© Lisa Stirling/gettyimages
© Lisa Stirling/gettyimages

Music education in Switzerland now guaranteed under the constitution, what's next?

In December 2012, the Swiss people voted for the introduction of the clause 67a in the Swiss Constitution. This clause concerns musical education and musical training of children and young people. Today, what is the impact of this vote on the Swiss education landscape?

Switzerland and music: a long romance. According to the Federal Statistical Office, in this confederation consisting of 26 cantons and 8 million people, one in four people has - and plays - a musical instrument, one in six sings in a choir and over 70 percent of the population attended one to three concerts or musical shows in 2014. The Swiss Music Council consists of 51 associations and 650,000 individual musicians as well as many orchestras both professional and amateur. The Swiss Association of Music Schools brings together 434 schools, 280,000 students and 12,000 teachers.

And yet, in 2012 the Swiss people decided to take a historic step: more than 72% accepted to introduce a new article concerning music education into the Swiss constitution, ensuring access to music education in a specialised music school for all children. An unprecedented act in a country where music education already has a place of choice, both in the private sphere and in education from a very early age.

“Everyone was surprised by that percentage, which reflected massive support to music education” remembers Stephan Schmidt, director of the FHNW Academy of Music. “Politicians got scared of what this decision would bring in terms of having to follow the principles set out in the clause 67a of the Constitution. But for us who are professionals, that was clear recognition of the appropriate role for music education in the development of a person and of society”.

Recognition of the right to music education for all, which has led to a wave of excitement among professionals. “Shortly afterwards, the federal government organised a conference in Bern in order to arrange a round-table meeting between professionals and politicians to propose a course of action. We had a huge catalogue of things that we wanted to do. Among politicians, there was considerable hesitation. But today, four years later, we are starting to put into practice some of the principles and things are moving in the right direction”.

If reforms are difficult to implement, that's because Switzerland consists of 26 cantons that defend tooth and nail their complete autonomy with respect to matters concerning education or culture. The State does not interfere, cantons and municipalities share the financing and politics. This applies to music education too, of course, even if the main principles of federal law are shared by all, explains Stephan Schmidt. When we think about the big music centres with a deep-rooted musical tradition and life - as is the case in Geneva or Basel - there is a rather enviable high-quality music industry. But this is unfortunately not the case everywhere.

Harmonising the cantonal policies

Back in 2005, the report of the Swiss Federal Council on music education in Switzerland stated that “Switzerland enjoys a broad spectrum of training and continuing education opportunities” in terms of music education, although “music education is currently offered very heterogeneously”.

If, on one hand, the report stresses the need to better define the objectives and means at the federal level, on the other, it also observes that it is difficult to provide a comprehensive overview of music education in Switzerland. Educational programmes, teaching material, methods, timetables, all these elements are the responsibility of regions. Just like teacher training, which is different from one canton and institution to another.

“In Basel”, says Stephan Schmidt, “we have established as long as thirty years ago a music education programme in schools consisting of several compulsory classes per week for six years (4 years in other cities), and - after that - one hour per week, which is optional. This programme is more complete than in other cantons, and is offered by the professors of the Musik Akademie. It has proved very successful. We hire professors with extensive training, including when it comes to early learning, which we call 'Music and Movement'. Children are exposed to music at a very young age, when they are three or four”.

Geneva is the cradle of the Dalcroze Method, and properly uses this approach in schools. Students are introduced to music through movement, rhythmics and singing, as explained by Stefan Hoerrmann, a professor at the Geneva Conservatory and middle-school music teacher. “During the first eight years of school, our pupils have a compulsory music class per week that begins with the introduction to Dalcroze Eurhythmics. We were all trained in Swiss Universities of Music, we are specialised in music education in schools, and some of us even studied at the Dalcroze Institute Geneva. We introduce students to music education little by little, and when music becomes an option in middle-school, we move towards stage projects promoted by students. For the last year of middle-school, for example, I have an hour of music per week with a half-classroom of 12 pupils on a project throughout the year”.

In terms of after-school programmes offered by music schools, there is an even more obvious contrast.

