Learning to Breathe


I grew up in a trailer park. We never had a lot, but I rarely knew I didn’t have it all. I loved the place, especially the pool. I learned to swim in that pool, watching the other kids. I was like a fish. I swam as often as I could, practiced holding my breath under water and swam as though I had no fear. Put me in a lake and I was just as confident. I always considered myself a good, strong swimmer.

What I did not realize until I started really paying attention to the Olympics and until I started training with a swim coach for a triathlon is that I was only a recreational swimmer. I never took classes at the Y or with the Red Cross like many children, so I never learned the fundamentals of swimming. The lack of those basics never would have bothered me were it not for signing up for the Tri.

My sweet coach Ryan is trying to now break me of fifty years of bad habits. He is trying to retrain my brain with the fundamentals. If I did not have a lifetime of doing it wrong, I probably would have picked up his lessons much faster. Like Pavlov’s dog, my body has been conditioned to swim in the least efficient position there is. I always swam freestyle with my head out of the water. I never learned to put my face in the water then to turn it to breathe. My first training sessions resulted in me swallowing a lot of water or, blowing air out when my head was out of the water, turning my head down into the water and realizing that I had forgotten to breathe IN. Crap. Let me choke on some more pool water.

I was driving back from the Pearland Day of Sharing in Texas and I was thinking about my swim lessons. I suddenly realized that this was the perfect analogy for my blog I have long wanted to write about self taught decorators. It is truly odd how often I find parallels between my cake life and my “regular” life. You see, I was a self taught swimmer. I was firmly convinced that I rocked swimming. I had never had anyone tell me I swam wrong, nor did they criticize my form or its results.

I think this is true for many self taught decorators. What they are doing works for them. They wear it like a badge of honor…”I am SELF TAUGHT!” Almost like they are better than folks who take classes. I am sure that I said that a time or two, also. After all. I didn’t have money for classes, so I bought books and studied them. I taught myself to do figures through Anne Pickard’s figure modeling books. I taught myself flowers through Jill Maytham’s black and white flower book. I sat on the front row of demos and watched relentlessly to see how things were done. If we had had YouTube, Pinterest and online cake classes, I would have been addicted.

My friends and family thought I was incredible. They were always so complimentary, even though I now see they were just being nice to me sometimes. When I walked into my first Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show, I took one look at the cakes there, turned around and was headed back to my car. My husband asked me where I was going. I tried to explain that the cakes inside scared me….I couldn’t even imagine how to do those things! My joyful oblivion ended the day I saw just how much I didn’t know. It was on that trip that Rob and I both saw the benefit of studying with someone who knew more than me.

My friend Peggy Tucker says she laughs inside a bit at the term, self taught, because invariably people have watched videos, read books, watched Buddy, Duff or a cake challenge. People rarely learn cake decorating in a vacuum. Instead, their school is just one with virtual teachers. The benefit of live, in person teachers, is that they interact with you. They can watch what you are doing and help you to find a way to do it faster, better or more efficiently. Coach Ryan has adapted the lessons for me each night based upon what I am doing that night in the pool.

Unless a decorator wants to compete at a professional level, test for certification or take their business to the next level, they may never need or want to study with a teacher in person. For some techniques, there is a right/wrong way to do things. Lambeth and Nirvana have a specific look and certain long established guidelines need to be followed for it to truly belong to those genres. Figure modeling, on the other hand, has fewer rules and, therefore, is easier to teach yourself. Even a figure as simple as a ladybug has requirements, however. The figure parts must be proportional, the colors pleasing, the fondant free from cracks, and, in the end, it must be recognized to be a ladybug. A figure modeling teacher could help with that if you failed to excel at one of the areas. Often, we decorators can tell that something is wrong with our cakes, but we just can’t tell what. Sometimes we need that fresh eye to help us see what we need to change.

I should tell you that if you have been doing cakes for a long time and then decide you want to compete – as a self taught decorator, it might be rough at first. I had a decorator at my shop who had done cakes for twenty years. She was fast and could do her standard designs very well. When the gang at my shop signed up for OSSAS, she did, too. She entered with great hopes based upon her speed and experience. She did not place. In the years that I have followed her after she moved away, I would always see her at OSSAS. She would bring several entries, but rarely placed. Her husband once told me they needed a division for her type of decorating. You see, she was a production bakery decorator. She was used to oversized borders, speedy designs and bright colors. Her brain struggled to formulate that cake shows favor intricate, delicate borders, detail oriented designs and less “in your face” colors. She has a lifetime of habits that would be hard to stop doing…just like me and my silly swim.

