Vienna’s unpredictable Vegetable Orchestra

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They’ve played 300 shows around the world – and most of their instruments don’t make it through the set.

by Eliot Stein

It’s three hours before showtime and members of an orchestra are seated onstage in the garden of a 1,000-year-old Benedictine monastery outside Cologne, Germany. On cue, the neatly coiffed, black-clad musicians slowly raise their instruments, purse their lips and begin playing the opening passage of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Just then, a sound technician abruptly cuts them off. The carrot flutes were too strong and he couldn’t hear the leek violin.

“One more time,” he says. “Starting with the cucumber.”

In the past 21 years, Vienna’s Vegetable Orchestra has played nearly 300 shows all around the world (Credit: Credit: Heidrun Henke)

In the past 21 years, Vienna’s Vegetable Orchestra has played nearly 300 shows all around the world (Credit: Heidrun Henke)

This is Vienna’s Vegetable Orchestra: a 10-piece ensemble from the city of Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart that plays music with instruments made entirely from fresh produce. Over the past 21 years, the group has played nearly 300 shows at packed venues around the globe and performed everything from classical with cabbage to techno with turnips in a rich, rhythmic ratatouille. The orchestra recently released its fourth album after a successful ‘Krautfunding’ (‘herb-funding’) campaign and is showing the world that, actually, you can play with your food.

“Vegetables are unpredictable,” said Susanna Gartmayer, who plays the carrot marimba, radish bass flute and a dozen other edible instruments in the group. “No two pieces of produce are the same. It’s a challenge.”

Unlike traditional instruments, which can last for hundreds of years, vegetable instruments quickly go bad, so the orchestra has to create new ones each time it plays. The morning of every show, this group of artists, novelists, architects and designers goes to local markets with a detailed shopping list and carefully combs through the crates. After pounding on the pumpkins, pawing through the parsley and peeling back the onion skins to select just the right produce, the musicians carve, slice and drill their fresh finds into performance-ready instruments. Once the veggies are peeled and cut they may only last about six hours, and whatever the musicians don’t use gets boiled down into a soup that’s served to the audience after the show.

But as the group arrived back at the Brauweiler Abbey that morning and unloaded their haul for the evening show, they noticed a big problem: someone forgot the aubergines, and there weren’t enough courgettes.

While a runner hurried back to the market, the remaining musicians grabbed their knives and power drills, transforming the dressing room of this Zen-like monastery into a construction site. During the next two hours, hollowed-out carrots, cucumbers and calabashes slowly became horns and flutes; severed peppers morphed into trombones; and sliced celeriac and pumpkins turned into bongos and drums. Each musician makes between eight and 25 instruments per show, and as the performers gradually tested and twisted their produce into tune, a cacophony of trilled scales, percussive thuds and surprisingly resonant notes sang through the sanctuary.

“It all started as a joke,” said founding member Matthias Meinharter, scanning a room full of veggie guts and breathing in what smelled like a compost bin. As he remembers it, he and three of the orchestra’s other members had signed up for a performance-art festival at their university in Vienna. “We were brainstorming what we could do, and we thought: ‘What is the most difficult thing to play music on?’,” he said. “We were making soup together at the time, and one idea led to another.”

It takes two hours and up to 50kg of vegetables to create the orchestra's instruments (Credit: Credit: Heidrun Henke)

It takes two hours and up to 50kg of vegetables to create the orchestra’s instruments (Credit: Heidrun Henke)

Twenty-one years later, the orchestra has played at London’s Royal Albert Hall, the Shanghai Arts Centre and was invited to a Ukrainian oligarch’s mansion to perform at Paul McCartney’s 60th birthday. “I think he liked it,” Meinharter said. “He’s a vegetarian.”

The group has also been listed in the Guinness World Records for ‘Most concerts by a vegetable orchestra’ and has inspired a few other biodegradable ensembles to sprout up around the world, including the London Vegetable Orchestra and Long Island Vegetable Orchestra. While the project may have started as a gag, these days its members take their craft very seriously.

“Many people think we’re kind of cabaret or just a funny performance,” Gartmayer said, drilling holes to make a carrot xylophone. “But they’re surprised to understand that there’s actually a lot of sonic potential in vegetables, and that we want to make really interesting music.”

