Rumbles have been going for years now and started to really rattle the skies this year at the ICES Convention. People look at the Certification program and seem to have a few thoughts and misconceptions. My earlier blog, Certifiable, answered questions for some, but did not touch on the things that I have now heard about. My favorite comment is that the Certified Master Sugar Artists (CMSAs) think that they are gods and that these elitist people are trying to keep others from joining their ranks. The belief is that we are making the test harder. There are a number of beliefs that are being whispered about. I am going to tackle as many of those beliefs as possible and will try to address whether they are myths or facts. As always, this is just my opinion and not a statement from the certification committee, adjudicators or program.
Belief: CMSAs think they are Gods and want to keep others out of their “club”.
Myth. In any group of artistic folks, there may be some who are arrogant and some who are insecure. There may be some who are confident and some who are unsure. I can state with no doubts in my heart or mind that those of us who adjudicate WANT people to pass. We want people to achieve their desired certification levels. This year, there were two people named Certified Sugar Artists and one named Certified Master Sugar Artist. I can tell you that every adjudicator I spoke with was heartbroken as we watched people struggle throughout the day. Many of us were exhausted and nearly in tears…it hurts so much to not be able to give people the marks they needed to reach CSA or CMSA. For me personally, it was one of my hardest days ever at convention.
Could we have just overlooked what happened that day and just given people awards based upon the level of work we knew they could produce? No. The integrity of the program depends on us not giving someone the certification just because we like them, or know they’ve done great work at cake shows. How fair would that be to the people we do not know? I remember an incredibly talented M. Anthony Pena taking the test last year. The majority of us had never heard of him and were not familiar with his work. He was on the same playing level as Chef Mark Seamon or B. Keith Ryder -who were well known, award winning decorators. All were judged on their work solely on test day. Anthony not only passed with flying colors, he became the youngest to ever achieve CMSA status. Mark and Keith were named CMSAs also…based upon what they did on test day. No one gets a free pass to certification.
Belief: The test gets harder every year.
Myth and Fact. The first two years of the test, there was very little information for the candidates. The Candidate Handbook was written the third year to try to answer all the questions people had about what met standards for each of the techniques. In spelling it out, the committee tried to define exactly how many inches of extension work (for example) was required. In some areas, the test now requires more than when I took it. Is it so much more that I feel I could not still pass the test? No. Very little changed from last year to this year in the handbook. The clarification of standards cannot explain how 8 people get CMSA one year and only one the next.
Belief: The adjudicators keep changing the test.
Myth and Fact. The test itself, and the base requirements have not changed to any great extent. As we use the handbook and answer questions from candidates, we find that we need to clarify parts of the book. Perhaps the rule said one thing and the frequently asked questions section said something different. In the end, the rule is the law and the inconsistent question response has to be discarded. We learned that the FAQ section did not help as much as we wanted, so we are simplifying that to only give the rule. Sometimes, as we see someone choose a technique and recreate it on test day, we find that we can require LESS on test day. Sometimes we find that we should see MORE, depending on the point level of the skill. In the end, we are tweaking what I think are minor things, to make the test better and clearer.
I spoke with one candidate who did not receive certification for her pieces. She said she found that everything was covered in the handbook. The information IS in there, but we keep finding that many people still don’t read it.
Belief: There was a bad crop of candidates.
Myth. I actually had people say this to me this year, including some folks who hold a certification of one type or another. I absolutely disagree with this. Of the five testing years, two have had a lower number of candidates achieve certification. Each of the years with lower certification rates, people experienced problems early in the day that just put them behind. It was part environment, part timing choices they made and part things that just seem to go wrong on any given day. How many of you have baked a cake the same way as every time before, only to have one fall…for seemingly no reason? How many times have you cooked sugar or melted chocolate, only to find that you overcooked it? Have you ever over beaten your icing? Accidents happen.
This year’s candidates were great. Many of them wrote exceptional, ambitious plans. Many of them decided to go well beyond the minimum requirements. Most of them practiced. A lot. They just had a bad day. They are not bad decorators. They are talented, and brave and should be respected for standing up to take the test.
Belief: If I take the test, I have to do sugar work. Or extension work. Or Lambeth.