When self taught decorators take classes, they sometimes end up struggling…not because they aren’t talented enough, but because they are working against their patterned behavior. When I started trying to breathe like Michael Phelps with a proper freestyle pattern, my mind kept getting in the way. My body wanted to swim the way it knew and my efforts to counteract that resulted in my swim looking like Phoebe running through the park in Friends. So embarrassing. I am sure that people at the pool wanted to take up a collection to buy me water wings.

Do I think everyone HAS to study with a live teacher? No. Do I think self taught decorators can run successful bakeries? Of course. Do I think that there is always room for people to improve as decorators? Yes. And I want to be very, very clear….everyone can improve: teachers, students, authors, business owners, whatever you are. No one is perfect at this yet. If your execution of the cake is perfect, I bet it could still be improved with efficiency, better pricing, packaging, branding or some other aspect. We generally excel at certain parts of a cake or the cake business and need to work on our areas of weakness. I could make you a long list of my weaknesses. I can also assure you that I will keep learning until the day that I die.

I still have a long ways to go with the swim. I am trying to relax and not rush the journey. I know that I am building new habits and that it takes time. I feel certain that I will see this through and finally learn to swim a proper freestyle. You might wonder why I even care if it is a proper freestyle…if I can swim, isn’t that good enough? Not really anymore. I will be swimming in the ocean, with hundreds of other people all trying to go as fast as they can around me. I will be swimming a longer distance than ever before. An efficient body position will help me breathe better. It will keep my legs fresh. It will allow me to exit the water with enough energy to go ride 24 miles then do a 10k. I’ve made the decision to not just be a recreational swimmer anymore. I want more.

Remember me talking about the children’s swim classes at the Y? To me that is where you should learn the fundamentals…not by watching other kids in the trailer park pool. For decorators, I think those fundamentals are taught at your Wilton classes and at your local cake supply shops who teach introduction to decorating. How many times have we seen the self taught decorators on Next Great Baker be completely unable to do something basic like a piped border or message? Or worse, icing a cake in buttercream? Those decorators usually said at the start of the show that they were self taught. They missed out on the fundamentals and tried to jump into advanced decorating. They might do ok, but they will always do better if they have the fundamentals in their arsenal.

Wherever you are in your decorating career, I hope that you’ll continue to try to improve, that you will challenge yourself and you will see the need to sometimes seek help from someone in person. My YouTube swimming tutorials and my DVDs never, EVER would have told me that I apparently breathe more easily on my left side than my right. Only a live person could watch me and help me figure out what I could not see myself. I hope that one day someone shares just such an epiphany with you. In the meantime, if you need me, I will be looking forward to taking a certain class in December and I will be in the pool. Learning to breathe.

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12 thoughts on “Learning to Breathe

  1. Hi Ruth – as another person who learned to swim as an adult, good for you!! Once you get the rhythm, you will be amazed. I never swam competitively, but I found when I swam my mile, I went into almost a fugue state – I could completely relax and forget everything but the sound of my breathing and my arms and legs moving. All I needed to look at was the pattern of the sun and water on the bottom of the pool. It was heaven!!

    I also would encourage anyone to take a basic class somewhere. I was “self-taught” (I thought) until I walked into my first Wilton class. Boy did I find out quickly that I didn’t know squat!! Decorating cakes is like building a house – if you don’t have a good foundation, everything will fall apart – maybe not today or tomorrow, but at some point.

  2. That is so true I am self taught for the most part (took the first Wilton class years ago). I love taking classes when I go to a show, just wish I could afford to take them all lol. I never want to stop learning the proper way to do things and learning new things. Looking forward to the North Texas Show, may have to flip a coin on which classes to take cause there are about 6-7 I want to take but I know I can’t afford them all, decisions,decisions lol. See you there

  3. Great analogy with beginning swimmers and self taught cake decorators. Since this is such an art form and always changing with new styles and techniques there will be a constant learning curve, you can’t say you have arrived at all the knowledge you need. I just turned 63 yesterday and as a 2nd career went to baking and pastry school 4 years ago, started my business in school, and taken classes at ICES and private lessons with some of the best decorators and teachers. That’s the most exciting part of this field/medium that it always evolves and it has new trends. The new people coming in bring exciting ideas and different techniques. You can learn a single technique from several teachers who each do it in different ways then from that you can formulate the best way for you and make it personal. Thanks for the wonderful info. Your Happy Baker, Millie

  4. Bravo – Ruth Rickey – Bravo! So, so true. I can relate to what you are saying as I see it in the Wilton classes I teach at the local craft store. So many people are very insulted when they are asked if they have any decorating experience. The response many times is I’ve been a Winn Dixie or Piggly Wiggly or XYZ Supermarket baker for 20 years. I know how to do all things, I just need a refresher. Many, many times, these students struggle most in the class. Aften time too, these student are the ones that only take Course 1 and Course 2 and never advance onto fondant and advanced fondant. I had one student that I tried to talk into advancing into these classes as she did have talent. As far as she was concerned she had a certificate from the first two courses and that is all her boss wanted. I say, why not do it for yourself and the hell with everyone else. You have to have the desire and the passion inside you to realize that there is always a better way, or a better technique and a never ending library of new techniques that you will never get to see unless you are open to letting someone show you in a classroom setting. Thank you Ruth for caring enough about us to share your thoughts!

