Tal First

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.

Tal First sitting with violin.

Tal First sitting with violin. Credit Ilan Spira.

You began your violin studies when you were six in Israel. What influences were there for you to pursue violin?

Tal playing violin as a child.

Young Tal playing 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.

Tal with his cat, Steak

Tal with his cat, Steak

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”?

Tal performing violin.

Tal performing violin.

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.

Tal with friends from Juilliard

Tal with friends!





Dror Baitel

For this month’s Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement interviewed Dror Baitel (http://www.drorbaitel.com/), 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 (http://www.newschool.edu/mannes/) 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.


mickey-lr-practice-14What 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.


Dror playing a gig at the Mandain Oriental Hotel in Columbus Circle.  According to Dror, it is “always nice to play a grand piano…watching Central Park and the Manhattan skyline.”

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!


Dror at The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine after playing on Duke Ellington’s piano.

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?


Dror in the Lincoln Center Theater before a “The King and I” rehearsal

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 (https://www.uscis.gov/working-united-states/temporary-workers/o-1-visa-individuals-extraordinary-ability-or-achievement).  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.


Dror at Kibbutz Be’eri in the south of Israel

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!!

Dror Baitel recital program

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.