There’s actually a lot of sonic potential in vegetables

The orchestra has invented more than 150 instruments over the years – and for many members, that’s half the fun. Some are ready-made items from the market: crunching dried onion skin in your fist sounds like a rainstorm, thumping a pumpkin with your palm resembles a bass drum and rubbing two leeks together as a bow and body creates a squeaky string section. Others are cut-and-carved creations resembling traditional instruments: parsnips, courgettes and peppers make good wind and brass instruments, while hollowed-out gourds are percussive. The most complex are transformer-like hybrids that combine two or more vegetables. Want to imitate a saxophone? Attach a severed bell pepper to the end of drilled cucumber, add a carrot mouthpiece and you’ve got the ‘cucumberphone’. Need a slightly deeper pitch? Swap the cucumber for a courgette and you’ll have a ‘courgette clarinet’.

“One of the most fascinating things about touring is learning how food differs around the world and coming up with completely new instruments,” said calabashist and pumpkinist Jürgen Berlakovich. In South-East Asia, the group discovered an elastic garlic grass that made a great bass string. In the US, they found markets that sell giant agave leaves, which can be used to shake kidney beans like a maraca. In China, the water radishes are bigger. In Italy, the cucumbers are smaller. In Siberia, the vegetables are expensive. And in England? “Turnips,” Meinharter said. “Lots of turnips.”

Despite covering a few Kraftwerk and classical pieces, the Vegetable Orchestra mainly composes original material, which can range from dark and hypnotic electronic sounds to beat-oriented house tracks. To do this, they attach tiny condenser microphones and little pickups to the veggies to amplify their natural tone and, as Berlakovich said, “to make them come alive”. But when they first set out, learning how to play the parsnip wasn’t the only challenge: there was no way to write music for food.

Because veggies are shaped differently from crate to crate and country to country, they can sound different, too. So instead of notes, the group developed a sort of timeline showing when the instruments come in and a graph of high and low pitches. “No-one else could read it,” Berlakovich said. “It’s like a secret code.”

Before showtime, the group covers this turntable with beans and uses a bean tip as a needle (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

Before showtime, the group covers this turntable with beans and uses a bean tip as a needle (Credit: Eliot Stein)

At the end of their sound check, the orchestra descended from the abbey’s outdoor garden stage and quickly re-wrapped their instruments in moist towels. The show was set to start in 90 minutes, and the veggies were in trouble. “It’s unusually hot today, which makes the vegetables brittle and break,” said founding member Barbara Kaiser, holding up the severed head of a cabbage. “But they like to die dramatically on stage.”

When the sun descended under the abbey’s spires, a team of tuxedo-clad ushers lit fire torches around the complex’s manicured courtyard and opened the doors. Soon, hundreds of well-heeled Germans were strutting through the vaulted walkway, many asking one another if they had ever heard of this Gemüsegruppe (‘vegetable group’) on the way to the Champagne bar and their seats.

As the all-black-clad troupe took the stage and steadied their water radishes, a few nervous giggles echoed through the garden. Berlakovich soon kicked into the warbling root prelude with a thumping bass pumpkin beat, two members tapped wooden spoons on dried squash, and the carrot section looped in a fluted melody, sliding the song into a trance-like tribal rhythm.

The group uses distortion pedals and microphones "to make the vegetables come alive" (Credit: Credit: Eliot Stein)

The group uses distortion pedals and microphones “to make the vegetables come alive” (Credit: Eliot Stein)

By the third song, the audience was tuned in to the texture of the ambient compositions: the crackling of celery stalks, the rumbling urgency of onion skin, the groovy claps of aubergines and the wind-like effect of rubbing two parsley bouquets together like pompoms. By song four, nearly everyone at the 500-person show was bobbing their heads along – except for one serious, older-looking woman wearing a black dress in the front row.

Towards the end of the set, bits of dried veg-struments were flying off the stage with each tap, clap and pluck. The group shook the abbey’s foundations with a take on German Krautrock, hooking distortion pedals and microphones into heads of cabbage and strumming their waxy leaves like guitars as shredded greens littered the stage. By the time the orchestra culminated their final song by rolling a legion of legumes and potatoes down a ramp, the once-clean stage looked like an exploded farmers’ market. The orchestra then bowed to a standing ovation and began mopping it all up.

“For me, this is still multi-sensory performance art,” Meinharter said. “The audience can hear the music, smell the music, see the music and then taste the music.”

Whatever vegetables the orchestra doesn't use are boiled into a soup and served to the audience (Credit: Credit: Heidrun Henke)

Whatever vegetables the orchestra doesn’t use are boiled into a soup and served to the audience (Credit: Heidrun Henke)

After the show a swarm of people surrounded the musicians, eager to buy CDs, snap pictures with the group and taste what they’d just heard. In keeping with a 21-year tradition, the performers offered their instruments to anyone who might want to go home and practice jamming on the produce themselves.

Gartmayer asked if anyone was interested in her pepper trumpet, and the older woman in the black dress reached out her hand, stuffed it in her purse and walked briskly towards the exit. When she thought she was out of sight of everyone, she pulled the pepper from her purse, put it to her mouth and gave it a good, long hoot.

