A Lengthy Process

September 23, 2012, was a historical day in Switzerland. By national vote, with an overwhelming majority of 73%, the Swiss people accepted that a new constitutional article concerning music education will be introduced into the Swiss constitution. This article contains three elements:

1. providing music education of high quality at all levels in public (state) schools and ensuring a well-adapted teachers’ training throughout the whole country

2. ensuring access to music education in a specialized music school for all children, regardless of their social or financial background and

3. ensuring the financial and educational support for young talented musicians.

For the first time, music education is stipulated in the national constitution. If someone in Switzerland had predicted only ten years ago that this would happen, nobody would have believed it. How was this possible, how did it happen?

Switzerland is a confederation of 8 million inhabitants with four national languages, (German, French, Italian and Romanche, spoken in some alpine valleys), originally established in 1291. Today, it consists of 26 autonomous cantons which are solely responsible for culture and education in their area. According to the new constitutional article, both the confederation and the cantons, within the scope of their powers, shall endeavour to ensure high-quality music education. The political system of Switzerland since the establishment of its constitution in1848 is direct democracy. This means that every Swiss citizen has the right to launch an initiative or a referendum, both of which can influence or overturn parliamentary decisions. Although this happens regularly, it is all but simple: a large network must be mobilized and there are long, complicated and costly procedures to follow.

The vote of September 23, 2012, was the result of a federal popular initiative called “Music and Youth”, launched under the responsibility of the Swiss Music Council. After the collection of 154,000 officially validated signatures from Swiss citizens supporting the initiative, the proposal was submitted to the Federal Chancellerie in Bern, the Swiss capital, in December 2007. This was the beginning of a long political process which finally led to the successful vote.

But Why Was This Initiative Launched?

Music as a school subject has been continuously repressed in Switzerland in the past years and the quality of classroom music teachers’ training has been neglected. Due to a lack of legal basis in most cantons, the specialized (after-school) music schools are facing an unsure future and the access for all children to these schools is in danger. Further, the promotion of young talents at national level is almost non-existent. On the other hand, Switzerland is a music-loving nation: according to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office, one person out of four owns a music instrument and plays it, one person out of six sings in a choir and two thirds of the population attended a concert or another music spectacle during the year 2008 when these statistics were collected.

The 50-year-old Swiss Music Council covers 51 national associations counting 650,000 individual persons: professional and amateur musicians, teachers and artists.

In 2006, a small group of representatives from Switzerland’s most influential music organizations came together on the initiative of the president of the Association of Swiss Music Schools (434 after-school institutions, 280,000 pupils, 12,000 teachers). Their intention was to catch up with the sports, knowing that sport has its own constitutional article since 1970. This group decided to launch a federal popular initiative and started immediately to build up a network among music associations and collect the signatures.

In terms of advocacy, only a very small budget was available and the campaigning for the vote was organized top down. The delegates of Swiss Music Council’s 51 member associations mobilized their own associations in order to promote local musical events and meetings. Local politicians were charged with lobbying activities, music universities and schools campaigned within their scope, and even opera houses and concert halls joined the movement. The advocacy material was provided by the Swiss Music Council, and every one used the same well formulated and powerful arguments.

During the process, confidence grew and political consciousness was awakened and strengthened. Nevertheless, the outstanding voting result was a surprise for all concerned. Since 1848, when the right to launch federal popular initiatives was first established, it has been used more than 200 times, but more than 90% of the initiatives have been rejected. This explains the astonishment of the music sector on September 23, 2012. After all, the boldest dream of the initiators had been to succeed in raising once and for all a national debate on the values and needs of music education in Switzerland!

After each national vote (circa 3 times a year), all results are analyzed by a university research centre on the basis of a survey among the electorate. The analysis reveals that the acceptance of the initiative “Music and Youth” was especially high among women (80% v. men 65%), lower-income classes (90% v. middle-and high-income classes 64%) and those who play an instrument (83%). According to the analysis, the message of the initiators was well understood: promotion of music, equal access to music education and necessity of public funding. Moreover, the rooting of music education in the constitution was justified by the importance of music for individuals and society, by equality of opportunity and by personal convictions. The main arguments for the refusal were that music is not a priority and music education should not figure in the constitution. The analysis concludes that the arguments in favour of the initiative were much better perceived than those against, which explains the result.

The constitutional article is presently implemented under the responsibility of the Federal Council (the Swiss government) and the Federal Office for Culture. The music sector’s expertise is strongly requested in this process, and a joint commission recently delivered an extensive report to the Federal Office for Culture. On the basis of this expertise, and taking into consideration the results of a wide consultation to follow in spring 2014 by cantons, municipalities and concerned associations, the government will prepare a draft of a law. Subsequently, the bill will be submitted to the parliament and it can be reasonably expected that the law will be adopted in 2015-2016.

A Long Road towards the Goals

It is obvious that the road will be long and risky before the goals of the initiative will be reached. Nevertheless, the ongoing process already allows to draw some conclusions which may be of wider than national interest:

  • The political process related to the initiative brought together the whole Swiss music sector in its great diversity – a major challenge in any country !
  • The successful cooperation in the wake of the process revealed that music education is a powerful binding element between all different actors of the music sector.
  • Advocacy was successful because of coherent and convincing arguments shared by the entire music sector who « spoke with one voice » – another major challenge !
  • In order to advocate and convey the value and needs of music education, practitioners and educators at all levels and in all educational settings need sharp political consciousness, shared views and efficient communication skills.
  • A political process needs a powerful and courageous initiator. In the Swiss case it was a musician with political experience and personal conviction, at that time head of the Swiss Association of Music Schools. These schools offer specialized after-school music education for children and young persons, amateurs and future professional musicians, all over the country and occupy a key position in music education because deeply rooted in the civil society.
  • ”Music and Politics, a Shared Responsibility” : this will be the title of the next European Forum on Music organized in Bern June 19 to 22, 2014 by the Swiss and the European Music Councils. Australian guests will be more than welcome!


Helena Maffli, Clarens, Switzerland, January 5, 2014. Entered on Knowledge Base 19 January 2014.

Note by Editor

Helena Maffli is the long-serving President of the European Music School Union (EMU). In the course of editing, I came across some comprehensive statistics covering each of the 26 EMU member countries. The latest statistics are from 2010 (a previous collection is from 2006). There are 13 detailed tables from 2010, including basic data on population, student numbers in music schools, and number of music schools (Table 1). Other tables include whether the country has a music school law, a system for quality management, and a national curriculum.

These statistics form a potentially useful comparison base with Australia, and ana analysis will be added to the Knowledge Base in the near future. HHG, 19.1.14.

Helena Maffli lives in Clarens in the French-speaking western part of Switzerland. She is President of the European Music School Union (EMU), and a Board member of the European Music Council (EMC). A pianist and pedagogue, she is the former director of the Conservatoire de Lausanne, Switzerland.

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