“In German-speaking Switzerland, students build their own path in music schools. They choose the modules and the levels in accordance with their personal interests, therefore each path is individualised. Unless we talk about a professionalisation cycle, there is neither solfeggio nor entrance exams or auditions. We are convinced that, in order to develop the musical personality of each student, we need an individualised approach, as much as possible. Every child’s context is different, their social or family context too. If we are too strict or repressive, the risk is to create a system based on exclusion, which surely does not help develop a stable and creative personality”.

To Eva Aroutunian, director of the Conservatoire de Genève, the Conservatory is still a place of artistic training - and the pupil’s path is similar to that of French students. However, for the last six years, she's been devoting herself to MusicEnsemble, a programme aimed at introducing students to music through collective practice inspired by El Sistema, which gets the conservatory outside its walls, paying special attention to disadvantaged people. “While the Conservatoire de Genève is still a place for "mainstream" education, thanks to MusicEnsemble we are opening the gates to amateurs and to children who otherwise would not have access to music making. And it's working quite well”.

But beyond these two reassuring examples, music education is still not accessible to all children, in spite of a dense network of music schools and of legislation that ensures music education in schools, and that’s especially for financial reasons. One year at the Geneva Conservatory costs on average 1,500 euros, and the cost increases every year. Stephan Schmidt condemns a deterioration in the quality of education offered by schools - as well as of teacher training. Some cantons do not have a clear legislative framework, music schools are struggling to survive or are becoming too expensive for all students. Another emergency: talented young people have no support programme that would allow them to attend both school classes and music classes, as in the case of CHAM classes in France (classes with a flexible timetable).

“The fact of including music education in the Swiss Constitution must result in the State's commitment to ensuring continuity and homogenisation throughout the territory, regardless of the political events in the country”, explains Stephan Schmidt.

An even stronger basis for music education

In response to the popular vote of 2012, federal authorities are taking action: the aim of the clause 67a is to strengthen music education, especially of children and young people. The clause is based on three main elements: providing music education of high quality at all levels in public (state) schools and ensuring a well-adapted teachers’ training throughout the whole country, ensuring access to music education in a specialised music school for all children, regardless of their social or financial background, and ensuring the financial and educational support for young talented musicians.

“The people's unequivocal acceptance of the constitutional article on music education (art. 67a) has triggered the launch of the Youth and Music programme”, explains Lorenzetta Zaugg from the Federal Office of Culture (FOC). “Identified as a priority, this programme was adopted by the Federal Council in November 2014 and by the Parliament in June 2015. In November 2015, the head of the Department approved an ordinance supporting the 'Youth and Music' programme for the years 2016 to 2020. Lastly, a month later, in December 2015, a financial framework was allocated to the programme.”

As explained by Lorenzetta Zaug, the aim of the 'Youth and Music' programme is mainly to “encourage children and young people to participate in musical activities, and to promote their development taking into account three aspects: educational, social and cultural”. Among the axes already under construction there are: support for music classes for children and young people between the ages of 6 and 20, support for music camps for children and young people of the same age, support for basic and advanced training addressed to their teachers. This programme is the first of 30 measures detailed by the FOC, and it is intended primarily to support amateurs by giving them the opportunity to open themselves to a larger number of young people. A small step if seen from the outside, but a giant step for Switzerland, considering the complexity of its political system, as explained by Stefano Kunz from the FOC: “People expect things to change rapidly. Actually, the fact of starting to implement what is written in the clause 67a only four years after the vote is a real victory. Switzerland's specific nature implies that cantons maintain control over their powers, so we do not have the means to put pressure on them. As a consequence, the implementation of all the 30 measures contained in the new law on music education will take some time”.

Some activities have already been introduced, but professionals are preparing other initiatives to encourage talented young people. They also want to preserve those achievements that, in the past, have proved their worth and quality, as highlighted by Stephan Schmidt:

“Access to music education cannot be achieved without taking into consideration the fact that it is genuine education. It is not enough for us just to democratise access to music education, we must make sure that it is of high quality. The new clause must represent a guarantee of that”.

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