Jonathan Spandorf

I have had the great pleasure of seeing Jonathan Spandorf, a recent Master’s graduate in Juilliard’s Music Division, conduct the Juilliard Lab Orchestra in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. I have also been fascinated by his travel stories told to me in my office over cups of coffee. Captured below is his dynamic, charismatic, and adventurous spirit.

Jonathan Spandorf 1Why did you choose conducting?
I was always fascinated by the work of the conductor and the orchestra because I played in the orchestra. When I was a teenager I actually discovered what we call classical music. I really liked the interaction of the conductor and people and the way that he works with them. Eventually, I was pretty curious in my senior year in high school to try to experience myself a little bit so I had a few opportunities. I really enjoyed it, and it was fun because I didn’t have to play. I felt like I’m making music together with other people, so I loved it.

Tell us about your hometown just outside of Tel Aviv.
I was born in Haifa but I moved pretty quickly to my hometown of Givatayim – it was a pretty standard small city and I was there for public school and later high school. They have this joke that Givatayim is actually some sort of Florida in Israel, but besides that, it was pretty quiet with nice people. My high school was a high school of arts and therefore many people from many other places in Israel came there to study, so I was able to meet many different people. Eventually, most of the time when I wasn’t at home I spent in Tel Aviv or in other places in Israel.

A few years back, you backpacked across South America for nine months. What made you decide to take that trip?
After my army service, I had so many thoughts about what I’m going to study. I was afraid of choosing music as a path and I was confused. Then a friend of mine from childhood offered for me to join him for a trip to South America. At first, I decided to go for three months and he told me that perhaps he will extend his trip… eventually it was the opposite. He decided to spend three months in South America, and I met this one guy and we Jonathan Spandorf 6spent together nine months and so many other people joined us. I met so many interesting people there. During my trip to South America I just discovered in myself that there are other things besides music that I like to do and I want to do. This is when I started to do really challenging hikes and I had the opportunity to climb mountains – a thing that I wouldn’t imagine I could do. I started to rock climb, which I am doing since just recently with a little bit of break, and kayaking – just things I couldn’t imagine I can do somewhere else, so it was an experience for me. This is when I also decided that perhaps music is good for me. I remember that at the middle of my trip, I decided you know what, I want to study music.

It just came to you?
Yeah, just one day I decided this is what I want to do and I’m going to make this happen. I guess I tried to avoid it so many times because of the challenging path of music and eventually I just couldn’t avoid it. Not even with a trip to a far place like South America.

Jonathan Spandorf 5What countries did you visit while you were in South America?
My trip started at Ecuador and pretty quickly I went to the Galapagos Islands. It was just an amazing experience being in such a special place. This is also when I thought, “My God, can this trip be even better than that?” I spent five months in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia and this is where I had my first attempts to climb mountains, rock climb, and do really long hikes; one hike was like fourteen days in the Andes. It was amazing to be in special and different landscapes, such as the desert in Bolivia. I went to Argentina and Chile, especially to the Southern part of Patagonia which was also amazing. The terrain was pretty mountainous but was so different than Peru and Bolivia. At the end, I went to the Carnival in Brazil. This was like the grand finale of my trip. It was a pretty good one.

How did your experience shape you?
I became much more independent after this trip. Somehow the things that I did just opened my mind to other possibilities. All these experiences just affect you as a person and I think this is exactly what happened to me.

Eventually, I think that after this trip I became more confident than what I was before in what I want to achieve, what I want to do and how I am going to do it.

What do you feel is the main challenge of being an international student?
First of all, the living. The living in New York is intense and it is expensive. Some people are pretty much lonely here. I’m not sure lonely, but they’re alone. They don’t have family. Most of them don’t know anybody. I was lucky that I had a few friends in New York, musicians that were here a long time ago and so it was like a soft landing for me in the city. I think that perhaps the most difficult thing is the fact that you’re alone, and I guess that this is also a part of the job for musicians. They live by themselves most of the time. I think this is the toughest.

Jonathan Spandorf 7What was your transition like to the U.S.?
When I came to do my audition at Juilliard, it felt quite natural in New York. I just loved the place. I loved sucking in the vibe. I mean I knew it’s super intense and that everyone, they just go and go, and you don’t have time and you spend so many hours outside. But there are so many other benefits in the city that I just told myself, “My God, I have to move here. It’s so great. It’s crazy, but it’s great.” So I guess for me, I would say it was a fun transition – if I can define it like that.

