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!





Jieming Tang

For the December 2016 edition of Eye on Culture, the Office of International Advisement interviews Jieming Tang, a first year violin student from Hefei, China.  After years of music training in Beijing, Jieming moved to Ohio to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music (https://www.cim.edu/) before starting his undergraduate degree at The Juilliard School.  In addition to music and various other hobbies, Jieming is an avid photographer. Even though Jieming has been a student at Juilliard for less than a semester, he has been very engaged both on and off-campus.  Read-on to learn about Jieming!

Jieming Tang

You have played the violin since you were three years old. What do you love about the violin that has caused you to dedicate so much of your life to music?


Baby portrait, 1998

Since I picked up my first violin at a young age, music has very much been an essential part of me; in fact, I have no memory of when that wasn’t the case. As later told by my parents, they noticed my aptitude for music when I was able to sing and play nursery rhymes on the toy keyboard from memory as a one-year-old. The actual decision to study the violin, according to them, was made by myself when I picked out the picture of the violin among other instruments when asked to do so. The violin introduced me to the fantastic world of music, and it holds a special place in my heart. To me, the violin’s dynamic range, colorful timbre, and resemblance to human voice make it an extremely expressive instrument that resonates with the deepest levels of my soul.

You are originally from Hefei, China, a city that many Americans may not know about. Can you describe your home city to our readers?

I was born in Hefei, the capital city of Anhui province. It is less than 300 miles west of Shanghai and is part of eastern China. Hefei is somewhat of a “mediocre” city: its population is less than 8 million which is medium-sized by Chinese standards, and it is right between northern and southern China in terms of climate and cultural traditions. Hefei’s indistinctness makes the city not stand out as much, especially to tourists, since it lacks notable signature attractions or dishes. However, Huangshan or Yellow Mountain, the most magnificent mountain range in China, is also in Anhui and is less than 150 miles away from Hefei. More than 3 million tourists visit the mountain each year. Hefei is also becoming one of the fastest growing cities in China due to its location at the center of the most populated region of China. It is predicted that Hefei will become one of the largest central hubs in China for high speed rail and expressways in the near future. Having grown up in Hefei, I loved the busy (and sometimes chaotic) downtown, it’s numerous parks scattered around the city, the libraries, community centers, shopping malls, restaurants, amusement parks… Hefei is very much a lovable city full of history and wonders in its own way.

Above: Photos of Huangshan in Anhui Province, China

You moved from Hefei to Beijing at the age of eight to study violin at the Central Conservatory of Music. What was it like to make such a big move at such a young age?


Family portrait, 2006

During third grade, I was accepted to the Central Conservatory of Music’s (http://en.ccom.edu.cn/) elementary school division in Beijing, which is more than 600 miles away from my hometown Hefei. My father left his job and moved to Beijing to take care of me, while my mother stayed in Hefei to support us financially. The move to Beijing really put me out of my comfort zone, and kicked off my next chapter of life filled with adventures. It was especially difficult at first to live without my mother and her incredible cooking, but I adapted well to the big change not long after. The move to Beijing was also the first of a series of significant turning points in my life that shaped a lot of who I am. Studying at one of the top music institutes and living in the capital city of China for the first time really broadened my horizons, augmented my knowledge and skills, and further solidified my intention to dedicate my life to the art of music-making.

You came to the US in 2010 to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music. What were your first impressions of the US? Was it different than you expected?

I had always dreamed of studying abroad someday to get to know classical music and Western cultures better. I especially admired the United States with its diverse and inclusive culture, and its leadership on the world stage. In sixth grade, with the kind help of an American friend and her family, I was able to begin my next adventure by moving to Cleveland with my father, and attending the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Young Artist Program to further my music studies. However, my very first impressions of the U.S. were somewhat shocking and disappointing partly due to my over-expectations. With the economy recovering from the crash, the area of Cleveland where our apartment was located was troubled by failing infrastructure, bankrupt empty homes, and rather high


Recording session in Szell Library at Severance Hall, Cleveland

crime rates. Of course, I soon began to realize that one neighborhood of one city is in no way representative of an entire country. Especially after I started going to school and meeting all the wonderful people, I truly realized that there are so much more to a country than what meets the eye, and what truly makes the U.S. special is the people, society, and culture that make it up. Even though I studied English and familiarized myself with American culture before I arrived, the magnitude of culture shock was nonetheless unexpected. Everything was new and vastly different than what I had been used to, from as simple as eating breakfast to greeting others. Even trivial tasks were much more challenging due to the language barrier and cultural differences. With the help and support from the amazing people and mentors at Metro Catholic School (http://metrocatholic.org/), my very first school in America, I was able to adapt rather quickly to my new life and to overcome the challenges.

See Jieming perform at the Cleveland Institute of Music

Since moving to NYC to attend Juilliard, have you had much time to explore the city? Outside of Juilliard, what activity or event has been your favorite?

