mdw Rector Ulrike Sych and Harald Huber, who teaches at the mdw and also serves as President of the Austrian Music Council, met with mdw Magazine to discuss educational shortcomings and solutions for the future.

Ulrike Sych
Ulrike Sych ©Inge Prader, 2017

For many years now, research on the human brain has shown that it’s precisely so-called minor subjects like music and art that have an especially positive effect on young people’s overall development.

Ulrike Sych (US): That’s absolutely right. Countless studies have shown how children who learn to play instruments develop better in terms of social abilities, information absorption and retention, and language skills. What’s more, there are even less cases of bullying in school classes that feature a lot of music-making. Musical training should ideally function on two levels: across all of society as basic education for everybody, and then among those young people whom I call “child pros”—children who are so gifted that they go on to become professional musicians. In both cases, Austria has a great responsibility.

If we want to have creative adults out there on the labour market—and these days, there’s demand for such people in nearly every field of work—then we’ve got to nurture creativity among young people. This goes especially for highly gifted children and adolescents. Because in contrast to how it is in, say, painting, you only have a real chance as a professional musician if your talents have been nurtured from a very young age. A fifteen-year-old, for example, can no longer decide that he or she wants to become a professional pianist. That’s just plain too late. So schools of general education need teachers who are so well trained that they can both recognise talents in time and see that they’re properly nourished. This is really something that begins all the way back in preschool rather than at the university level.

Harald Huber
Harald Huber ©Stephan Polzer

Mr Huber, in the Music Council’s current position paper, you ascertain that 90% of Austrians are in favour of singing in schools, and that 86% want every child to learn an instrument. Why aren’t these figures reflected in reality?

Harald Huber (HH): From preschool to primary schools and on up to the schools for 10 to 14-year-olds, we can observe a general tendency to cut back on music education for various reasons. And good music education would be especially crucial in primary schools, which serve children aged six to ten. A problem there right now is that many primary schools just don’t have any teachers with an interest in music, to say nothing of the appropriate training. The Music Council is therefore recommending that we introduce more mobility to the educational system, because institutions like the mdw do offer the appropriate training—such as Elementary Music and Movement Education. It needs to be ensured that every primary school can call on sufficient music-related competence. And that’s not currently the case.

You’ve been pointing that out for several years, now. Has nothing changed?

HH: Oh, some things have. There are now various models for cooperation between universities of music and teachers’ colleges all over Austria. So we’re already moving in a good direction, but we’re not yet at the point where we can say we’re ensuring musical instruction in terms of both quantity and quality. At schools for 10 to 14-year-olds, we have the problem that teachers with no training as music teachers are being enlisted to teach music. We’re seeing things like principals assigning music to people who would normally teach geography and mathematics—which is unacceptable. We need specialised teachers for every subject—including music.

Is music instruction also being reduced in school curricula?

HH: No, the curricula are intact. It’s just that they’re often done insufficient justice. The problem is a lack of teachers.

US: On top of this, we have the fact that music is no longer an obligatory component of primary school teachers’ training. And that situation is also unacceptable. So we’re just now working out a model that adds a “primary school module” to the curriculum of instrumental and vocal music teachers being trained for private instruction so that they can also teach music at primary schools—which they actually can’t do yet due to the laws governing teacher employment, which will have to be amended first.

HH: Teachers’ colleges also have the option of offering music specialisations, although this is only done by some of them. And there’s also the solution of using music school teachers to make up for the shortage by way of cooperative arrangements between music schools and normal schools, but the latter can’t actually employ such teachers; they have to be paid by the respective municipality or province.

So the music schools have picked up a lot of the slack in recent years. How are the music schools themselves currently doing?

HH: That depends on the province. Taken as a whole, Austria’s music schools are an impressive model of success. Our music schools are attended by over 200,000 students. That’s equal to the total number of grammar school students Austria-wide. But there is a need to improve the regulations governing employment so that existing cooperative models can function more smoothly.

Would it make sense to combine Austria’s provincial music school systems, running them in a uniform way from the federal level?

US: That’s better left to the provinces, because the existing arrangement with parallel systems works just fine.

HH: What music schools really want is to receive more recognition for what they do. Because when someone, for instance, does their Matura in music after having learned to play his or her instrument on the side at a music school, that fact currently doesn’t even get mentioned on their graduation certificate.

How does Austria compare internationally in terms of music education?

HH: Internationally, we still look pretty good. We have music as an obligatory subject in schools, which isn’t the case in quite a few countries. We also have a well-developed music school system that’s publicly subsidised. So we definitely have nothing to be ashamed of. But we do need to be vigilant in order to protect all this from cutbacks. That’s something we have to be very proactive about, because losses can occur quickly.

US: There’s also a social dimension that we have to address—like when parents can’t afford music school for their children or don’t have time to take them to music lessons. In such cases, we need to be mindful of the fact that talent can exist wholly independent of a child’s economic background—which means that we need to think about how to ensure that careers in music are also an option for the socially disadvantaged.

HH: In addition to that aspect, music is an outstanding tool for the integration of people with migratory backgrounds. This, too, is something that needs to be recognised and done justice with appropriate offerings. Every child must have a right to the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. We need to commit to an egalitarian approach.

US: Making music together means speaking a common language.

Mrs. Sych, you once said that pitting art class against music class in schools has to stop. To what extent do we see this in actual practice?

US: Austrian upper-cycle secondary school students currently have to decide between music and visual arts, and I think that’s fundamentally wrong. The various arts compliment and nourish each other. The new Austrian federal government’s programme calls for making it possible to do both, so that’s a positive sign.

