Tag Archive | Student

Video Killed the Radio Star

I remember the 80s when MTV debuted. It was huge. People sat for hours on couches watching videos. We didn’t turn on our radios. We didn’t play our albums. We got sucked into the video world. Radio began to feel the pinch. Advertisers switched to video channels. We put aside our imaginations about what a song should mean and we took the given video version of a song as gospel. A great video could make a bad song a hit. A bad video or (gasp) no video for a song meant that it did not make money.

Lately, I have been receiving a lot of messages about the online world of cake decorating. Some sing praises. Some hate it. Some think that people are being led astray. As with most things, there is truth in all of it.

Theory: online classes are hurting in person classes
Reality: true.

The advent of classes by Craftsy and all of the other online classes has been greeted with open pocketbooks and joy from decorators world wide. The simple truth is that many young decorators could not afford to take in person classes, nor could they afford the time and expense of traveling to do so. The online classes let someone gain exposure to techniques, instructors and methods that they would not receive without such courses.

Meanwhile, some folks who normally would travel to take a class now decide to stay home and “study”. They cannot justify taking a class with the big name instructor when they can get that person’s knowledge on their iPad for $20 or so. Can you blame them? It is this group of folks who are not taking in person classes.

There is a group of decorators with a huge stash of online classes, who also take all the in person classes they can. Every time a teacher posts pictures from class, I count how many folks attended. The numbers, for all teachers, have been steadily dropping. The teachers blame the video groups. The students blame the rising costs of the classes. The truth is, both. Some classes are probably priced too high. Some online sales are impacting the in person classes.

For my own experience, I have not filmed with any of the online schools. If you want to study with me, you must do it in person right now. While I have experienced low numbers in some places, I am finding that my student counts are climbing. Why? Because I have held my prices. Because I supply everything. Because I constantly come up with new classes. In short, because I am doing my job as a teacher. I am seeing numbers start to climb for other teachers, too. It doesn’t seem to matter if they have videos nearly as much as it does if they give a good price on a new or different project.

Theory: free tutorials and videos are worthless
Reality: sometimes

Oh, how I cringe when I see someone advertise a free or nearly free tutorial for something that is, quite bluntly, done wrong. It would not pass muster at a cake show and would be blasted at certification testing. Unfortunately, there are no restrictions for someone to put out a tutorial or video. Anyone can do it. Many “anyone”s are. I want so badly to tell people not to believe everything they see. Not to pay. Not to follow these folks. But I say nothing.

Why? Because I honestly think that people will think it is sour grapes…that I am afraid of losing students or something. I worry that I will get pulled into one of those online drama battles I see too frequently. No, thank you.

In this instance, I think it should be Buyer Beware. If you get something for free, you should expect that value to be worth just that. While sometimes it will be like Liz Marek’s recipes and be worth more than you can imagine…I think those instances are rare. Some of the bloggers out there legitimately want to help their fellow decorators. I find those easy to spot. Some are simply trying to gain fame. I find most of those equally easy to spot.

In a recent blog, I talked about folks who watch decorator Darla’s online class or attend her class, then make their own tutorial for sale based on Decorator Darla’s work. A new decorator asked how the newbies can know who to trust. What an excellent and perplexing question. I forget that you guys haven’t been doing this as long as me. I forget that you don’t know the folks on the teaching circuit. I recommend that you take a look at the ICES Approved Teachers list. Here you will find the well respected, internationally known and proven teachers. The list doesn’t cover everyone, but it is an excellent place to start.

Do a little research on those names. You will be impressed with what many of these people have done. They are the foundation of our industry. Then look to see who teaches at the major mini class events in the US. There is a strict screening process for those. If someone teaches there, you KNOW they know their stuff.

Does this mean that new folks cannot be trusted? Of course not. It only means that you need to do your OWN research on them. They have not been vetted by ICES or Cake Camp or whomever. There are some newer decorators that I think are outstanding teachers and demonstrators. There are some who are great artists, but have not learned how to TEACH effectively yet. Teaching is a developed skill just like decorating. One does not beget the other.

