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Sister Marcelle Corneille, Liberating Education at UQAM

Michelle Renaud

Did you know that the vision of liberating education advocated by Marguerite Bourgeoys and the Sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame is still alive at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM)?

In fact, the École préparatoire de musique at UQAM was founded and directed for many years by Sister Marcelle Corneille, CND, “a pioneer in music education” and professor emeritus at UQAM.

Let us take a brief look at her life.

Sister Corneille was born in Montreal in 1923 to a Belgian father and a French mother. She began playing piano at age 5, obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Music in 1952 and a degree from École normale de musique at the Institut pédagogique in 1960. Affiliated with the Université de Montréal from 1926 to 1967, this institution was “recognized as a centre for excellence in music education in Montreal.” She taught there from 1949 to 1976 and became Director in 1957.

When the Congrégation de Notre-Dame asked her to create a program for the Kindergarten children at the Institut pédagogique, she turned to the pedagogies – almost unknown at that time – of Orff, Martenot, Dalcroze and Kodály to encourage the development of musical faculties in the child. Afterwards, she would make several trips to Europe to work with these teachers.

Sister Marcelle Corneille on August 24, 1945, the day of her religious profession

While Sister Corneille pursued and applied her pioneering research in music education, Quebec was undergoing a period of profound change with the “Quiet Revolution” and the secularization of education that resulted from it. The Parent Report (published in 1963 and 1964) sounded the knell of teacher training colleges and classical studies and proposed the creation of Cégeps (college of general and professional instruction) that would see the light in 1966.

A woman of vision and daring, Sister Corneille played a very active role in the construction of the new emerging society.

At the time of the publication of the Parent Report, she worked closely with Georges Little, head of the music division of the new Ministry of Education, and served on the committees of the ministry of music education. She also wrote one chapter in the Rioux Report on music education. In 1965, students in public elementary schools were introduced to music through the educational radio series Faisons de la musique that applied the Orff, Kodály and Martenot teaching methods and focused on singing French and English Canadian folksongs.

Sister Corneille also organized summer courses on these teaching methods and invited renowned European teachers to give training at the École normale de musique. In 1970, she was invited to Hungary to give a conference at the Kodály Congress. The Rioux Report had recommended the affiliation of the École normal de musique with UQAM, therefore, during the creation of the latter, Sister Corneille “ensured the transition between the training developed at the École normale de musique and the university program of the new Université de Québec à Montréal.” Under a contractual agreement with UQAM, the music module courses would be given at the École normale de musique in Westmount from 1969 to 1976.

In 1976, the music module was integrated at UQAM and relocated to the downtown campus; the École normale de musique closed its doors. That is when Sister Corneille, who had been Director of the Module since 1969, founded the École préparatoire de musique at UQAM. Given that she was responsible for educational training courses, this preparatory section proved to be indispensable. She became Director in 1976 and the school was officially recognized by the UQAM Board of Directors in 1978.

The university defined it as “a service to the public in the field of music education,” the École had a vast field of teaching and a large clientele. In addition to preparing the students for the programs in music concentration at the elementary, secondary, collegiate and university levels, the École offered primary musical education for children as young as four and half and musical training for adults. Besides its teaching activities, the École formed a parent-child choir; organized public concerts and an annual piano competition.

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