From Music to Marinara, and Cadenzas to Canapes

My Unscientific but Delicious Study into the Revelations and Correlations between
Cooking and Composing.
Two Things That Got Me through the COVID Lockdown
By Robert Sheldon


It’s morning, but what morning?  Another day like yesterday; a day that ends in “why?”


Life has changed.  Dramatically.  For the past several years I have been really busy.  Too busy perhaps.  Composing, conducting, and flying all over the place to do those things.  Life was a blur of airports and concerts.  Time was measured in passport stamps.  And then…




If there was anything that made that any less weird, it was that EVERYONE was going through some version of that – everyone on the entire planet.  That doesn’t make it any easier, but it seems to make it less…  personal?


Someone recently asked me what I was doing with my time to get through this truly horrible period in our lives.  Somehow I had never really thought about that.  I was just going through the days, and weeks.  And months.  Then I realized that, come to think of it, I had indeed been quite busy.  I took stock of what I had actually been doing – writing a book, redesigning my website, and writing music.  And cooking.  LOTS of cooking.  It was then that I had an epiphany – I never cook for “just” me.  If my husband is not going to be home for dinner, I will just subsist on whatever reveals itself when I open the refrigerator door.  But when he is here (which is nearly every night – yay!) I cook.  And it is not just a quick meal.  I like to make things from scratch.  I plan it out the night before or early that morning, and being the type “A” person that I am, the planning comes complete with a schedule, graphs and flowcharts.  I might be writing throughout the morning, or doing Zoom conferences all afternoon, but peppered throughout the day might be a trip to the kitchen to monitor a homemade soup or sauce simmering on the stove, or dough rising before shaping it into loaves or rolls, or a cake getting ready to remove from the oven and cool.


Apparently I enjoy cooking, perhaps because it is actually a lot like performing only with more immediate gratification (and calories).  No matter what, the show AND the meal must go on!  People have been given a specific time for the event, and they are going to show up hoping for something really tasty.


First is the selection of what is on the menu.  You want variety, of course!  A nice appetizer, a yummy salad, an interesting entrée, delectable side dishes, and a dessert that makes you want to say, “Wow - that was really good.”  That is much like planning a concert – an opener to whet the appetite, followed by a series of varied and appetizing pieces, and a closer that makes the audience want to come back for more. 


And then there are the non-food elements to the meal – the lighting inside and outside the house, running the vacuum and dusting, the dishes and glasses chosen, the napkins or place cards selected, the location of the charcuterie and cheese plate for appetizers, the flowers or candles, perhaps even the background music.  And that is much like the preparation for a performance with the attention required to consider and attend to the appearance of the performance hall, stage and lobby, dusting and polishing the piano, proofreading and printing of the programs, making sure the lights, air/heat and microphone are working satisfactorily, and the preparation of any announcements from the stage.


When preparing a meal, there is much to consider.  Do you have all the ingredients?  Is there time to get everything prepared before the designated dinnertime?  Do all of the various courses actually work together?  It is a lot like planning a concert.  Do you have all of the resources to play the piece (soloists, instrumentation, ability of the players, and percussion equipment)?  Is there adequate time to rehearse the music?  Do the various pieces work to create a cohesive program? And all of this is also very much like writing a piece of music, planning for a good opening that captures the attention of your audience, something truly memorable thematically, rhythmically or sonically, followed by some appealing development that leads to a satisfying conclusion.


And then there is the all-important element of timing.  Everything being cooked must be finished at the same time, and that also needs to be at the right time, when everyone is ready to sit down for a meal.  And that is a skill as well as an art form.  No matter how good the food is, if the entrée is ready an hour earlier than everything else, or if everyone is seated for dinner, but one of the side dishes needs an additional 45 minutes, you will certainly not achieve the denouement you were going for.  And isn’t that similar to the preparation for a performance?  You can’t really announce at the concert, “Hey, I am really sorry, but the clarinets really need another 45 minutes of rehearsal before we play this next piece.”  As was stated earlier, the meal AND the show must go on!


There are many more similarities we could discuss, but beyond the meal and concert planning is something more personal.  People who love to cook, love to cook for other people.  Much like we, as performers, want to perform for other people.  If you think about it, a concert without an audience is really just another rehearsal, and although rehearsals can (and SHOULD) be satisfying and inspirational, the performance is hopefully something… special.  I think that is because performing and cooking are both gestures of love.  We share a bit of ourselves through the joy our cooking and/or music gives to others.


During this lockdown, performing has had to be put on hold for the most part, but cooking has been going full-throttle at our house.  I may not be able to visit friends for an evening, but I can deliver Cinnamon Rolls or French Apple Cake to their front door.  We may not be able to go out for dinner and a movie, but I can drop off a batch of Lemon “Brownies” or a loaf of Portuguese Cranberry Bread to a neighbor.


So, these days I have temporarily traded my baton for my Bolognese, and instead of reading scores I am reading recipes.  Rather than chatting with colleagues about various teaching techniques and literature, I am having discussions with my stepson about the merits of sous vide and benefits of bone broth.  I am very much writing, and still a composer – just a very well-fed composer, worshipping at the temple of Ina Garten.


Like everyone else, I am hopeful that a vaccine will provide the world with a way out of this nightmare.  And when that happens, I hope, as all of you do, that we can get back to some semblance of normal.  But I doubt any of us will ever again take what we had before COVID for granted.  I hope we can all return to having rehearsals and concerts, and in-person discussions over adult beverages, and that we never forget how wonderful it is that we can actually DO those things again! But until that happens, you will probably find me in the kitchen, sometimes conducting a Beethoven Symphony with a spatula, and working on my Italian by viewing a recipe from Il Rifugio Perfetto on YouTube. 


Best of luck to us all, and I look forward to seeing my friends and colleagues in person sometime – hopefully soon!  I might even invite you over for dinner  😉