Theory: online classes teach as well as in person classes
Reality: false

I wish this could be true, but it just cannot be. The online instructor is speaking to a camera and a producer. They cannot see you furrow your brow when you do not understand. They cannot see you hold the piping bag at the wrong angle. They cannot talk you out of beating yourself up when your first attempt doesn’t look like theirs.

They can be excellent sources of information. I think of them like a documentary, explaining and showing all the process behind a project or technique. You can chat with someone, through the chat portal, but it will never replace live interaction with that teacher.

They are not, however, bad. The videos serve a valuable purpose for our industry. They expose people to numerous aspects of sugar art. It is likely that you might not try something but for that video. They help the person miles from classes learn…just not to the full potential possible. I am glad that people have this resource, but want everyone to understand that watching something is not the same as doing it.

Watching the Emmys the other night, Seth Meyers said that tv was like the late night booty call whereas movies were the dates. What?? He said that tv was available any hour. Movies, you had to plan to get to the theater at a certain time. They are very different experiences.

Online cake videos certainly are the late night booty call of decorating. You can be in your pjs at 3 am, stuck on a technique and can visit your friendly decorator through their online class or YouTube tutorial. How glorious ! The videos don’t judge you for being a procrastibaker. They just give you information.

Final Thoughts

Online classes are not a bad thing. While they are impacting in person classes today, I think that their use will fade over time and people will go back to studying with live teachers.

I think we are blessed in this industry to have so many options for learning. I think that the cream of the teachers will rise to the top and they will survive every new challenge. A great teacher is a great teacher, whether in an article , in a video, in a book or in person.


I Walk the Line

Recently a student and a teacher had a disagreement. The student had taken a class from an ICES approved teacher, using an ICES scholarship they had been awarded. Part of the ICES scholarship rules say that you have to share one of the classes you take by demonstrating it at a Day of Sharing. The student did just that. The teacher was upset, because demonstrating the class meant that no one there would ever take that class. It was as though money was taken from the teacher’s pocket. The student felt they were only doing what was required. The teacher was hurt.

Recently a supply shop owner/teacher hosted a guest teacher, who taught several classes. The supply shop owner/teacher took every class. The supply shop owner then started teaching the guest teacher’s classes just months after the guest teacher visited. The exact classes. The guest teacher is aware of it and is hurt, but has not addressed the issue.

So where is the line? If you take a class, what are you allowed to do with that knowledge? If you are a teacher, what should you expect from your students? I’m not really sure I know, but I am going to try to answer. As always, this will just be my opinions, but I hope that they will have reason behind them.

The first question for me is whether the class is a technique class or a project class. No one can prevent someone else from demonstrating or teaching a specific technique. For example, if a class covers brush embroidery, that is a well known technique. Numerous people teach it. Many books cover it. If you take a class with me on brush embroidery, would it be ok for you to demo that?

My opinion is that you have free reign to demo or teach the technique itself. However, and this is a BIG HOWEVER, you have to come up with your own project, notes and instructions. You cannot copy the handouts from your teacher. You cannot use their pattern. You cannot demo or teach the exact project you learned. You need to put yourself into the technique. You need to design your own project and write your own handout. This is my opinion for how to handle long established, well known techniques.

So, what if it is a project class making a specific figure or something? The class may involve the use of numerous techniques in the creation of the project. Does that mean that the student can recreate it as a demo or in a class they teach? My opinion is that they cannot. Take, for example, Mike McCarey’s Big Bird class. If you take that class, you are not free to go demo his Big Bird. You are not free to teach his Big Bird. You are free to be INSPIRED and to teach a different project that YOU come up with, using the skills and techniques you learned.

What if the teacher is teaching a new technique or a new combination of techniques? If the teacher has come up with something totally new, I really don’t think you have any business demonstrating or teaching that. Are there new techniques? I’m not sure, but I see creative genius in my teacher and manufacturer friends all the time. I would tread most carefully here because this is something that everyone will identify with one particular person. If you try to teach it or demo it, you will look like a thief to people. If you name your class exactly what the teacher named theirs, it really looks bad.

