Taking thoughts captive

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Location: Midwest, United States

Favorite smells: mown hay, turned earth, summer rain, line-dried laundry

18 December 2006


After nearly 35 years of cooking for my husband and family, I improvise a lot. I don’t take time to look up every recipe or carefully measure every ingredient. Since I’ve prepared many family favorites so often, I simply pour in a little of this and add about so much of that. And I sometimes avoid a trip to the grocery store by substituting an ingredient that I have on hand, such as using green beans rather than celery in hamburger soup. My cooking improvisations work because I have a basic knowledge of complementary flavors and I have years of experience.

But my oldest son’s cooking improvisations were not so successful when he was young. On days when the children were home while I was at work, he was in charge of his three younger siblings. They often talk about the meals he used to serve them. Being a rather scientific and highly creative young man, he frequently added ingredients—sometimes a lot of very odd ingredients—to foods he was preparing for lunch. Of all his creative efforts they remember, the curry-flavored mac’n’cheese is most frequently and fervently mentioned. I believe that even his loyal canine friend wouldn’t eat it.

My son’s early cooking improvisations weren’t as successful as my current improvisations because he didn’t have the necessary knowledge and experience.

My cooking improvisations work because, during the early years of our marriage, I spent a lot of time consulting cookbooks and following recipes. And even at the conservative estimate of one meal per day over the last 34 years, I’ve cooked over 12,000 meals. That’s a lot of cooking experience.

When one thinks about improvisation, jazz naturally comes to mind. I don’t know much about jazz, but I’m confident that it takes more than creativity to successfully improvise. It takes a thorough knowledge of music and it takes extensive time spent practicing the instrument.

William Edgar is an expert on jazz. In his book, Taking Note of Music, he laments how technological advances may contribute to a lack of the necessary skill and discipline for improvisation. He writes, “Ironically the great availability of different styles, and the ability of electronics to expand sounds in an almost infinite number of ways, may tempt us away from acquiring personal skills and disciplines” (p. 13). He relates the concern of jazz pianist Oscar Peterson about the dwindling number of competent pianists able to improvise, which Peterson attributes to the availability of electronic keyboards capable of producing so many sounds that young pianists no longer spend hours practicing their scales and arpeggios.

“In a word,” Edgar writes, “music is being reproduced today more than it is being produced” (p. 13).

One can’t take shortcuts with improvisation in jazz or in cooking. Improvisation works best when it is based on knowledge that comes through study and experience that comes through diligent practice.


Blogger Doug Roorda said...


With three children who have been heavily involved in the Jazz Band program at Pella HS, I can say you (and Bill Edgar) are spot on regarding improv and knowledge. I used to think that the criticism of jazz as being unstructured had some validity but as we've learned about it as a family I've found that even if founders of jazz may have thought it was a way of 'breaking free' it is in fact highly structured and requires an intuitive knowledge of musical structure to be able to understand.

Merry Christmas, and to your postman husband, too!

Doug Roorda

12/22/06, 10:00 AM  
Anonymous John said...

One of the things that intrigues me about jazz is that you'll find the same song recorded by (perhaps even literally) a hundred different artists, and it sounds recognizably different each time.

You won't find that happening with much of today's pop music, but it sure happened with yesterday's.

Some of that has to do with the complexity of the music ("I've Got You Under My Skin" is far more complex and mature musically than "Hit Me Baby One More Time"). But a lot of it has to do with the skills and musical maturity of the performers.

Merry Christmas, Glenda & Dave!

12/23/06, 1:59 PM  

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