Nassau Bay Music Lessons Christmas Recital

Nassau Bay Music Lessons Christmas Recital Logo

Join us in celebrating an evening of music and entertainment, on Friday December 21st from 6 to 8:30 pm, as we watch our students perform the songs they’ve been working on this season. The format is relaxed, and the stage will be open to anyone who wants to share a song or their hearts with us and our families. We’ll provide coffee and a few morsels, but feel free to bring any holiday treats or goodies you’d like to share. See you there!

Ecclesia Clear Lake
218 Clear Creek Ave,
League City 77573

Sephardic Music

Sephardic Music

Having participated in the golden age of classical Arab culture in the Near East, Jews played an important role in Spain as mediators between Arab and Christian culture, and Jewish poetry and music consequently reached a new pinnacle. In the 13th and 14th century Jews were also musicians at the Castilian court, we used great equipment and instruments from sites as Music Critic online. Together with Arab musicians they played an important role in the performance of the “Cantigas de Santa Maria” (eleven of which tell of Jewish live and culture in Spain), compiled by King Alfonso el Sabio (1252-84)

How Does Music Affect Your Brain?

How Does Music Affect Your Brain?

people at rock concert

Throw on some headphones, crank up the tunes, and what happens? Your toes and fingers start to tap. Maybe your head and shoulders begin to bob. Pretty soon, you might be on your feet, busting a move, joyously belting out the lyrics. Music has taken over, and your body is now along for the ride.

While it may be obvious that music impacts you physically, understanding how music and the brain interact requires deep study and an ability to probe the mysteries of the human mind. The result is a fascinating picture of the role music can play in brain development, learning, mood, and even your health. Dive into cognitive studies, and read on to learn exactly how music affects your brain.

Music, Your Brain, & Wellbeing

person looking through music records

One of the first things that happens when music enters our brains is the triggering of pleasure centers that release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel happy. This response is so quick, the brain can even anticipate the most pleasurable peaks in familiar music and prime itself with an early dopamine rush.

Beyond simply making you feel good, however, there’s evidence that music can even be good for your health. Research has shown that listening to music is associated with upticks in immunity-boosting antibodies and cells that protect against bacteria and other invaders. Music has also proven to be effective across a variety of treatment scenarios for conditions ranging from premature birth to depression to Parkinson’s disease.

Even in terms of brain development, music can play a key role. Training to play an instrument, for instance, is believed to increase gray matter volume in certain areas of the brain, not unlike how physical exercise can tone and enlarge muscles. As a result, musicians often experience improvement in brain functions like:

  • Auditory processing
  • Learning
  • Memory

If you’re ready to learn how to play a new instrument at home, start by finding a new or used instrument that interests you. Check sites like Craigslist or head over to your local thrift shop or instrument store to find options like pianos, flutes, guitars, banjos, and more. Then, look up free tutorial videos online to start learning. Some great online resources available to teach you how to play the instrument of your choice include:

Does Genre Matter?

rock band lead singer

Many of the beneficial effects of music on the brain are not limited to any single genre. Whether you’re listening to the smooth jazz styling of Billie Holiday on vinyl, the classic country sounds of Johnny Cash on YouTube, or The Beatles and their powerful British Invasion rock music on Spotify, different styles can produce the same results – as long as they align with your musical preferences. In this way, it’s the brain’s relationship with familiar and favored music that is key.

In other cases, the style of music can play a role. When it comes to the best music for learning, for example, experts recommend different genres for different purposes. Upbeat music, including songs with positive lyrics, can provide an energy boost and get your brain primed for learning. Once it’s time to buckle down and concentrate, however—like when you need to read, write, or study your course materials, instrumental music and soothing genres can help you stay calm and focused. Ultimately, however, each person may develop an approach to studying and music that’s uniquely suited for them. For more on this topic, check out courses in psychology that explore the inner workings of the human mind.

Some places you may be able to find new music include:

  • Spotify
  • Pandora
  • YouTube
  • MoodFuse
  • SoundCloud

If you’d prefer to study to gentle or ambient sounds instead, download apps like Rainy Mood or A Soft Murmur to help you focus.