What other hopes and/or worries do you have regarding the programme of our new government?

US: In terms of music education, I think it does contain several things that we envision—like strengthening the music schools and promoting cooperative arrangements with schools of general education.

HH: Their programme also affirms the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, which we’re very pleased to see. We view this as covering not only our musical heritage, but also international cultural exchange and contemporary cultural manifestations. So there are a few initiatives there that we can be optimistic about. On the other hand, they’ve also announced their intention to cut back on subsidies. And we need to be watchful, there.

Upper Austria—which was already being governed by the People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ), the two of which are now also in coalition federally—is said to be something of a test case. They’ve cut funding in all areas, there, including culture. The effect has been that their music school system now receives even more support, while independent contemporary music initiatives receive less. What’s your take on that?

HH: It’s generally the case that all forms of contemporary music are underfunded.

US: I think that politicians frequently aren’t clear on just what happens when they slash culture budgets. It’s of course very easy to cut funding for independent groups, theatres, festivals, etc. But it’s a grave mistake to believe we’re a cultural nation just because we have the State Opera and the Burgtheater.

So you’d be in favour of across-the-board increases for culture?

US: Of course I would. Which would also include things like film, the off-scene, and the literary field—and there, too, education could do a lot to improve things.

HH: Filmmakers, for their part, point out to us that they aren’t at all present in schools.

US: Exactly. And to mention another example: it’s often the case that school theatre only happens if a school is fortunate enough to have some dedicated teacher who’s willing to do it on a voluntary basis.

As far as political measures are concerned: Would a lot of problems be solved simply by investing more money in the right places?

US: In principle, yes. Of course, it is necessary to pay attention to just what you’re supporting with that money.

HH: The Austrian Music Council, for its part, has only one specific financial demand of its own: that the budget of the Austrian Music Fund for contemporary music production be raised to two million euros. The Music Fund is woefully underfunded in light of all the areas it’s supposed to support, which range from production to distribution to tours—across the board, covering all genres. A non-financial but still very important demand of ours would be for constant dialogue with the relevant ministries.

Ministerial competencies change frequently. It was long the case that the arts and culture were lumped together with education, though they’ve since been tacked onto the Federal Chancellery for quite some time, with education and science now together as their own ministry. What combination do you imagine would be ideal?

US: Combining the arts and culture with education in one ministry made a lot of sense, I think, because the three areas interlock and complement each other quite well

HH: That was the case between 2008 and 2013—a fantastic time for us, because there was lots of dialogue, an ongoing conversation.

US: Ultimately, though, it’s not all that important just where responsibility for what lies; the important thing is that the relevant people are in touch and have no inhibitions about working together.

With Heinz Faßmann (ÖVP), we now have a university professor as Minister of Education, Science, and Research—an expert, in other words. What do you expect of him?

US: It’s quite advantageous from our point of view as a university. I know that Mr. Faßmann is somebody who brings people together and approaches things in a way that’s absolutely calm, well considered, and objective.

Over the past few years, it’s been said over and over that the entire education debate is far too much about partisan positions and needs to be rendered ideology-free and objective. But does such a thing as a “single best solution” actually exist?

US: I think things have already become more objective. Faßmann’s predecessor as minister, Sonja Hammerschmid (Social Democratic Party / SPÖ), was a strong supporter of the arts universities and frequently consulted us on topics we’re knowledgeable about. That resulted in a lot of arts education-related developments in the ministry’s new teacher training concept. I think that Minister Faßmann will continue along this path. She and he have both worked at universities and have a good grasp of our concerns.

HH: Alongside the ministers, the opposition spokespeople on culture and education are likewise important contacts for us at the Music Council. And some very important topics for us apart from education are digitisation, the music business, copyright law, freedom of the press, and the social security of those working in the arts and culture. Our demands in those areas also have to be addressed to the Ministry For Digital and Economic Aff airs, the Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Mrs. Sych, what exactly would you call for as a university rector?

US: A good basis for discussion, fi rst of all. And I intend to push for stronger anchoring of the arts and culture in general education. Then, primary school teachers’ training has to once again include more visual arts and music instruction. Children should also have the right to be taught by professional musicians: in order to ensure children and adolescents optimal music instruction, school music teachers should be not only teachers but also artists in their own right.

And the matter of audiences shouldn’t be forgotten, either, because after all: today’s school students are tomorrow’s audience. If we miss out on acquainting children with the arts and culture at a very young age, then Austria’s theatres will eventually be left without an audience. You can already see quite clearly how opera house audiences are getting older and older. And I think this is linked to the education being provided in schools: music class is the one that’s most often cancelled, most often marginalised.

What steps have already been taken by the mdw to combat these problems?

US: I strongly advocate music-related further training for teachers, and we have a lot of off erings of this sort at the mdw. A great thing is our new lateral entry programme, which we do in co-
operation with the three teachers’ colleges: Pädagogische Hoschule Wien (Vienna), Pädagogische Hochschule Niederösterreich (Lower Austria), and the Church-run Kirchlich-Pädagogische Hochschule Wien/Krems (Vienna/Krems). There, people with relevant qualifications—like performance degrees or degrees in instrumental music education—can earn certifi cates qualifying them to teach school classes at the secondary level. And since there’s such a huge shortage of certifi ed music teachers in Austria, it’s a great thing indeed for the schools when artists decide to retrain and become teachers.


  • To read the Austrian Music Council’s position paper “Musik und Bildung” [Music and Education] and its “7 Forderungen an die Regierung” [Seven Demands for the Government], please see

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