School and founder receive big awards
Music school awarded for unique teaching methods and flexibility
Posted: March 20, 2013
By Clare Speak
For the Post
In 1997, businessman and philanthropist Robert Schönfeld realized there was a lack of opportunity for both Czech musicians as well as would-be foreign music students living in the Czech Republic, so he decided to address the problem himself.
"I returned from a study period in Finland to find the Czech Republic, so renowned for its history of music, still didn't offer a musical education in any language other than Czech," Schönfeld said. "At that time, only a few private teachers taught in foreign languages, but there was no way they as individuals were able to guarantee a professional level of teaching, nor a way to continue lessons when they were sick or away on concert."
Schönfeld was so struck by the need for music education that he was prompted to found the International School of Music and Fine Arts (ISMFA) in Prague using his own funds. The school first opened in the 1997/1998 academic year with only a handful of students. Today in its 15th year, the school has approximately 500 students and employs more than 100 teachers.
On Feb. 18, due to its unique approach to its students and flexible approach toward teachers, the school and Schönfeld were awarded the prestigious 2012 Czech Republic Social Entrepreneur of the Year prize from the professional service firm Ernst & Young.
The goal of Ernst & Young's Social Entrepreneur of the Year contest is to publicize exemplary persons in the business arena who can be role models for young and emerging entrepreneurs. Internationally, it is one of the most respected awards of its kind.
"For me, victory in the competition was recognition of 15 years of consistent work, resolve and perseverance," Schönfeld said.
Schönfeld obtained a master's degree in the history of music and art and studied the violin at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. He comes from a family with something of a tradition of supporting young artists. "Whenever I didn't want to practice the violin as a small boy, my parents used to tell me I had to, so that I could be like my great-grandmother," Schönfeld said. "She apparently sang and played the zither so well that Antonín Dvořák himself accompanied her. Many years later, I discovered that this was because her father paid for the young Dvořák's accommodation, and he gave my great-grandmother music lessons in return."
Today, Schönfeld and the school focus on enjoyment and inclusion. "Students are taught in a natural and fun manner, emphasizing getting pleasure from their own compositions," he said. Students are taught either at home or in one of the school's locations around Prague, depending on their needs, and tuition is available in English, German, French, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Czech and Slovak.
"Basically the school works to satisfy the demand of its clients," Schönfeld said. "We have a lot of American, British, German and Russian students - more than a half of our clients are foreigners."
The school is also succeeding in its aim to create job opportunities for Czech artists, which Schönfeld said are extremely limited. According to him, the system of teaching generally operating in the Czech Republic does not allow artists to reconcile their concert commitments with their teaching activities. Schönfeld explained that employing teachers who are also actively performing is a huge bonus for his school, and so they worked to create a flexible learning system that allows talented artists to combine a musical career with teaching. Thanks to that, Schönfeld said, 100 percent of IMSFA's teachers are also active performers.
"We think that learning under the instruction of active musicians is an invaluable asset for pupils," Schönfeld continued. "The realness of the experience these artists can pass to the students is irreplaceable. Even those pupils who practice music only for enjoyment are able to progress rapidly."
In addition to music, ISMFA also teaches art and dance lessons, as well as organizing concerts, exhibitions and training seminars for music teachers.
"As a result of our charitable activities, the school is able to meet its principal goal: that every child, regardless of nationality, age, state of health, social status or level of talent should have access to music education," Schönfeld said. "Our ambition will continue to be to provide an open, not an elite, school - an institution that will offer the best of education without smothering the children. It should build a love for music and bring joy from artistic creation."
Clare Speak can be reached at email@example.com