A student recorded a class, then filmed a YouTube video repeating the class verbatim. A student copied a teacher’s entire handout and put their own name on it. If I asked enough teachers, I am sure I would hear of even more frightening things. Students need to remember that every time they share their class notes, demo a class they took or teach a project they learned, they have essentially just stolen from their teacher.

Some students will argue that it is ok because the teachers make tons of money on a class. (Isn’t this exactly what your customers think about your cake prices?). Most teachers I know barely get by teaching. Almost all supplement their income by doing cake orders, selling products, or working for manufacturers.

Some students will say that the people they teach wouldn’t have taken a class with that teacher anyway. Maybe not. But what about the folks THEY end up sharing with? This is almost like that ripple in the water in that it just keeps spreading. A student who then teaches the same exact class is going to affect the number of available students. Maybe the teacher had planned to do a DVD of the class or a paid tutorial. You stole part of that market.

Teachers expect you to take what they share and then recreate it for your customers, friends and family. Teachers expect you to make money from the class – just not from teaching it!

If you are asked to demo what you learned, just remember that you can show the technique but that you need to apply it to your own project. Be inspired. Make it your own. Be an original. And be kind to your teachers when you walk the line.



Mine. Mine. MINE!!!

One of my favorite scenes in Finding Nemo is when the seagulls all chime in “Mine. Mine. Mine!!”. It reminds me of toddlers fighting over a toy. I hold it, therefore it is mine. I want it, therefore it is mine. I saw it, therefore it is mine. I played with it yesterday, it is still mine.

There have been battles lately over credit on cake design and classes. Some of the battles have been public. Some private. In the end, some friendships have been strained or lost. Some business relationships have been severed. I have had a lot of decorators and teachers ask for a blog on this tricky subject. And I do think it is tricky. I don’t think there is a cut and dried answer that fits every situation. I am going to try to walk in to the minefield and hope that I will be able to walk out the other side. As with all my blogs, remember that this is just my opinion and experience. I am not saying I am right…only that I am explaining my thoughts on the subject.

If you design a cake and publish it on the world wide web, there is a possibility that you will find someone copy or reproduce your cake. We have all had customers bring in cakes from magazines or web pages asking us to make that cake for them. I have never heard Wendy Kromer, who designs many of the Martha Stewart cakes, freak out because decorators all over the country are doing her designs. Every week, someone brought me a picture from The Pink Cake Box to recreate. Again, I have never seen Anne Heap start complaining on Facebook that everyone is copying her expectant mom cake.

I think that if you put your cakes into the public forum, you should expect to be copied. If you don’t want anyone doing cakes like yours, have a photo album at your shop for your customers and make them come in to view your work. I think about the person that designed the first hamburger cake. Will we ever even know who that was?!! How many times have people done variations on that cake? Some subjects, especially food ones, seem to be done everywhere.

When I was a lawyer, we learned that one of the hardest things to prove was a non-event. In other words, to prove that you did not cheat. I remember working on cakes for the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show years ago. I would sketch a design, finish my cake, then get in my cake magazine from England only to see something very similar in the magazine! I worried everyone would think I copied my design, even though I had done my cake before I saw the magazine. How could I prove that? In the end, I just entered my cake and let people think whatever they were going to think.

A lot of artists say they just want credit if you copy or are inspired by their work. Fine. I think if we know who designed it, then we can do that. We need to remember that before Facebook, this wasn’t as large an issue. It was harder to go to hundreds of web pages to view photo galleries to see who has done cakes similar to yours. New etiquette rules seem to be called for in today’s digital age. If you are Facebook friends with the person who did the cake you copied or were inspired by, then please give credit to that person. If you are not Facebook friends, but know who did the cake, give the person credit.

At my shop, we had a line in our brochure that said we did not mind the customer bringing in a photo, but that we would adapt the cake to fit them…so that it was not a straight copy. Most of the time, we could talk the customer into putting a little of themselves or their personality into the cake.

