A musical excuse to play with your food

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Some people play the flute, some people play the piano, and some people play the carrot — or the squash, or the broccoli. And the people playing the vegetables are part of the Long Island Vegetable Orchestra, a group of musicians who create working instruments out of vegetables.

While the idea was already well known in Europe because of the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, Dr. Dale Stuckenbruck, of West Hempstead, brought the unusual concept to Long Island.

While giving instrument lessons at The Waldorf School in Garden City in 2005, Stuckenbruck, a Grammy-nominated musician and soloist/concertmaster, was asked to keep students not in the main orchestra involved with music. He tried methods like music theory and drumming, but nothing was as effective as he had hoped. “This is kind of the last chance for these students to take a required music course [and] I didn’t want them to think badly about music,” Stuckenbruck remembered thinking. “I wanted them to have a chance to really become engaged somehow so that they will remember it.”

So Stuckenbruck went on a small, newly founded video-sharing website called YouTube to look for ideas. It was there that he came across the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra. Through trial and error and more instructional videos, Stuckenbruck was able to execute the basic technique for carving a carrot.

Stuckenbruck was then able to transfer that technique to other vegetables.

He brought the method to his class, which the students fully embraced. They then expanded the class to include students from LIU Post in Brookville, where Stuckenbruck is an adjunct violin professor. At that point, Daniel Battaglia, a 16-instrument musician and piano technician, got involved. He had met Stuckenbruck while working as a piano-tuner at LIU Post.

Together, Stuckenbruck and Battaglia honed their vegetable instrument carving skills.

“It was such an awesome idea, and I just love doing it,” said Battaglia. “It’s just so much fun.”

In March of 2011, the Long Island Vegetable Orchestra made its public debut at LIU’s Summer Sustainability Institute. The orchestra was comprised of 12 musicians from both The Waldorf School and LIU Post. Since then they have played annually at the Oyster Bay Music Festival and many other venues.

Carrot clarinets

Shape, girth and texture are all attributes that are taken into consideration when it comes to choosing a vegetable. Stuckenbruck mentioned that a softer vegetable, like a cucumber, would be too wet inside.

And because it is a vegetable orchestra, the visual aspect, to keep it looking as organic as possible, is important as well. “If you strip the whole broccoli, then it becomes like too obvious what you’re doing,” said Stuckenbruck. “But if people just see greenery around the broccoli and they wonder, ‘how did you create a flute out of just the leaves?’ But there's actually the stem.”

Because vegetables have a shelf life, once they are carved into they need to be kept in a cooler with ice water for optimal function. However, they don’t last very long regardless. Carrots can last up to two weeks, but broccoli will only be good for about an hour.

Using drills, knives and other tools, Stuckenbruck and Battaglia teach the orchestra members to cut with surgical precision to create mouthpieces and keys that actually work. They start with small holes, and make them wider to tune the instrument.

And it’s not as silly as it sounds. To create the instruments you have to understand how air flows through the holes like it would in a woodwind. The shapes, sizes, and placement of the holes all matter. It’s physics. And it’s real music.

Twin brothers David and Solomon Elyaho, 20, just joined the LIVO this summer. David is a student of Stuckenbruck’s at LIU. He plays the viola and violin while his brother plays the clarinet and bass clarinet. If you weren’t watching Solomon play the daikon, a large white radish, you could easily mistake it’s sound for a bass clarinet.

“I’m always open to trying something new and it seemed like a lot of fun during the [Oyster Bay Music] Festival,” said Solomon. “It’s even more fun now that I’m actually getting into the real detail with instruments.”

Battaglia said he has stayed involved because it’s a good challenge. “It’s creative,” he added. “It’s endless possibilities.”

And now you have an excuse to play with your food.

The LIVO performs at festivals and in concert across the country. Their next performance is on Oct. 1 at the Queens County Farm Museum in Floral Park.