Uwe Lieflander shares his enthusiasm for sacred music with youngsters in the Sparrows program at Immaculate Conception parish in Port Perry, Ont. Photo by Jean Ko Din

Sparrows Choir program enriches students through sacred music

  • August 20, 2016

PORT PERRY, ONT. – Maestro Uwe Lieflander always begins a Sparrows choir practice with a warmup for the brain. A crowd of 80 children from ages three to 14 years old are busy chitchatting. But the room falls silent once Lieflander begins to play the first few bars of Mozart’s “Requiem.”

“Can anyone tell me the name and composer of this song,” Lieflander asks the choir. All the children’s hands shoot up in the air.

Lieflander shifts gears and plays the melodic movements of Johann Sebastian Bach. All hands shoot back up. He plays Beethoven and Handel. They know all of them.

Because of Lieflander’s Sparrows Choir School program, the young Sparrows can recognize a sophisticated repertoire of classical sacred music. He likes to call the program a “music extension school” meant to complement a school’s existing curriculum.

“It really enriches the lives of the students and it really does what regular schools are supposed to do,” said Lieflander.

The Sparrows program is run in partnership with parishes and individual Catholic schools to teach children traditional technique and the value of classical sacred music. The program is typically about 10 to 12 weeks long and teaches music theory, singing technique and the rich tradition of liturgical music.

“This noble music leaves an indelible mark on the soul. It’s almost like ordination, almost like baptism,” said Lieflander. “Their lives are being put on a different track right here at the tender age of three or whenever they stumble into the Sparrows.”

Lieflander doesn’t just teach the technical composition of a piece of music. He gives its history and its significance so that youngsters get a deeper meaning of the liturgy.

Caroline Gainey has seen the transformation in her own children since they joined the Sparrows program at Immaculate Conception Church in Port Perry.

“It certainly brought more joy into my own home,” she said. “They’ve grown an appreciation for sacred music and it brings about a real reverence for Mass for them. The music is so beautiful that they know everything they’re doing is for the glory of God.”

Gainey said her three children look forward to choir practice every week and her family’s life is always filled with beautiful sacred music, in the house and in the car.

Mary Lou Elliott, former principal of Canadian Martyrs Elementary School in Oshawa, Ont., saw her school transformed by the Sparrows program.

“These students came from homes that weren’t able to financially engage in any extra-curricular programs,” said Elliott. “These students went from knowing absolutely nothing about music to being able to identify Beethoven and Handel... They went from zero to 100 in this course. It was absolutely phenomenal what these children were exposed to and what they learned.”

Elliott has been retired for eight years and Canadian Martyrs has since closed, but she remembers how Lieflander was able to engage with the students. She watched as the students’ self-esteem and self-worth grew as the weeks went by.

“He is absolutely a genius,” said Elliott. “These students were, by the age of 10 or 12, were out vandalizing or out stealing... and yet he took every one of those kids and presented them with an opportunity that they will never again in their lifetime be able to do. It was just amazing what he could bring out of those kids.”

Lieflander is a big ball of energy. It’s no wonder the children are engaged. He is animated and playful. He leads fast-paced rehearsals that flutter from moments of great concentration to moments of laughter. He loves the children and the children love him.

This is why, Lieflander said, it is strange to look back at the origins of the program. It began in 1999 as a children’s choir program at St. Joseph’s Church in Mississauga. Pastor Fr. Marco Testa saw a need for the children of the parish to be involved in Sunday Mass, so he invited Lieflander to be the new choir director.

Lieflander was skeptical at first. Conducting the parish’s children’s choir didn’t exactly compare to his aspirations to conduct world-renowned choirs and orchestras.

“One Tuesday afternoon, at 5:30 p.m., I will never forget that, in 1999,” he said. “I had 10 kids there sitting in a semi-circle sitting there frowning and me sitting there frowning as well because I was still waiting for the Bolton Symphony to call me.”

He didn’t really know what to do with them, so he grabbed music from the repertoire of an adult choir he was conducting and taught it to the children. He was immediately surprised at how quickly the children picked it up.

“I almost had fun the first time,” said Lieflander. “The second time, all the kids were back and not only were they back but there were more of them.”

Lieflander has taught more than 14,000 Sparrows over 17 years of the program and the retention rate has been incomparable. Many young Sparrows who joined at the age of three are still participating in the program as 20-something university students.

“Once a Sparrow, always a Sparrow,” he said.

He currently manages more than 200 Sparrows in local programs in five locales: Toronto, Ottawa, Port Perry, Barrie and Vancouver. Throughout the year, he travels to the different parishes and schools in Ontario, while an assistant instructor manages the Vancouver program.

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