If you copy PHOTOS from other decorators and put them on your Facebook or web page and act like you did those cakes, I believe that is stealing. You stole that photo. I had to fire an employee who set up a competing business with mine, while working for me, using pictures that I took with my camera of cakes done at my shop on her web page. She did not qualify for unemployment benefits because she had stolen from her employer. Cake designs might be tough to copyright and claim ownership on (this is outside my knowledge), but stealing your photograph is easier to prove. I saw one instance where the alleged thief had photoshopped a different color background to try to claim the photo as theirs. Craziness.

Why spend all that time taking photos from someone else instead of using that time to do your own piece? If people worked as hard at cake decorating as they do at building false profiles of their work, the world would be a much sweeter place.

If you take a class from someone, can you then teach that same subject? What if you attend a demo? Most teachers I know teach a class that was inspired by a cake they saw, demo they attended or class they took. Once again, there are no hard and fast rules, but I will share my approach. I am sure it is not perfect, but I can sleep at night.

First and foremost, no one owns the exclusive right to teach a certain technique or medium. I can think of at least three dozen gum paste teachers. Nearly all of them teach a peony. Who is copying whom? They each put their own spin on the creation of the flower. There are dozens of shoe classes out there now. No one has exclusive rights to teach royal icing work. Or sugar. Or sculptures. If you ask me not to teach on a certain subject that interests me, I will decline. This is a huge world and there is room for multiple teachers on the same techniques. Just like one bakery cannot do all the cakes, one teacher cannot teach all the classes. There is room for all of us. When I was asked to teach a shoe class, I contacted Wayne Steinkopf, since I had taken his class. He laughed and told me that he didn’t own the shoe class. It is true. While some teachers may be known for teaching certain things, they cannot keep anyone else from teaching that subject with their unique spin on the class.

If you take a demo from someone, you should not go teach that exact class. You should be INSPIRED by that demo to find your own variations. For example, I took a demo from the talented Dahlia Weinman at ICES one year. She did a demo on Zari Embroidery. I was fascinated by her approach and by all things Indian at the time. I started researching that field of embroidery. In doing so, I found a unique approach to that art form and designed a class based upon a cake entered at That Takes The Cake Show in Austin. If you have ever read my class description or handouts for the class, I tell everyone that Dahlia inspired the class. I made it my own, but paid homage to a very talented cake decorator.

Sometimes, decorators don’t teach a class anymore. Maybe they are too old to go on the road to teach it. Maybe they are bored silly by that class. Maybe they have passed away. Some things I teach stem from this category. I worry greatly about us losing the old techniques and instructions. I want the next generation to know about the amazing sugar artists who taught and inspired me. In each of these instances, I talk about the person who taught me…I want people to know these names…not just the techniques. I try to include those names in my class descriptions or handouts. Kathy Lange teaches Lambeth techniques, as taught to her by the late Betty Newman May. She tells every class about Betty, so that Betty’s legacy will live on. I think this is perfectly acceptable.

I know that many of my students use what I teach them to, in turn, teach people at culinary school, or teach teens, or teach senior citizens or whatever. I have not been bothered by this. They are good about telling people where they learned the techniques. I often see their students in my future classes because of their recommendations. In the end, I have to hope that my reputation as a teacher will speak for itself. I have not ever written anyone saying “That class is mine”. Someone has to teach the teachers.

I have heard of someone who took a class from a famous artist, then copied his entire handout and teaches the class exactly the same. This person did not change anything. This person teaches a total copy of the famous person’s class. I believe this to be wrong.

I heard of another person who attended a class with a dear friend of mine, surreptitiously video taped it, then went home and created a video tutorial for the technique -word for word matching my friend’s class. I believe this to be wrong.

I witnessed a Facebook battle after someone gave a free tutorial to a stranger. The stranger then designed a class based upon that tutorial. The cakes were virtually identical. The person who wanted to teach that class should have either asked permission to teach the class OR made the cake their own. There were numerous things the person could have changed to put their spin on the cake. I believe teaching an exact replica of someone’s tutorial is wrong.