    • Donna – I feel your pain!! As a fellow WMI, don’t you love the ones who try to tell you how to make a rose?? Oy vay! Or, when you are doing the ribbon rose, they start in on a full petal rose and say, “well, I already know how to do a real one.” Argh!! What that tells me (if I don’t already know), is that they are only there to get the certificate. They don’t really want to learn anything. I took my first Wilton class after having worked in a restaurant and I will admit I went in a bit condescending on the inside. I quickly figured out that I didn’t know squat and that my instructor was incredible. As my father always said, you can learn from anyone. I know I always learn from my students – sometimes very odd things – but I do learn from them! And, like you, it frustrates and saddens me when someone who is really talented just won’t continue because all s/he needs is the piece of paper.

  5. Good for you Ruth! I have known some people who say they are “self taught” like it is the only way to go. when I suggested they start with a Wilton class, they seemed insulted, which I guess made me feel bad since that is how I started. now, with what you have said, I am proud that i started and learned how I did. Wilton gave me the basics for my business and my skills and I use it every day. I can still remember piping wedding cakes with swags and ruffles and I’ve met some people who don’t even know how to do that. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Great Post! Especially form someone who is training for her first Tri and just recently learned that I have been swimming wrong for 40 years. I am also trying to reteach my hard wired brain to swim the correct way, not the way I have always done it. No easy task, but I’m trying.

    And I am also a “self-taught” decorator. Self-taught being hours watching online videos and tutorial. I know I don’t do things the correct way. I know that I don’t compete with schooled decorators, but I’ve come along way. I hope one day to have “proper” training and learn to do things the easier/correct way and not mine. Like swimming, it is a process.

    Thanks for the great post.

  7. I thought that I could swim until I took my first swim lesson for my first Tri. Then I realized like you I was a recreational swimmer. I still struggle when I get out into open water of a Tri. In my mind, I know what I should be doing but bad habits are hard to break. Good luck on breaking yours!

    I also see many parallels in my cake world and your post spoke to me greatly. I have taken a few Wilton classes, but most of my teaching has been online. It is not the same.

  8. Being primarily a self-taught baker and decorator is, for me, a badge of honor. I had no way to afford more than the most rudimentary of classes. I saw what little is shown of technique on TV and brazenly declared to my husband, “I can do that!”. after many tries and several disasters, (although fondant won’t stick to a cake with no base coat of icing it sticks great to the wall when hurled in frustration) I now bake crazy delicious cakes that I am great at decorating and I have people who come to me to learn what I know. I have taken a wilton basics course at a local cake supply shop and it sharpened my skills and I had a blast. A degree in pastry is beyond my tax bracket and I cannot afford to spend a mortgage payment on learning how to make 1 single cake in someone else’s technique but if I had the disposable income I totally would.
    I have often been looked down on for not being able to afford the “Higher End” classes, mostly by those teaching or providing them and those who can afford them. I
    Personally I think if you love the art form, go for it. Learn what you can where ever you can and always keep learning everything you can get your hands on.

    Thanks for reading. DeeDee

    PS I swim like a drunk hippo.

  9. You can learn until you die – no matter what the subject is!! I’m a firm believer in that! When people don’t come to Days of Sharing, etc. because they say “I know it all”, they have no idea how little they do know!! I can always learn even though I have retired now, but I still go to cake related things and think “Why didn’t I think of doing it that way?” Good article and God speed on your triathlon – is that the one in Kona, Hawaii? I love Kona – just spent 3 months there!!

  10. Dear Ruth, this blog gave me the right words to describe my downfall with cake decorating! I do, in fact, work against my “patterned behavior”! I watch videos and you tube and Craftsy classes constantly. I have taken classes with you, Kathleen Lange, Sidney Galpern and Yvette Humbert. I see and understand exactly how to do things properly, but I fight with myself once the decorating starts to fail. My friends believe I am an expert! HAHA … They have no idea. I am only occasionally “satisfied” with the outcome and sometimes won’t even post a picture. Not a day goes by that I don’t want to decorate. I do work full time though and struggle with having enough practice time. Thank you for motivating me!

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