For this month’s Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement interviewed Dror Baitel, a second year master’s student studying collaborative piano. Originally from Tel Aviv, Israel, Dror came to the US in 2004 to start his undergraduate degree. In 2008, Dror graduated from the Mannes School of Music with a bachelor’s degree in piano performance. Between graduating from Mannes and starting at Juilliard in September of 2015, Dror “established himself in the world of music as a leading talent through his virtuosity and versatility across diverse genres.” In addition to his classical piano performances, Dror has performed on Broadway, has collaborated with various opera, Broadway, and cabaret artists, and has worked in music education at many New York schools. Interested in seeing Dror perform? Dror’s recital, “To Build A Home,” will take place on February 24th at 8pm in Paul Hall.
What is your first memory playing the piano and at what point did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in music?
Interestingly, I actually first played the organ in Suzuki classes so that was about a year before I started taking piano. I think one of my first memories of playing piano is playing the ‘Blue Danube Waltz’ by J.Strauss and making a musical impression on my teacher, I guess it was the first time I felt it! I probably realized I wanted to pursue a career in music at various times in my life, first when I was introduced to my first professional piano teacher at 16 year old, and then after being in the Israeli Army, I felt the music was my calling because I was of no use when I was there.
Why did you decide to come to the US to continue your studies?
For some reason, New York was very clear to me as place to pursue my studies. I’ve dreamed big and I wanted to be in a place where music is not only appreciated but consumed and demanded by big audiences. New York to me was ideal because of its importance in the world of classical music these days and the center for such talented and accomplished musicians.
What is your favorite part of being a Juilliard student? What is the most challenging?
My favorite part of being at Juilliard is being among the most talented and creative artists in the world. I always am fascinated meeting new students and learning about their work and passions. It inspires me. What is most challenging for me especially as a collaborative pianist is finding time to practice (LOL) since we run around from coachings, rehearsals and classes and we have so much on our plate that we have to learn how to practice very wisely in 15 minutes segments. I accumulate my practice every day through spreading my practice sessions and trying to use every break I get.
What were your first impressions of NYC when you arrived in 2004? Has your opinion of New York changed over the years?
I was very overwhelmed when I arrived in 2004. I was probably a bit culturally shocked. I think it’s the speed of the city and the vast amounts of people that you see every day. Israel is much smaller and you never see as many people like you see in the streets of New York. My opinion has changed over the city and it’s an ongoing love/hate relationship. There’s something about the energy and that ongoing pulse of the city which makes you feel alive and driven with a purpose and that’s what I love most about being here. But sometimes, because I am human, I need a break and so getting out of town could be so wonderful and therapeutic for me.
In addition to being a performer, you have worked as a music educator at various schools and institutions and have been a Gluck Community Service Fellow. What originally attracted you to arts education and what do you like most about it?
Arts Education is one of the most important things in a musician’s journey and my Teaching Fellowship at school has been showing me this through my work with students. Music is a value that needs to be shared and passed on to the next generations and it is my “duty” to share my knowledge so I can create a value in someone else’s experience. I think teaching is something that I now want to continue on doing in my career because not only I am inspired by students but I also learn and grow from my work with them. And I just read that Bach was a teacher his entire life, and he was able to create this huge amount of work! Isn’t it amazing? I always bring something from my experience to share with a student and bring them joy through my teaching!
Although you are classically trained, you also have experience working in various other musical genres including Broadway. Can you go into some detail about the Broadway and Off-Broadway work you have done?
Okay, this is an interesting question. I grew up as a theater boy actually, playing and singing musical theater and Disney tunes so I’ve always had the passion for this genre. Then after graduating from undergrad, I went down to Broadway to look for work in the pits and I met a lot of fascinating musicians. So I was able to land a gig and went on to have my Broadway debut playing at Mary Poppins. I’ve also worked on numerous shows as a rehearsal pianist. I found that I have passion for American theater music and that the nostalgia in the music is something that resonates with me. I don’t know if it’s the nostalgia to Israel but I also feel nostalgia to Rodgers & Hammerstein and Bernstein. I found through my work, that I am very flexible musically and I can play in many styles. I always and still want to be able to improvise so I can fake jazz pretty well 🙂 But yeah, I always look for theater in the mix because my music is being driven by character and theater almost scenery. I like to create the dimension of a theater experience through my performance.
Looking back on your various engagements over the years, do you have one that sticks out in your mind more than others? If so, can you describe it?
I had to jump in to play for a world premiere of a show that’s now playing on Broadway called Dear Evan Hansen. I had to learn the show in a few days, then had only a single hour rehearsal (!) with the musicians on stage and played and conducted my first show. I was excited and grateful to have this experience because I was playing live on an upper stage with the band while the actors where underneath us. It was also incredible working with an ideal dream team of writers and creatives so I was very fortunate to have this experience.
Far left: Dror with friends on a bike trip in Martha’s Vineyard
Center: Selfie of Dror’s entire family after his sister surprised him for his 30th birthday
Right: Dror with his friends Pasek and Paul, “incredible theater writers who are soon to be Oscar winners for La La Land” according to Dror.
You currently have an O-1 visa which can be challenging to obtain. Many international students who would like to continue to work in the US after graduation are interested in applying for an O-1 visa. Can you tell them what that process is like? Do you have any advice?
The process is not simple and my best advice would be keep all your programs and important letters. Make important connection with musicians who can recommend your work. Get different work experience. And hire a lawyer you trust who knows about artists and O-1. It takes at least 3-6 months to build a good case for O-1.
Although you have been living in the US since 2004, do you still get homesickness? What do you miss most about Israel?
I do get home sickness, all the time. Except for when I’m busy which is most of the time so I don’t think about it much. But yeah, I miss my sister and my nephew and nieces a lot. My sister is my best friend 🙂
If you were to live and work anywhere in the world, other than the US and Israel, where would you ideally like to live? What about this place attracts you to it?
I would want to work where there’s a community that strives and lives for the arts because this is so important in my life. What attracts me most is the diversity and the differences of the people in this place. And the high level of art being crafted here.
You are expected to complete your graduate degree this May. What are your post-graduation plans?
I am taking my DMA auditions in the spring. I am exploring this at the moment. Definitely interested in conducting an orchestra soon enough. And please come to my recital everyone – Paul Hall Feb 24th at 8pm. TO BUILD A HOME is the theme and it tells a journey through music, in a way my own journey seeking to build a home through my music. There will be Broadway tunes with surprise guests!!