Coming to New York City after having spent six years in Cleveland has been quite an exciting change and experience. NYC is such a wonder-filled city full of diversity and opportunities, and is constantly bubbling with energy. I still remember the first time I was walking on the New York streets, I was so overwhelmed with awe and excitement that I couldn’t stop beaming and screaming to myself. I was able to really explore and experience the city during the Juilliard Orientation–the numerous outings helped me to get familiar with navigating the city and the subway system, as well as the metropolitan lifestyle in general. Even though I haven’t had nearly as much time to venture about the city since school started, my friends and I still take time off to explore once in a while (and grabbing some great food along too!). There is simply so much to do and see in the city. If I have to pick a favorite event/activity of mine so far, I would go with Smorgasburg (http://www.smorgasburg.com/), a weekend market at Prospect Park in Brooklyn where the best local food vendors come together to brighten up the days of all the foodies (yes I’m definitely one!).

If you had decided to not pursue violin or music in general, what do you think you would have studied?


Flying a model helicopter in China, summer 2011

Even though my primary passion is in music, I am also quite interested in a number of other fields. In general, I have a great appetite for anything in the realms of the sciences, and more specifically physics and computer science. My father was a computer engineer, and I have been intrigued by computers and information technology since I was very young. I would definitely be interested in pursuing computer science if I had not decided to study music. In addition, I am very passionate about aviation. Since I was little, I’ve been fascinated by the flying machines, and dreamed of one day piloting and designing my own aircraft; thus aeronautical engineering would be my other potential alternative major. Last but not least, I have a passion for photography and cinematography/filmmaking, and would consider those my potential areas of study also.

In addition to being a talented young musician, you are also a very good photographer. What inspired you to pick up a camera? What are your favorite subjects?

I have had an interest in photography ever since I could remember. However, I started to take it more seriously when my family purchased our first single lens reflex camera five years ago. I began to participate in online forums to learn from others, read books and articles, and study the works of the greats. Over the years, I have grown quite a lot as a photographer, and my works have gotten more recognized. More recently, my interests have extended to cinematography and filmmaking in general, although for those I’m still in the stage of acquiring basic knowledge and skills. I love photographing all kinds of subjects, from landscape to street to portrait. However, what I always aim to achieve when capturing any kind of photo is to always have a purpose for the photo, and to tell a story by capturing the essence of that frozen frame of history.


Hiking in Upstate New York while attending the Meadowmount School of Music in summer 2014.

When not playing music or taking photos, what do you like to do for fun or to relax?

Due to my passion for aviation, my pastime includes scratch building and flying radio-controlled scale model airplanes, helicopters, and multi-rotors. I hope to one day get a Private Pilot Certificate, and purchase or build my very own ultralight aircraft. In addition, I am a big techie, or what some would call a “nerd.” I am very much into anything that’s at the forefront of technological and scientific innovations, from electronics to theoretical physics. I also love reading books, watching movies, playing video games, and traveling.

You were recently the photographer for OIA’s International Festival. Can you describe the event to our readers? What was your reaction to watching the student performances?

The International Festival is an annual event organized by the OIA during the International Education Week (https://eca.state.gov/programs-initiatives/international-education-week). At the Festival, students of many different cultures and ethnic backgrounds get together for an evening filled with fun, food, and eye-opening cultural performances. At this year’s International Festival, the student performances range from singing and dancing to poetry and martial arts, and represented cultures from all around the globe. It was my first time attending the event, and I was absolutely touched and inspired. As an international student, it is heartwarming to see how Juilliard’s diversity is cherished and celebrated by all, and how it continues to inspire and contribute to the arts and culture, especially during this divisive time in the country. Watching the incredible performances from various cultural origins made me appreciate the multifariousness of our common humanity, and made me an even firmer believer in the power of the arts to unite and progress humanity.

Check out more pictures from International Festival 2016 taken by Jieming, on OIA’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JuilliardOIA/).

Since starting at Juilliard in September 2016, you have been very engaged in student life such as attending many Foundations programs, working as a photographer for the Office of Student Affairs, and attending the fall Leadership Retreat. How have you benefited from these experiences?

Coming to Juilliard has absolutely been an inspirational experience, to say the least. The various programs, workshops, events, and support services are truly special and are in line with the school’s values and President Polisi’s vision of artists as citizens. With my mindset and values prior to Juilliard, I would not have been interested in being involved and engaged nearly as much, as my image of what a great artist and person truly is has changed, from solely being able to master his or her craft to being a contributing member and citizen of society who makes a difference in people’s lives. Thus, I devoted some of the time I might have locked myself in a practice room to becoming more active and engaged in school and student life. With my participation in the fantastic programs and workshops Juilliard has to offer, I am beginning to expand my perspectives, gaining knowledge and experiences, and feeling like a much more complete artist and human being.

 Now that you attended the Leadership Retreat, do you plan to apply for a leadership position? Would you encourage other students to apply? If so, why?

Prior to coming to Juilliard, and especially before the leadership retreat, I would’ve never considered leadership to be something relevant to me in any way. I initially did not want to participate in the retreat because I could in no way see myself as a leader, but decided to get out of my comfort zone as a challenge for myself. It turns out to be an incredible and transformative experience that made me look at myself and the concept of leadership differently. As said by John Quincy Adams, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” That is why I plan to apply for a leadership position, and would also encourage other fellow students to do so because it is one of the best ways one could make a difference in the world.

Interested in applying for a leadership position like Jieming?  Learn more about Juilliard Student Leadership Selection. Applications open on December 12th 2016!  Applications due Tuesday, January 31st 2017 by 11:59pm.