What would you say is the main difference between the U.S. and Israel?
In Israel, we tend to be much more direct than people in the U.S. I guess that because Israel is kind of Americanized in the past 20 years, you don’t see so many differences. Besides that Israel is so multicultural itself,  so we’re kind of used to everything.

What aspect of your home country do you miss the most?
First of all, my family and friends. I really miss being with the people that I love and that love me. Just spending time with them, like going with friends to trips and having this great time together. Also, the food which is so fresh and good.

What do you think is the most common misconception of Israel?
This is kind of a tricky question. I guess that recently because Israel has so many domestic and international problems, people tend to see us as immoral most of the time. When I’m here I’ll obviously try to advocate for Israel all the time, but I can’t ignore the criticism that happens. I try to Jonathan Spandorf 4criticize what’s going on in my home country which most of the time really bothers me. Sometimes it makes me very sad to know about things that the society became, things that we don’t want to be we did. I always try to consider all the sides and all the aspects. I try to talk to as many people as I can about it and to understand. Especially when I visited Europe, I had the feeling of antagonism against Israel, and it was pretty hard to get free from the misconception. I guess the fact that people think people are immoral if they go to the army is not true. People are individuals. There are bad people and there are good people. I want to believe that there are more good people than bad people.

What are your plans after graduation?
I’m pursuing a job in conducting in an orchestra. I enjoyed teaching this year at school. It was really something great that happened to me – the fact that I was able to work with students from school to teach them and to learn from them how to teach better. I really hope this is something that I took to further my path and my career. I guess that most important for me is to keep pursuing opportunities to perform. Of course I would also like to develop some other skills as a musician – things that because of time limits I couldn’t do any more – like writing and arranging music that I like so much, and discovering other types of music which I was able to do here in NY with all this multiculturalism that we spoke about. The fact that one night you can go to a place like Village Vanguard, another night you can go to Guantanamera to hear Latin music, to the Met to hear opera or the Philharmonic. The fact that everything is so accessible for us. I want to keep doing it.

In reflecting on your experience here in the U.S., what are the first three words that come to mind?
Culture, Food, Weather.


Kara Chan

Kara Chan, a fourth-year dancer in Juilliard’s Dance Division, has illuminated the stage of many a Juilliard dance performance I have attended. In the course of our interview, she exuded a wisdom and poise far beyond her years. Her generosity of spirit graces the questions below.

4 year old ballerinaI’ve been fortunate to see you perform in many Juilliard dance performances over the years. How did you come to study dance?
Well, I was always one of those kids that would turn on the music on the stereo and dance and skip around the couch – there are so many recordings of me just doing my own thing. I was always an active child so that’s why my parents decided “Oh, she loves dance. Let’s put her in dance classes.” So I started recreationally at the age of 5. I relocated to a pre-professional training studio at age 10. I later went to high school that had a half day program, so it allowed me to do my academics which was a very important part of my life and do my training in the afternoons. It fulfilled so much for me and there was never a question of not dancing after high school. Dance has always been a really important part of my life.

IMG_1356Tell us about your native Vancouver.
I’m from North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Vancouver is very beautiful. It’s very green and it’s just a beautiful place with lots of mountains and trees and nature. It rains a lot which helps with the beauty of Vancouver, but I love it. I miss that aspect of it while being here. It’s a place where you can disconnect into the peace of nature. There is hiking and during the winter, all winter sports: skiing, snowshoeing, cross country (which I really love doing).

Who inspires you?
In general, I find inspiration from people who really have a drive and a passion for what they’re doing. It’s their outlook on life, their optimism, and making the most of it, for sure. Being surrounded by so many wonderful human beings as well as artists, I definitely can say that I’ve been inspired every day. It is so wonderful to be in an environment of people that want to be pursuing their art form and are wonderful human beings as well. I think the arts bring people together. I admire people that share the same work ethic and anyone who brings the best out of you; any mentor or person who sees the best in you and believes in your potential to grow and to continue evolving and learning.