I have seen people ask friends on Facebook to give them a copy of class notes from a certain class. Those notes belong to those who pay for them. If you give those notes out, it is the same as taking money from that teacher. I have a friend who thinks that the line should be based upon whether you paid for the notes. If you attended a demo, she feels it is ok to share. This really reminds me of the Napster controversy. People went online and shared their music library to everyone on the Internet. They thought no one was being hurt. But it turned out that it was harming the entire music industry, not just the wealthy musician. We must be careful to not put the cake industry into that situation. The teachers are just getting by financially and do it more for love than money. Please don’t give away their livelihood. If you continue to do so, one day the good teachers will all be unwilling or unable to continue teaching.

I think the real key to all of this is…don’t be fake. Don’t pretend to do cakes you didn’t do. Don’t teach an exact copy of someone else’s work; put your spin on it. Don’t give away someone’s livelihood. Follow the Golden Rule and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.


What Makes a Great Student

Ask any student about an instructor and you will get an opinion. Students often get the opportunity to evaluate the instructors. The one thing I do not hear…is an evaluation of what makes a great student. Do the teachers know? You bet! Do we warn each other about problem students? Yep. This is a two way street and I think that it can only help if I identify the traits of a great student.

First, they actually take the class. My friend Lauren Kitchens tells me that people come up to her and say they aren’t skilled enough to take the class. What??!! People, the whole point of classes is for us to give you the skills. Unless the class description tells you that you need specific training before taking it, you just need to show up! Great students do not ask the teacher to send them the instructions without taking the class. (Yes, this happens to teachers all the time). Please sign up for the classes that interest you.

Second, they arrive on time. Students expect the teachers to keep a class on a time schedule, but often don’t realize how they impact that. Often I will have students arrive for class after I have given the introduction to class, so that the latecomers spend time asking all the questions I have already answered. Even worse is when you have started the class project and then someone comes in. The teacher now has to try to keep the bulk of the class moving, while essentially teaching everything a second time to try to catch up the late student. Please arrive early enough for class that you do not cause a delay.

Third, they are prepared. Part of the reason that I supply things for my classes is because I have taken numerous classes where the students do not bring the items on the class supply list. I always wonder how they justify not bringing the required tools. When this would happen at my shop where I was hosting a teacher, I felt as though they expected me to rescue them with the tools. Sometimes the “tools” were a half sheet cake, the required icing or even….everything on the list. Sometimes teachers have extras, but you should not bank on that! I personally think that if you show up without the tools, you should just watch the rest of the class. Participation requires you doing your job and that means bringing the tools listed by the instructor. Please be like a boy scout and Be Prepared.

Fourth, they are willing to learn the teacher’s techniques. I am amazed at the times I have taken a class or taught one only to have someone constantly telling the teacher how someone else does the technique. Why is that student in the class? Even if you never do it that way again, try the teacher’s method while you are in class. You might find your next favorite method! Please be open to the teacher’s methods.

Fifth, they listen, take good notes and ask thoughtful questions. This shows us that a student is engaged in the class. It means that you aren’t visiting with your friends in class, then constantly asking “what?” because you missed the instructions. This means that you actually bring a writing instrument to class. This means that you try to focus your questions on the class subject. I was in an airbrush demo once when one girl decided it was the proper time to ask the demonstrator about buttercream recipes. We lost easily one quarter of the demo time to this person’s repeated questions. Please pay attention.

Sixth, they remember that class is for LEARNING the technique, not for PERFECTING it. Classes are created to pass certain knowledge on to the students. The students need to then go home and practice the technique to work on excelling at it. It breaks my heart when I have to watch a student beating themselves up if their first attempt at something isn’t perfect. Oh my goodness! Seriously, people, why do we put such pressure on ourselves? Give yourself a break. Remember that this is your first time to do the technique with that particular teacher. Please be patient with yourselves and agree to practice when you go home.

