If you were given a group of 70 fifth-graders-from an array of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds-how would you get them to work together? What would you use to forge unity? How could you get that many kids-who are that different-learn to work as a team and actually enjoy doing so?
If you happen to be Gregg Breinberg, a teacher at PS-22 in Staten Island, you use music.
Formed in 2000 by Breinberg, the PS-22 Chorus started to become an online sensation in 2006, after he shared some of their videos with members of a Tori Amos message board. Not long after, the Chorus was caught the eye of celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton. They were soon being asked to collaborate with everyone from Stevie Nicks to Passion Pit. The Chorus has been featured in all types of news and media: viewers of Good Morning America, NPR listeners, and the First Family have all been entertained by the Chorus.
One of my best friends introduced me to the Chorus a couple of years ago, during an A Cappella phase I seemed to be going through at the time [which has not necessarily ended, by the way]. Their effect was immediate. I was hooked. I began to watch as many of their videos as I could find.
Over the years, though its members have changed, the unique style of the chorus remains a constant. With energy that I wish could be bottled and sold, the Chorus performs songs from any genre you could dream up: spirituals and traditional songs, classics, modern pop, breakout hits by alternative and indie artists, and original songs written by their director. Breinberg arranges each song the Chorus performs, and he can be seen in most of their videos accompanying his students on acoustic guitar or piano.
In each performance, the Chorus commands my attention. Not only are their voices beautiful; they are a delight to watch. Every single member of the Chorus dances and smiles, clapping their hands; their enthusiasm is reckless and palpable. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. In addition to the television, print media, and radio appearances made by the Chorus, they continue to build and maintain their strong presence online. Their YouTube videos have over 27,000,000 views to date.
As someone passionate creative expression, whether mine or that of others, PS-22 Chorus inspires me. They are artists. They are completely engaged in their performances. And their cooperative spirit and unabashed joy is something we could all use.
It’s no secret that Breinberg loves his job. I contacted him for an interview on a whim, my curiosity about his work with the Chorus [and his obvious affinity for music and songwriting] finally getting the better of me. And- as a huge fan of the Chorus- I couldn’t wait to share his thoughts with you. For his “Take Five”, Breinberg picked questions that highlight his perspective on his teaching, his personal taste in music, and his preferences related to superheroes.
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your students?
My students have taught me to smile through the tough stuff. So many of these kids have been through more than you can ever imagine, and yet they come into the auditorium to sing their hearts out. When they’re making music, nothing else matters. It’s so important to these kids in their education and that is the lesson we should all take away. Perhaps most personally significant, they’ve taught me the greatest lesson of all — what’s special aboutmyself and what I have to offer this world. Every teacher hopes to do just that for his students, and here they are doing that for me.
What are 5 [or 6] of the most played songs in your iTunes?
- “Dragon” by Tori Amos
- “On Nature” by Matisyahu (with PS22 Chorus, live at 92nd Street Y)
- “Little Secrets” by Passion Pit (with PS22 Chorus)
- “If I Ever Feel Better” by Phoenix
- “Poses” by Rufus Wainwright
- “Un Sospiro” by Franz Liszt
Who have been some of your favorite celebrity collaborators? [And who did the kids love working with the most?
Honestly, all of our collaborations have been rather amazing, each for their own respective reasons, so it’s hard to choose. The 92nd Street Y performance with Matisyahu stands out to me musically, and I’m thrilled that they allowed us to post that. We were originally set just to do “One Day” which the kids had previously covered. At the last minute before we rehearsed with Matis the afternoon of the show, I taught the kids the chorus of “On Nature.” We all practically improvised our entire way through it but Matis liked it enough to want to include it in the setlist for the Y. Undeniable magic happened there on the stage that night, on that song particularly.
“You Raise Me Up” with Celtic Woman at Radio City is another memorable performance, though I prefer the acoustic rehearsal version we did in the auditorium. That too is a must-see.
Personally speaking, team-teaching and performing “Father’s Son” with Tori Amos and the kids in May of 2007 was the dream-come-true moment of my career. Tori has been my personal favorite ever since I came upon her music way back in 1992. Seeing her live for the first time was more like a spiritual awakening than a concert. So when the PS22 Chorus got to sing her song “Dragon” for her, turning around just in time to catch her wipe away a tear was a feeling beyond words. To inspire one’s inspiration — there is no prouder feeling. That’s the experience I wish I could relive.
As far as the kids are concerned, I think they were particularly impressed by fellow YouTube sensation, Greyson Chance. We surprised them with the visit, and their reaction was priceless! The girls practically trampled the poor kid on his way out the door….
Who is better: Batman or Superman? [Explain.]
Wolverine. I’m more of a Marvel dork myself.
What are you passionate about, and how has working with PS-22 Chorus helped you realize your passions?
I think our videos capture my two greatest passions, music and teaching.
These kids are a constant source of inspiration. They’re funny, pure, and even profound at times. I thoroughly enjoy the process of arranging a song for them. Part of my passion comes from primarily working with music that I love and respect. The kids have sunk their teeth into some of my favorite songs, “Liztomania” by Phoenix, “A Winter’s Carol” by Tori Amos, “Kids” by MGMT [above] , “Joga” by Bjork, “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” by The Talking Heads — and the list goes on.
I find the kids’ versions bring an entirely new dimension to my connection with these songs. There’s an indescribable feeling to making music, and when it actually takes shape into something as beautiful as it does inside that humble school auditorium, it’s really an exciting thing to be a part of. The kids continually surprise and impress me. So yeah, it’s pretty easy for me to bring passion to the job.
– January 2011
For More on Breinberg and the PS-22 Chorus:
PS-22 Blog [by Gregg Breinberg]