Juilliard_Kara Chan_019

Is there any one person that has been especially mentoring of you at Juilliard?
Charla Genn, who teaches ballet class at Juilliard. She embodies all of these things I just mentioned. She’s very demanding of course, but it’s all a part of wanting the best from you and she’s so generous, so caring, and really wanting to invest in you. She sees everyone as a unique individual and makes them feel special – I think that’s a really special quality to have.

What other endeavors do you feel passionately about?
Being at Juilliard so many of my memorable experiences have been outside the dance studio. Participating in Educational Outreach, doing Gluck, as well as teaching with the CLIMB fellowship and Arts Enrichment. I think it’s really important to develop and hone the skills as a teaching and performing artist as well as focusing on the pursuit of your career, because it informs what you do so much by being in the front of the studio. I really love teaching and sharing what I know with the New York community. I also really love Yoga. When I go back home for spring or winter break, it gives me a sense of groundedness, balance, and the ability to tap into my inner strength.

Juilliard School of the Arts

What do you think is the main challenge of being an international student?
Definitely the costs. Traveling home to here, and finding scholarship opportunities, which ties together. As a graduating student I’m starting to deal with visa things. Dance companies sometimes specify in their auditions that they only can look for dancers who either are U.S. citizens or hold a valid green card, so that ultimately cuts you off from being seen. This limits the options as an international dancer looking for work. I’ve come to realize that if a company is interested in you they have to take on that financial burden of your visa if they want to have you be a part of their collective. So that’s another challenge that is sort of new that I’ve discovered.

IMG_0245What was your transition like to the U.S.?
Before coming to Juilliard, I never spent a long period of time away from home, so the transition going into a big city was very exciting for me. I really loved being independent and finding what that was like to live. I actually wasn’t home sick my first year at all. I think it’s just the nature of being here and finding a community of people where you feel like you built a family. I do love the fast pace of New York City because I’m a very quick walker, but I think that has come from being in the city too. Coming to the U.S. I’ve definitely developed a broader perspective and an open mind. The diversity that exists in this city is so wonderful and so unique, so I think that’s special.

What are the differences you’ve noticed between Canada and the U.S.?
The holidays are much more commercialized and blown up here [in the U.S.]. Definitely, we know the U.S. as in larger portion sizing, so that was interesting. Canadians are often teased for being too polite, saying “sorry” when it’s not necessary. Oh, and I apparently have a Canadian accent in pronouncing words like “bag,” “bagel,” and “sorry.”

IMG_1244What aspect of Canada do you miss the most?
I love seeing the mountains, fresh clean air, and fresh water. Vancouver has the best water, I think. And being in nature. Central Park is beautiful, however, it’s amidst the tall buildings. Vancouver offers the sites, the nature, the greenery, the mountains and all the things you can do in terms of being outdoors – hiking, taking walks, etc.

What is the most common misconception of Canada?
I get this a lot: “Oh, you’re from Canada. It must be so cold”, or “Oh, you’re used to it here” as though you shouldn’t even be complaining it’s cold. It depends on where – of course if you’re living more back east like in Montreal and Toronto it can get cold in the winters. However, Vancouver is very pleasant – it’s a rain forest. Everyone thinks if you’re from Canada, you are used to wearing a parka all year round. That’s not the case and people think that you’re really talky and I’m not. What else? The temperature thing, Fahrenheit to Celsius – that was an adjustment. I haven’t converted to knowing what Fahrenheit is in relation to Celsius. I still look at my phone.


In reflecting on your experience in the US, what are the first three words that come to mind?
Opportunity. Diversity. Learning.

Duanduan Hao

Duanduan Hao, a first-year Masters pianist in Juilliard’s Music Division, brought a wealth of knowledge of his native Chinese and French culture to our conversation. In the course of our meeting, I noticed the French mannerisms and nuances so telling of his time spent in Paris. His code switching was between French and English, as with using the French word “Parisien” for the English “Parisian.” Duanduan’s unique cultural mix colors the questions below.

Duanduan Hao 1How did you come to play the piano?
In 1990s China it was a trend for children living in major cities to learn a special skill at school, so some learned an instrument of music like me, others sports, theatre, painting or sculpture. When I was two, I had a neighbor ten years older than me who was learning the piano. My parents found that I always got anxious when I heard the neighbor playing wrong notes! That’s the moment they discovered I was sensitive to piano, so they brought me one and I began to learn to play. That’s basically how my relationship with piano began.

