FELSOORS, Hungary – For young Gypsy musicians, it's a unique opportunity to get ahead in life.
Renowned Hungarian jazz guitarist Ferenc Snetberger's music school for Roma kids is coming to the end of its inaugural year, with around 60 students getting instruction not just in their instruments but also in subjects such as English and computer skills seen as key to building a professional career.
Nearly all of the students at the Snetberger Music Talent Center in Felsoors, a picturesque village among rolling hills on the north side of Lake Balaton, two hours drive from the capital Budapest, come from underprivileged Roma families.
The integration of its Roma community, estimated at around 5-8 percent of Hungary's 10 million people, is one of the largest social and economic challenges facing the country. Unemployment among Hungary's Roma ballooned after the 1990 end of communism, which resulted in the close of many mines and factories that provided low-skilled jobs.
The school chose its students mainly through auditions held around the country; most of the teachers are, like Snetberger, also Roma.
"In regular music schools, their real talents and values often go unnoticed," Snetberger said. "That's why I wanted to have mostly Roma for teachers, because they are clear about this and recognize the students' skills."
"My main aim is to build on and develop what they bring from home, to open their musical world to new styles they haven't yet known."
One of the most talented musicians attending classes is Elemer Feher, a 20-year-old clarinetist from the city of Godollo, near Budapest. Feher is among the oldest students at the center and has already auditioned at conservatories in Germany, where he hopes to continue his studies.
While Feher's first love is classical music, the Snetberger experience is helping him expand his horizons.
"I've really enjoyed playing jazz and folk and other styles which I don't play that often," said Feher, before rehearsing a composition by Argentine tango great Astor Piazzolla.
"This talent school is a fantastic experience in my life. It gives the students many advantages and opportunities we could only dream about."
Snetberger, 55, is one of Hungary's most successful musicians, having played with Bobby McFerrin, Richard Bona, Laurindo Almeida and many others.
The idea to teach more than music at the center came from his own experiences abroad.
"If you don't speak English, it's hard to communicate and establish relationships," said Snetberger, who hopes to enroll a wide-enough range of students to form a chamber orchestra. "You need to be able to manage yourself. It's best they learn this from the beginning."
The center, which includes dormitories, classrooms and a combination dining and performance hall, among other facilities, was built mostly from a grant of €2.7 million ($3.6 million) received from Norway and finished last year.
To meet its operating expenses, the school relies mostly on funds from the EU, the Hungarian government and George Soros' Open Society Institute. The Norwegian Jazz Association and Hungary's Liszt Academy of Music are among the institutions providing teaching assistance.
With an annual budget of around 90 million forints (€305,000, $407,000), the endeavor is facing an uncertain future, said Zoltan Meszaros, the center's director.
The center still needs to raise around 20 percent of its 2012 budget target. Like many other projects which rely on EU funds, it soon may be forced to either cut expenses or look elsewhere for revenues.
Hungary stands to lose nearly €500 million ($667 million) in EU subsidies — almost 30 percent of the total it receives — unless it can take substantial steps in the next few months to ensure that its budget deficit remains within EU limits.
"If these funds are frozen, then we can close our doors," Snetberger said. "But this is unimaginable to me. The center is something unique in Europe and we will do everything we can to avoid letting it happen."
Meanwhile, classes are continuing and the second academic year will launch in June, when around 30 new students will join a similar number from the first year returning for another cycle.
Since the students attend regular schools, classes at the Snetberger center are held during June, October and March to at least partially overlap with school breaks — for a total of 12 weeks of instruction.
Between classes the students gather in small groups around the campus and since many have their instruments at hand, spontaneous jam sessions are practically unavoidable.
"Music is a gift," Feher said. "It's like when a person finds a life partner. I know music is never going to hurt."
For Snetberger, 55, educating young Gypsy musicians is rewarded by the inspiration he receives from them.
"I think no one knows them better than me because I come from the same poverty," said Snetberger, the youngest of six children from the northeastern Hungarian city of Salgotarjan.
"I think I play even better with them. They give me something special as well."