Myth. There are several dozen techniques available for selection. You must choose 8. You must have at least one technique from each point (difficulty) level you pick. If you are strong in figure modeling or piping or sugar work, you can weight your test toward your strengths. In my Girlfriend’s Guide, I tell people to go through and mark the techniques they know how to do. I tell them next to mark what they know how to do Really Well. Choose your techniques from that list. If you choose techniques hoping to impress us that you have tackled a bunch of harder techniques, you may run out of time. No one is going to make you do something at which you do not excel. Remember, we want you to succeed. That is why YOU pick.
Belief: I need to know how to do every technique to take the test.
Myth. You must know at least 8 techniques very well. Very few decorators, if any, can excel at everything on the list. That being said, however, most who achieve CMSA status are probably more familiar with the bulk of the techniques than the average decorator.
Belief: If I can do 7 techniques really well, I can sign up for the test and learn one more technique before the test day.
Myth and Fact. You probably CAN do that, if you practice hard enough and study with someone who excels at that technique, but I do not recommend that. This probably isn’t the time to self teach yourself a technique -remember you are being held to the accepted standards. A teacher can help you identify those. Watching a YouTube video might give you pointers, but without an instructor there to tell you your hand is in the wrong position, you might not ever achieve the standard. If it is important enough to you to take the test, then it must be important enough to you to prepare properly.
Belief: Icing the cakes in buttercream or rolled fondant is the easy part of the test.
Myth. Sadly, this is a problem for people. If you have ever spent hours smoothing a buttercream cake for a bride who has no decorations on her cake, you know what I am talking about. Every time I have seen people struggle with icing a buttercream cake, I ask if they are using their usual icing. The vast majority say no. Why would you enter a race and wear your friend’s shoes? You wouldn’t. This is the time to work with things within your comfort zone. Some people made their buttercream at the various convention sites, only to discover that shortening they purchased in that state has no trans fat and their icing worked differently. Some people’s recipes were too loose. Some were too stiff. You have to adjust to the conditions of the city and room that you are in.
While covering in fondant goes better, I am still surprised at the troubles people experience. It reminds me of my experience in law school. I always studied really hard in the difficult classes and would get an A. I would blow off the easy classes and would not get the “Easy A” that everyone else would get. On certification day, everything matters. You can not blow off icing the cakes!
Belief: Some adjudicators are easier, or score higher, than others. Some adjudicators are the mean ones, or score harder.
Myth and Fact. I am sure that I am considered to be one who gives people higher scores. I have thought that some adjudicators scored low. As I have been rotated to work with different people, I have learned that we are all exceptionally consistent in our scoring. If one person considers an 8 to be a strong score, they will consistently give 8s for the same level of work from technique to technique, candidate to candidate. The scores actually come in pretty closely together between the three adjudicators. I would say that the comments written are really similar! Since we are judging against the same standards, we tend to notice the same problems. I firmly believe that passing work under one team is passing work under any team.
Belief: Everyone takes the test because they want to be a CMSA.
Myth. This surprised me. I have spoken to some candidates who say that they took the test just to see how they would do. Others take it to push themselves. I had assumed that everyone who signed up would be highly motivated to pass the test. It turns out that I should not assume. (Don’t we all know this?). My husband asked why we cannot be sure that the people who take the rest really want to pass it. I simply cannot think of how we would determine that. We have to believe that everyone is there because they want to try to pass.
Belief: ICES should stop giving the test until everything is nailed down.
Myth. This is a five year old program. Let’s compare it to any of the sports in the Olympics. Every year, the rules are evaluated for World Cup competition. Every four years, changes are made to the rules for the Olympics. It isn’t to make it harder or to lower scores; it is to keep up with the changes from the athletes. Degrees of difficulty change in diving and gymnastics as new techniques are developed. Likewise, people are always experimenting in the sugar arts. We want to stay current and be sure that our requirements reflect what is truly achievable. I believe that there will always be slight adjustments to the test, but that they are made for good reasons. I think that people who choose skills they are good at have a really good chance of achieving certification.
My conclusions after this year? These candidates did the best they could do on test day under the circumstances. Would some of them change their icing, technique or design? I think so. Will they take the test again? Most that I personally spoke with said they would be back. Do I believe certification is beyond any of this year’s candidates? Not at all – they each showed talent and tenacity and I think that on any given day, the results could have been different. I still believe they are all to be applauded and respected for testing themselves in such a difficult manner. They are my heroes.