Tell us about your native China.
I was born in the North and moved to Shanghai when I was eleven, so it’s a kind of second native city for me. Shanghai has lots of people, cars, skyscrapers, opportunities, and a very advanced education system. The most amazing feature of the city is that it has a great mixture of Eastern and Western cultures. Shanghai was occupied by Western countries like Germany, France, and England, that constructed parts of the city that still remain today. The architecture beside the river on the Western side is similar to London, while the Conservatory of Shanghai area was occupied by the French so we can see small houses in the French style, with lovely rooftops and colors. Even the trees were planted by French people. The local people in Shanghai are traditional in their way of living and even speaking because they kept their dialect and don’t really speak Mandarin between themselves. This shows the conservative way of the city, so it’s a great mixture of the open-minded and also the traditional.

Duanduan Hao 3You lived in Paris for ten years, starting at age fifteen. What brought you to Paris?
My parents had this plan already when I was little because they always wanted me to get to know different environments and new things – just to open my mind about the world. Also, because I was learning piano, which is really a Western instrument, it was logical for them to send me to the center of Western Europe, Paris. They sent me there to get directly in touch with the source of the culture.

You completed your undergraduate degree at the Sorbonne. Tell us about that.
My concentration was in art history and musicology. It was the most important period of my life; it changed a lot of my opinions of Occidental culture and had a great impact on my piano interpretation. The Sorbonne, founded in 1257, is one of the most ancient universities in the world. It is the second oldest university besides the one in Bologna. It carries a great heritage of the history of Western Europe. The Latin section in Paris is amazing for study and for culture. It is amazing to think that in the small cafes you pass by, there were once people like Hugo and Balzac drinking coffee and writing. You can also see the Notre Dame de Paris through the windows of the classrooms.

Now, the age-old question: New York or Paris?
For living, definitely Paris. For enriching experiences and developing a career, New York. It’s more adaptable. And I think New York is a place for young people to stay because it is so dynamic. Paris can sometimes get a little too quiet and a little too slow.

Duanduan Hao 4What do you think is the main challenge of being an international student?
The adaptation. We have to adjust ourselves as soon as possible to a new environment and have the courage to present ourselves to the new world, to meet new people, new friends. It seems simple, but it is not an easy thing to do when we first get to a new place and we don’t know anyone. This did not happen when I moved to the U.S. because I had many friends who were living, studying and working here. It happened when I was in France. I didn’t speak the language yet, was barely able to pronounce a few words, and didn’t have anyone I knew. It was really a difficult moment. I had to have an open mind to receive and absorb every moment in these new surroundings.

What aspect of U.S. culture most surprised you?
The open-minded spirit, especially of people that live in New York, to the outside world. I talked with a few newcomers, and we all find that we can easily become a New Yorker once we’ve settled in the city. This doesn’t happen in other cities and more closed societies. It was after five or six years in Paris that I could finally consider myself a “Parisien.” There, you have to just make an effort to go into that society, to make yourself a place. But here, you already have a place. They just receive you as who you are, as a member of the city.

What aspect of your home country do you miss the most?
The food! Also, we feel a security when we stay in our country, like a tree with deep roots. It’s really stable and feels comfortable. But here, we’re like newly planted trees so we have to develop our own roots by ourselves. This is the most exciting part about it – adventure. I’m enjoying this moment of developing a new relationship with the new world.

Duanduan Hao 2What do you think is the most common misconception of China?
The most frequently asked question when I was in France and Europe was, “Do you have lots of trouble getting approved to come to Europe to study music and art?” This proves that their knowledge of China still remains in the 70s. They don’t know that the society has evolved and become so different. It is not a sealed and closed society with no contact with the outside world anymore. I wish to encourage people to know the new China, and welcome them to visit themselves if they are interested in what is going on in my country.

How have you experienced culture shock outside of China?
I think in the opposite way of thinking. In China, we have this tradition to think our ancestors are always right, and did greater things than us. If we look at Meditation One of Descartes, the way of thinking is to delve into what is already there and prove whether it is correct or not instead of believing what the ancestors said. This is radically different from how we normally think in China. There’s also a difference of religion, in terms of notions about God. In China we don’t talk about this in most families, but here, sometimes, we have to get in touch with and discuss elements of the Bible. In China the Bible is most commonly perceived as a romance or a legendary story. I have friends from France who study the Bible the same way they study laws, so that’s completely different.