Seventh, they do not get competitive with the other students. This is not a challenge to see who does it best…it is a class. If a teacher compliments someone’s work, do not take it as a sign that you need to step up your game. Sometimes we compliment the people we can see are insecure about their work. Sometimes we are trying to get you to relax like the person we complimented. Sometimes we run into students who, quite simply, have a gift for the particular technique. That doesn’t mean your work cannot eventually surpass theirs. Only that the stars aligned for them that day and they caught on really fast. Please refrain from competing in class.

Eighth, they are respectful of the teacher and other students. This means that you don’t take this as your opportunity to share every story of every cake you have done. This means you don’t try to dominate the teacher’s attention by seeking approval of every single move you make in class. This means you put your phone on silent and refrain from texting as much as possible. I taught a class once where the student texted the entire class AND left the text ringer going full blast. It was funny the first time or two…it was downright rude by the end of the day. Please be the type of student you would like to sit next to.

Ninth, they don’t rewrite the lesson plan. If you take a class on orchids, don’t expect to make a daffodil. I hosted a teacher once who was teaching us to make monsters. One student decided she wanted to make a person instead and proceeded to complain about not having the colors she needed for her vision. Come on folks, that is something you do at home! You took the class to make what the teacher designed. Please don’t expect the teacher to work on your private agenda for the class.

Tenth, they approach the class with enthusiasm. They start with a smile on their face and the thought that they can do this. This means that for just a bit, you stop listening to those doubting voices in your head. This means that you leave your family drama outside. This means that you come in rested enough and fed enough that you do not melt down or lose energy halfway through class. This is especially true at mini class events when you over schedule yourself and become weepy because you are so tired or hungry. Take care of yourself and the fun will follow. Please tell yourself this is going to be the best class EVER! It just might be!

Eleventh, they do not take things that don’t belong to them. It is true. Sometimes students steal tools. This is really hard on the teachers because they are now left shorthanded for upcoming classes. I know you love the teacher’s tools, but you have to release your covet and leave them with the teacher. Please leave the tools so another class can enjoy them.

Twelfth, they are helpful. They straighten up their area at the end of class. They throw their trash away. They offer to help the instructor clean up or set things out if they have time. If things are given to you in a package, return them to the package. Please be considerate to the teacher.

Thirteenth, they follow the class rules. If you are told that there is no videotaping, you need to NOT video tape the teacher. I personally allow photos but no videos. I repeatedly find people taking videos on their phones and cameras. I struggle with whether I should draw attention to the rule breaker, whether I should remove them from class or whether to silently scream inside and do nothing about it. So far, I have chosen the latter. I believe I will react differently in the future.

Fourteenth, they do not steal the teacher’s class. I have heard of numerous instances where people start teaching a project made popular by recognized teachers. Some students are bold enough to use the teacher’s own handouts to give to their students. Some pass the project along as though they thought of it. Please don’t abuse the teacher’s creativity.

Fifteenth, they are not gross. Yep. I said gross. Do not lick the buttercream tips that the teacher gives you to pipe with. Do not lick icing off your fingers in class. Do not put paintbrushes or pens in your mouth if they do not belong to you. Please don’t forget that you are not in the privacy of your own home.

Sixteenth, they honestly evaluate the instructors. Many shows and mini classes hand out evaluation sheets. Take the time to fill out these forms. They are invaluable to the people who host classes. They help them decide what classes work, which instructors should be invited back and what they can improve for students’ experience the next time. If you are not given an evaluation form, you can still give feedback to the show or class organizers. I have had numerous students tell me they had issues with a class by someone, but almost every one of them failed to inform the people in a position to correct things for the future. It doesn’t make you whiny to complain if the information you relay is honest. We all want to do the best job possible. Your comments could help a teacher become better at their job. Please share your feedback constructively.

On behalf of the teachers, thank you to the students. None of us get to pursue our dream of teaching unless you take our classes. Thank you to the vast majority that are great students. Your smiling faces and great attitude make the classes a joy to teach. If you saw yourself in any of the less great student moments outlined above…remember that this is your chance to do better going forward. As Oprah says, “when we know better, we do better”. And just because it might be true, don’t forget to tell yourself that the next class is going to be the best class EVER!