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The Pie'd Piper Experience

Mar 9, 2021, 09:54 AM by National Flute Association

By Adam Eccleston

This is probably not your average ‘Pied Piper’ read, so brace yourself! As a cake designer and professional flute player, I found over the years that the two are quite in sync (minus the calories, of course). All jokes aside, the common cake ingredients are equivalent to the common tools needed in music. Flour, sugar, butter, and milk equate to a musical clef, notes, dynamics, tempo, and so on.

My passion for cake derived from my mother, my maternal grandmother, and my paternal great-grandmother Willy Ruth Gales, who lived in the segregated South where food was highly celebrated. Willy Ruth was known for her sweets, specifically her coconut cake! I remember watching her make the cake at around seven years old, filled with admiration. I remember her saying, “This is Love, grandson. This is how we stayed alive all of those years: through food, culture, and our community.”

When I realized I had a niche for baking, I found myself doing a few things that, in retrospect, have taken my flute-playing to a new level. I’m officially a Pie’d Piper, and I want more people to join me in the kitchen as well as in the performance space.

I will guide you through the Pie’d Piper experience (I feel like a shirt logo could be on the horizon) through cake and music! But to make this a teaspoon more interesting, I’m going to treat this article like we’re on “Shark Tank” to convince you that the Pie’d Piper experience works. Imagine the low brass shark tank tune that happens in the beginning, followed by the large doors opening automatically, and there I come with my Pie’d Piper pitch:

Adam Eccleston Pied Piper Experience
Photo by Max Aslett

Sharks, or better yet, my fellow Pie’d Piper candidates, have you ever felt like you can’t play a phrase filled with subtle nuances? Have you ever looked at a sheet of music and said, “Ain’t no way!”? Have you practiced many hours only to find that as soon as you hit the performance stage, your heartbeat races, your breathing is shallow, and you’re trembling all over? Well, this is for you. Welcome to the Pie’d Piper Experience! I will walk you through the process of cake creation and identify baking-inspired strategies that will alleviate some of those horrible experiences. 

Laying the foundation
First, you’ll need baking materials and a recipe. (I suggest my rich brown butter cake recipe.) Think of this step, which is filled with exact measurements and timed mixing and baking, as time in your practice space. Practicing slowly with clear intentions is equivalent to taking exact measurements and mixing the ingredients. During this stage, you are examining the textures and consistency to ensure a nice soft and sweet finished product. If the batter is too runny, you’ll need to add a little bit of a stiffening agent like flour, or if it’s too thick, perhaps a liquid agent like milk. In music, this is the step where you ensure your notes and rhythms are correct by using the truth-teller apparatus (also known as a metronome to a select few). 

Finishing touches
Once the cake has baked and cooled, stack and crumb-coat your cakes with the merengue. Now, we begin working on my favorite part: decorating! This is where your creative ideas come into play. However, before your brain goes into ‘unicorn candyland euphoria,’ I want you to focus on your breathing, slow breaths in and out while using slow movements. This ensures a stable hand and shows that you, not the tools, are in control.

If you are already a cake expert, you can set a timer during this stage to keep your mind focused while under pressure. When it comes to piping, keep your hand as stable as you would keep your airstream. Remember, good posture ensures solid results in your piping skills and flute-playing as well. I suggest breathing in a similar musical pattern as you pipe your design.

Here’s a little food for thought: I had a difficult time phrasing the second movement of Martinu’s First Sonata. I happened to be making a birthday cake at the time, and I had the piece in my head while I was piping an intricate design. The subtle movements of my hand and the beautiful piping tip helped me contour a rich musical phrase that I later applied to my flute-playing, and it worked.  Who would’ve known that Martinu was a cake genius!

Keeping perspective
Lastly, when it comes to mitigating the intimidation factor of learning hard music, like Chant de Linos or a Berio Sequenza, or even a Telemann sonata for novice players, think of the end result. Imagine a beautiful cake on a pedestal, which requires a laundry list of exotic ingredients and instructions. You instantly feel intimidated, right? Take one step at a time. Don’t let it kick you in the bundt!  

So, what do you say, Pie’d Piper candidates, are you ready to turn up the heat and whisk up everything you’ve been taught? Are you ready to take that luscious music baking experience to the next level? Then jump on the weirddough pan! (And don’t worry, there are vegan and dairy-free options too!)

The joy I get from baking doesn’t come close to my love for the flute. However, both use the same part of the brain, encompassing emotions, nostalgia, creativity, executive functioning, and more. Through my great-grandmother Willy Ruth and other beloved family members who enjoyed baking, this is a homage to their love and wisdom that continues to shine through me when I play the flute and whip up a Savarin!