In reflecting on your experience in the U.S., what are the first three words that come to mind?
I loved it!

Correction: April 3, 2015

An earlier version of this post misstated the location of the oldest university in the world. It is in Bologna, not Polonia.

Basma Edrees

Basma, a second year Masters violinist in Juilliard’s Music Division, has been a student worker in our office for a little over a year now. I have become increasingly intrigued by her story of constant travel and relocation. Below is an excerpt from a much more detailed interview of this captivating young woman.

Basma 1Why did you choose to play a stringed instrument?
Well, I didn’t really choose it! My mom and dad saw that when I was a kid I would hum things and sing, before I could even speak. They felt I had a good ear and wanted to nurture this talent. When I was four my parents saw an advertisement for a new violin program at the Cairo Opera House. So, I went there and took the exam, and I got in.

Tell us about your native Cairo.
Cairo is a very busy and modern city, with layers of culture. When I would go to my lessons I would pass by the pyramids, which were right next to me. There’s this unique experience of living in a mix between the new and the old. The people are very friendly and warm, and there is more of a community base. Part of the culture is that you really have to know and interact with your neighbors. As Muslims (or even Christians) in Islam, the Prophet said “You should be very good to your neighbors and take care of them. They are family.” This a very important part of the religion. The United States is a more independent culture.

Basma 5Tell us about your unique upbringing.
My father is a diplomat and as the daughter of a diplomat, we traveled a lot because he works in each country for four years and goes back to Egypt for two years, and then the cycle repeats. It was kind of like a gypsy life. I was born in Washington D.C. but don’t have the citizenship because I was the daughter of a diplomat. I lived in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, and later in Syria. Syria was a very safe place compared to what you see now. It was very friendly and clean with hospitable, beautiful people, wonderful food, and the same sense of community as in Egypt. I moved to New Jersey while my father worked for the Egyptian mission in the United Nations. I moved to New York so that I could be close to school, and stayed to continue my education and all that!

Do you have any favorites among the places that you lived?
They’re all wonderful places, but I would definitely choose Egypt and the United States as my favorites because Egypt is where I’m from, my roots, and is in my blood and who I am. The United States is where I’ve matured and developed, both personally and musically. I came here when I was sixteen. And now I’m turning 24 in February.

Basma 4How do you feel that moving around so often has impacted you?
This community-based culture (from Egypt) isn’t so strong anymore… not thinking “Oh, I know my neighbors” and that they’re going to back you and help you. I think as a person who’s traveled a lot you are open to ideas, and you gain knowledge of other people, other cultures, and how to depend on yourself if you’re from another country.

People have a fear of difference, but I think diversity is what makes this world a rich place. If we’re all the same – dress the same, talk the same, the world would be very boring.

How has moving around so much affected your musical training?
I’ve had very influential teachers in Egypt and in Syria who introduced me to different approaches. This is surely beneficial, but consistency just was not there because of the constant travel. It is when I came to the United States that I had the consistency and the real, foundational training that would really prepare me to be a professional musician. I listen to a lot of Eastern music (Turkish, Arabic, whatever) and my teachers feel that in my playing. They feel a certain flavor. They say, “Whatever you play, it just sounds so different.” Being in different countries definitely influenced the way I present myself as a musician.

Basma 2You became engaged moments before we met and were recently married. How do you think that these life events are celebrated differently in Egypt?
An engagement here is basically where the guy asks “Will you marry me?,” presents the ring, and that’s it. But for us, no. An engagement is basically a wedding. You get the band and the diamond ring, but you wear it on your right hand. During the wedding, the groom takes off the ring from your right hand and puts it on your left hand. Also, we get engaged and then there is something in the middle. You’re basically married, but there’s a religious ceremony/reception that takes place. Then you have the actual wedding where you wear the white gown. There are three stages.

