For the August Edition of Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement interviewed Tal First, a third year violinist from Israel. Read on to learn more about Tal’s passion for violin, his approach to adapting in NYC, and his experience with Musethica.
You began your violin studies when you were six in Israel. What influences were there for you to pursue violin?
I started playing the violin after attending a concert played by the school’s violin and cello teachers. I remember listening to the violin’s sound and being amazed by how beautiful it is. During lessons I loved when my teacher (Geri Ferber) demonstrated on his own violin (probably because he made the sound that I still couldn’t fully produce), and very early on he started giving me [Itzhak Perlman’s] tapes and CDs, so Itzhak Perlman quickly became a source of inspiration.
What are some of the differences you’ve noticed while studying violin in Tel Aviv compared to your time here at Juilliard?
My own mentality. These two different situations are more than just two different institutions. In Israel I studied in a music school that is part of the Tel Aviv University, so there was that. Also, I served in the army at the same time. I simply couldn’t really devote my entire life to my studies at that time. However, when I came to Juilliard everything has changed immediately: I wasn’t in the army, I wasn’t with my family, my life started being in English, I left my comfort zone. All these changes and sacrifices were made in order to achieve a new mentality: everything for the violin and music. This is the biggest difference between my time in Tel Aviv and my time here at Juilliard.
Can you explain more about the IDF for those who are unfamiliar with this commitment in Israel?
So, basically everyone in Israel has to serve in the army at the age of 18. There are many different programs and paths in the army; and, I got into what is called the “outstanding musican program”. The musicians in the program get the chance to keep practicing their instrument on a daily basis (otherwise they can’t practice regularly for 2-3 years, and that is… bad) while serving in the army.
Are there any cultural aspects in the U.S. that you weren’t fully prepared for when you first arrived for your studies?
Yes! I remember having to get used to public transportation’s existence on weekends!
What advice do you have for students who have difficulties overcoming culture differences? What have you found helpful?
Adjusting is part of us, and part of this world. Don’t be afraid from the cultural differences you notice. Remember that at the same time when you live within a new culture, your new environment is curious about you and your culture as well. So be yourself and share your own culture while you embrace others’ cultures- it goes both ways.
What do you miss most about Israel/your hometown?
Friday night dinners with my family.
Where do you suggest our readers visit in Israel?
Caesarea and Tel Aviv. Caesarea has this beautiful “old city” part that was built 2000 years ago, and in Tel Aviv you can just walk around, enjoy the unique vibes and eat some of the best food.
What do you think some of the best food is?
First of all, if you come to Israel you have to try some of the Mediterranean cuisine. We have wonderful dishes of fish, salads, hummus, falafel… Besides that, in Tel Aviv there is a large variety of restaurants of different cuisines that one should not miss.
Do you have any favorite places or things to do in NYC?
I came to NYC mainly for the cookies and banana pudding…
Can you share more about your involvement with “Musethica”?
Musethica is a foundation that organizes chamber concerts in places for people with special needs and circumstances. [Learn more about Musethica here: www.musethica.org/ ]They create a once-a-week-group from a few students and a teacher, and after a few days of rehearsals we go and perform in these different places for about 10 concerts in 3-4 days. I started my journey with them the year before I came to Juilliard; and, I participate in a “Musethica Week” almost every time I go back for a visit in Israel. This project is so important to me because of its unique combination of professionalism and humanity. On the one hand I receive the opportunity to play with some of the best teachers and students, dealing with stage fright, as well as pushing myself to the limits as a performer: when you have 10 concerts in such a short time, it is easier to achieve the feeling of “I have nothing to lose. Let’s try this and that”. As I got familiar with this feeling, I can now better feel it when I have a one concert opportunity as well. On the other hand, when playing for those people one can really understand the power of music. We play in many different places, such as: schools, hospitals, Alzheimer Centers, Mental Health Centers, prisons, and more. So many people in those concerts are being touched by the music in a way that we don’t see in “normal” concerts. One of my favorite memories is from when we played Mozart’s famous string quintet in G minor in an Alzheimer Center. A 90-year-old was sitting in the first row, and he was in a very late stage of the disease. The doctors told us that he used to be a professional violist. As soon as we started playing he became still, quiet. As soon as the viola came in with the famous theme he started doing the fingerings on his knee!!!!. The music gave him inner peace for a little while, and we were unbelievably moved with what we just saw.
If you were not a violinist, what do you think your life pursuits may be?
I used to play tennis quite a lot, so this might be one answer. This year I discovered my love for cooking. With some practice, this could have been another option.
Do you have any favorite tennis players?
Definitely Roger Federer. Besides the fact he is just a player from another galaxy, he seems to be charismatic, respectful, modest, and a nice person. I guess it is just very easy and natural to become his fan.
What is something that many may not know about you? Is there anything else you would like to share?
I am Israeli, but before the holocaust my entire family lived in Poland. So, I grew up with my grandparents’ polish cooking. A lot of Pierogi.