Experiencing New Music

hands playing the piano

There are other ways you can learn about new music without plugging in your headphones. Take part in any of the following activities to explore different types of music:

  • Go to open mic nights in your community
  • Attend local concerts in your area
  • Ask your friends and family for music recommendations on your social media and have them share their favorite songs, playlists, or genres
  • Use different tools like Pandora, Spotify, MoodFuse, to find new music
  • Use apps like Shazam to help you remember the music you hear while you’re out, so you can go home and download it later

Whether you play an instrument, listen to your music streaming app, or enjoy going to live concerts, music is having an active influence on your brain. Understanding how music and the mind interact, and how to fine-tune your music consumption for maximum impact, can have an effect on the way you feel, think, study and more. So, put in your headphones, start your favorite album, and feel your dopamine levels rising. For a deeper understanding of music and how the body works in general, explore an online degree in psychology or cognitive studies.

Written by Ashford University staff.

Piano With Tabby

Piano With Tabby

We wanted to highlight another local piano instructor whose consistently provided her students with first rate musical training! Tabby Worthington’s studio Piano With Tabby has been voted the best music lessons in Clear Lake three times concurrantly by the Macaroni Kid Gold Daisy Awards. Although focused on piano, Tabby also instructs in guitar and ukulele, an takes advantage of the latest methods and technological tools available (like Rocksmith!) to keep her students excited, and insure years of great musical development and fun.

 

Tabby Worthington lives in Clear Lake with her husband, Ryan and their 2 children, and has a menagerie of pets. Before she was a music teacher, she worked in technical support and computer repair.

Beginning with a handful of piano and voice students in 2000, Ms. Tabby has worked for several schools in the greater Clear Lake area, teaching many students of all ages and building a reputation in the community as a compassionate teacher who is patient and adapts her lessons to the needs of each individual student. Over the years, her approach to individualized learning hasn’t changed, but the tools she uses to teach have. She now incorporates technology in new and innovative ways, offering practice assignments in the iPad Piano Maestro app and digital worksheets via Sproutbeat.  She teaches using the cutting-edge Piano Pronto method, in which students will master the instrument while playing familiar and engaging melodies from a wide variety of genres.

In 2007, Ms. Tabby graduated from Kindermusik University and became a Licensed Kindermusik Educator, which makes her a special expert on early childhood development through music and movement. Kindermusik is a wonderful program for children from infants to 7 year olds. She is no longer able to offer Kindermusik classes, but still recommends them highly for all children under 7. Visit the Kindermusik website for more information.

Ms. Tabby encourages all students to experience different styles of music instead of focusing on just one. “I believe that having a well-rounded background in all kinds of music makes for better musicians,” she says.

Piano Lessons And The Brain

Piano Lessons And The Brain

We all know music is kind of magic. It has the power to tap directly into our emotions, and ignite our imaginations. It can make us bust a move, or move us to tears, sometimes in the course of a single song. But that’s not all it can do.

There’s growing scientific evidence that shows learning to play an instrument—and piano in particular—can actually make you smarter, happier, and healthier. The cognitive demands of learning piano could help with everything from planning skills and language development to reducing anxiety and even boosting memory!

infographic-piano-lessons-are-good-for-you-and-your-brain

Infographic from Encore Music Lessons

1. Piano Players Are Master Multitaskers

Learning to play piano means teaching your brain how to work on overdrive. Think about all the individual tasks your brain has to perform simultaneously: keeping time, following pitch, forming chords, maintaining posture and controlling your breath, all while your right and left hands are operating independently from each other while ranging over 88 identical little black and white buttons. Also, you might be operating the pedals and reading and interpreting sheet music too. Every time you sit down to play piano, you’re giving your brain a monster workout, exercising your logical, creative, visual, auditory, emotional, and motor functions.

2. Learning Piano Actually Builds Brain Power

The mental demands of piano are so significant that players’ brains are structured differently than other people’s. Breakthroughs in brain imaging have shown that playing piano strengthens the bridge between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and makes the connections in the frontal lobe much more efficient. According to Mic that means pianists may have a serious leg up in terms of “problem solving, language, spontaneity, decision making and social behavior.”

3. Musicians Really Do Think Outside the Box

Researchers at Vanderbilt University have discovered that musicians are innately proficient in a creative technique they call “divergent thinking, which is the ability to come up with new solutions to open-ended, multifaceted problems.” Their work suggests that because playing music enhances communication between parts of the brain, musicians literally think about complex problems differently, and come up with more creative solutions.

4. Learning to Play Piano Is Beneficial at Any Age

While learning piano at a young age is a great way to develop discipline, self-esteem, and academic skills, it’s never too late to benefit from the power of playing. Adults who learn to play piano experience a decrease in depression, fatigue, and anxiety and an increase in memory, verbal communication, and a feeling of independence. Playing piano can also help alleviate symptoms of dementia, PTSD, and stroke, by improving cognition and dexterity, and reducing stress.

Tickling the ivories may not give you superpowers, but it’s clear that learning to play piano is one of the most powerful ways to exercise your mind, and soothe your soul.