy to improvising a solo over a rhythm section for a tune you’re unfamiliar with.  You listen to the drummer, and the bassist and whoever else is playing and while you create music that enhances that.


What the unsuccessful chefs have taught me, is that an approach that works for one thing may not work for everything.   “Oh I want to wow the judges, I’d better use Truffle oil.”  which may or may not work in an ice cream.  I heard an mp3 of Eddie Van Halen jamming w. Holdsworth once and it was grim – because he was just doing the Eddie thing over Holdsworth’s comping and it didn’t work at all.  It sounded like the bleed through of two guys in adjoining practice rooms working on something different at the same time.

When you’re in some kind of timed artificial event (i.e. they’re forced to improvise) – this approach makes sense.  When dealing with something unfamiliar you go with what you know.  You pull out the well-worn licks that have worked their way into your vocabulary. That’s also when you find out just how well you know something.

It’s not just about learning licks to play over ii-v->I’s – improvisation is a mindset as well – if you look for it in sources outside of music – you will find things to adapt and bring into your musical improvisations. It  brings something different to the table than someone who’s learned every Coltrane and Bird lick and nothing else.


And now as an example of what not to do: A drinking game

I don’t drink – but if you do and you’re looking for a drinking game here it goes.

  1. Turn on the Food Network.
  2. Take a drink whenever someone says , “Big Flavors” or “Flavor Profile”


You’ll probably be drunk in an hour.  It is basically impossible to watch the Food network and not have someone talk about the merits of “Big Flavors” or on some dish’s flavor profile.

And what do these terms mean?  Is there anyone out there trying to cook with small flavors?  And “Flavor profile”?  Really?  How about just calling it “taste” instead?

The thing is, this jargon has been hijacked by foodies and now it’s difficult to watch anything regarding cooking and not hear those terms.  My beef with jargon is that it should serve the function of simplifying a process through language and instead typically acts in an exclusionary manner.


Music and jargon

When I did my undergraduate degree I had to take several classes that dealt with post tonal theory.  As a starting point, what does “post tonal theory” mean to anyone other than a composer or an improviser?  Can you imagine seeing a CD cover with a label on it that says, “Now with Post tonal Theory!”?  In terms of accessibility to the layman, it goes radically downhill from there.  Where some of the music created with this mindset is vibrant and exciting, the language and jargon around it explains what’s going on only to those in the know.  It makes no attempt to make inroads to the causal listener, and statistically there are way more music listeners than post tonal theorists.

Music is a language and like any language if you break away the accessibility of it, you doom it to oblivion.  In the 1950’s people still actively studied Latin – it was even taught in high school until it was pushed further and further into the realms of academia (I know Chronicle of Higher EducationAcademe is the new preferred jargon – but academe is a poor shell of a word), and now is only taught in a increasingly fewer places.  It transitioned from a vibrant language to a patchwork of quoted phrases thrown out as part tricks.

The same thing happened to post tonal music.  Inside the hallowed halls of academia, there is a compositional indoctrination that occurs; a self-congratulatory high-five for music that is performed in student recitals to crowds of 10.  The theoretical language that is posted to describe these works often reads like a combination of a repair manual for a 1950s radio delivered with the melodramatic sincerity of an adolescent journal.  Taken on its own merits, it reads as intellectually aloof and emotionally underdeveloped and seems to be defensive before anything has even been sounded.

If the first thing people are exposed to is inaccessible, why would they take the effort to go on?  True, academia tends to support projects and approaches that reinforce the need for academia (i.e. peer reviewed journal entries that are so topic and jargon specific that only other academics will bother to read and understand (read: scrutinize) them); but this doesn’t help make the music more accessible.  It brings up the question of,


Is it music if no one hears it?

Sure it can sit in a drawer or live on a cd.  But if no one is listening to it being played is it music?


Music requires a performer and an audience.

Like any conversation it requires a speaker and a listener, and the magic is neither in the speaking or the listening – but in the communication itself.  If there’s no listener, there’s no communication, and no music.  This doesn’t mean that quantity equates with quality (it’s not a contest about how many listeners you have) iit’s about being inclusive rather than exclusive.

Just a thought…

Thanks for reading.