Basma 6What would you say is the most common misconception of Egypt?
That Egyptians live in the past. Egypt contributes so much to the world today. In the 20th century, you have Nobel Prize winners in ‘78 (Anwar al-Sadat), ’88 (Naguib Mahfouz), and ‘99 (Ahmed Zewail). A personal misconception for me is that I’ve had an arranged marriage. This is kind of offensive because the person assumes that you are less educated than them, that you are an oppressed woman that is forced into a certain marriage, that I don’t love my husband. I am just as educated as they are, I am at Juilliard, they are at Juilliard; we are equals. People should never assume with stereotypes. People should do their research and know about the country and visit and see.

What aspect of Egypt do you miss the most?
I miss walking in these layers of history, the unique experience of feeling I am walking on the same road people were walking on three thousand years ago. I miss the friendly people, the food, and family for sure. My grandma, who recently passed, was a very elegant lady, from a big well known family in the very eastern part of Egypt. When I was a kid, she would open her jewelry box and show me her vintage things, old and beautiful. That’s where my love for jewelry comes from.

Basma 3When you reflect on your experience in the United States, what are the first three words that come to mind?
Waleed, my husband, whom I fell in love with here. Music, because I’ll always remember the United States for giving me this very strong musical education – one of the best in the world. And San Francisco. San Francisco is where I’m going to build my family and my future.

Hannes Otto

I was thrilled to feature Hannes in our very first interview. As a third year actor in Juilliard’s Drama Division, Hannes graces these questions with his unmistakable charm, wit, and unique personal story.

Hannes 3Tell us about your hometown.
I was born in Pretoria, the Capital of South Africa, although I culturally consider myself from Cape Town. Cape Town must be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s at the southernmost tip of Africa with a strong European influence in terms of the vibrant art, theatre and fashion industries. The city is on one side surrounded by the spectacular Table Mountain, with the Atlantic Ocean on another side and a massive stretch of wine lands on the other. This, in my opinion, makes for a pretty spectacular vista all around.

Why did you choose drama?
I knew I wanted to be an actor when I saw The Sound of Music when I was 6 years old and fell in love with the character of Leisl. After two days of being ‘love sick’ and refusing to eat, my grandmother, trying to help, called up the producer of the show, who she happened to know and organized for me to meet the actress who played Leisl for tea- hoping that this would cure my condition. When finally meeting her, I was so overwhelmed by her presence and beauty that I wet my pants. That’s when I knew… I want to have what she has. The ability to change peoples lives (and make them wet their pants).

Hannes Headshot

Photo: Gregory Costanzo

Who inspires you?
I have so many idols and influences and inspirations. My dad is a huge influence in my life. His determination is unapologetic. My mother’s quiet understanding and interest in the human psyche and in classical music has influenced greatly the way I look at art. Nelson Mandela inspires me to forgive and seek forgiveness. Charlize Theron inspires me to become the first great South African male in the American film industry. Ed Norton, Michael Fassbender, Joaquin Phoenix, Christoph Waltz, Niell Blomkamp, Die Antwoord, Alexander McQueen, Elon Musk, David Fincher, Pedro Almodovar, Malcolm Gladwell… The list is long.

What other endeavors do you feel passionately about?
I’m an avid marathon runner. I ran the NYC Marathon in 2014. My advice to anyone thinking of doing it would be to wear warm clothes even if you think you won’t need it. I also have a strong interest in architecture and fashion.

What languages do you speak?
My mother tongue is Afrikaans. It’s the youngest language in the world and is derived from Dutch, German and western African languages.

Describe your transition to U.S. culture.
Moving to New York was just as difficult as it was thrilling. I think it’s important to be actively involved in your community. It’s the easiest and quickest way to create community for yourself.

What aspect of U.S. culture most surprised you?
How polite and politically correct everyone is. Us Africans are more direct and to the point.

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What are the challenges of being an international student?
The costs.

What aspect of your home country do you miss the most?
The sense of humor.

How were you made to feel welcome at Juilliard?
I was struck by how my class and department has fully embraced me and my culture from the beginning. They were excited and interested in my differences and what we could learn from each other.

Hannes 2In thinking about your experience in the U.S., what are the first three words that come to mind?
Work. Play. Work.

What is the most common misconception of your home country?
That everyone in Africa is black. 😜

What are the main differences between your home culture and U.S. culture?
Bureaucracy, size, politics.