When Swiss voters go to the polls on September 23 to decide whether to back a plan to promote musical education in schools, they will also be unwitting accomplices in an ongoing debate over cantonal autonomy.
This is the story of an initiative with a flat political prelude, a parliamentary intermezzo and an abrupt ending.
It all began with an idea by music teacher and classical singer Ernst Waldemar Weber back in the 1980s. He strongly believed that the state had the noble duty to promote not only the physical fitness of children but also their musical education.
His proposal had faded somewhat by the turn of the millennium when it dropped down the political agenda. The idea was revived in 2005 and hit a high note when more than 154,000 signatures were collected within the statutory time limit to force a nationwide vote.
Nonetheless, following several rounds of debate in both chambers of parliament the enthusiasm lost some of its impetus, ultimately prompting the campaigners to withdraw their demand for the benefit of a compromise suggestion put forward by parliament and the government.
At the heart of the original initiative was the promotion of musical schooling. The new proposal backed by politicians says it is the responsibility of the federal government to lay down the principles of musical education but that it can only do so in concert with the cantonal authorities. This phrasing was key for many parliamentarians who want to defend the independence of the 26 cantons in education matters.
The compromise proposal, which fell on deaf ears notably within the centre-right Radical Party, also calls on the cantons to coordinate their education goals and grants the federal authorities the right to interfere in cases of dispute.
The regional authorities will also be expected to play a special role in encouraging young and talented musicians to pursue a career.
With one voice
Josiane Aubert, speaker of the cultural affairs committee in the House of Representatives, said efforts are needed to streamline the cantonal policies on musical education.
“It is a question of equal opportunities for all children. A musical education must be open to everybody,” the Social Democratic parliamentarian explained.
She says there is no question of making Switzerland a nation of musical professionals. However, Aubert also argues there should be better coordination among the country’s musical conservatories.
Olivier Neuhaus, a conductor with academic credentials and practical experience as a music director of several wind orchestras, agrees that there is a need to boost the financial support of conservatories and private music schools.
He says not enough is done to encourage talented artists and - compared with sport - opportunities are less abundant.
Neuhaus does not have high expectations. “The real problem for young talents is to find jobs, not necessarily only the lack of suitable and quality education,” he says.
A survey by the Federal Statistics Office in 2008 shows that one in five people in Switzerland play a music instrument and almost as many respondents said they regularly practice singing, mostly as part of a choir.
The piano and the guitar came top of the list of popular instruments. And local brass bands are important for the musical education of young people. Rock music groups, classical orchestras, jazz, blues and other musical styles appear to play a less prominent role.
Aubert is confident that despite the withdrawal of the original initiative, approval of the parliamentary proposal would send a strong signal.
“The crucial role of music for the population would be enshrined in a constitutional article. And the cantons will have to harmonise their policies if they want to make sure that the federal authorities do not interfere.”
Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education
This is an assembly of the 26 cantonal government ministers who are responsible for education, training, culture and sport. It is responsible for the national coordination in all areas of educational and cultural policy in Switzerland.