Whether you have seen them on ABC’s Nightline, Good Morning America, MTV, the Oscars or most recently paying tribute to Whitney Houston on Piers Morgan Tonight, or read about them in The New York Times, The Guardian, the Christian Science Monitor or The New York Post, the 5th graders of New York’s Public School 22 Chorus are something special.
PS22 Chorus was started in 1999 by Gregg Breinberg, affectionately known as Mr. B by his students. He had graduated from SUNY New Paltz with a bachelor’s degree in Music Theory & Composition, but wasn’t exactly sure what to do with it. His strength was in songwriting and arranging, but he felt he didn’t have the necessary talent to make it as a performer. That aside he know music was the thing for him. As he put it:
I didn’t know how those skills would come into play, but I did know that music was going to factor into my life’s work.*
With some pushing from his parents, both teachers, he eventually made the transition to music education. But, when he got his job at PS22, there wasn’t a music position open. He started with teaching 2nd grade, and he started teaching with music. If he couldn’t teach it, he’d teach with it.
The following year, the opportunity opened up with the help of a special principle, and the PS22 Chorus was born and began changing the lives of children. In the year 2005, a new web site that would one day become one of the largest repositories of user-generated content on the Internet opened its doors to the public: YouTube. The following year, Mr. Breinberg began posting videos of the PS22 Chorus. Then something magical happened, the world, including celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton picked up on them and they became an Internet sensation. Since then, they have performed at the Oscars, the National Tree Lighting and numerous television shows, met and sang with many popular recording artists and even won the 2010 Webby Artist of the Year Award. With over 41 millions views on their YouTube channel, they’ve touched many people’s lives, including their nearly 53,000 channel subscribers.
However, more importantly, it is what this does for the children who participate. Public School 22, also known as the Graniteville School, is located on Staten Island. The kids attending there come from all different socioeconomic levels. The chorus is a mixing pot, where the requirement to join isn’t money or status, but a burning desire to be part of the chorus. There are auditions each year to join the choir, as some level of musical ability is required.
The chorus does something else for the children, as well. It teaches them confidence. It teaches them about being part of a group. It teaches them to support one another. It teaches them they can accomplish great things. The school has found that the students who participate in PS22 Chorus do better in their other classes. Some who struggle with the standard approach to math come to understand how fractions and other mathematical concepts work through time signatures and other musical concepts.
Mr. Breinberg’s approach is a little different. Instead of teaching traditional children songs, he arranges (and sometimes edits for content) adult contemporary music for the group. The chorus has covered Lady Gaga, Tori Amos, Bruno Mars, Bob Dylan, Sinead O’Conner, Wham!, Coldplay, Adele, The Rolling Stones, KT Tunstall, Elton John, Katy Perry, The Jackson 5, Bon Jovi, Roxette, Jesse J, The Bangles, Fleetwood Mac, Journey, Kelly Clarkson, Beyonce, Matisyahu and the list goes on and on.
If you watch the children sing, you can see the innocence and emotion bubbling over that somehow seems to get lost as people grow older; however, not if you are Mr. B. It’s his own infectious attitude that permeates the group. His heart and dedication are what makes the group so great. Thank goodness for great teachers. He loves what he does, and it’s reflected back by children.
According to a The New York Times piece on the chorus, the principle Melissa Donath talked about Mr. Breinberg saying,
[He is] very modest, but he always makes sure that the kids are treated like professionals and he gives them the utmost respect. Every year, he brings out the best in our children.
And, in the same article, Mr. Breinberg spoke of the children saying,
There’s a great feeling in seeing these kids — some of whom have been abused, neglected, who have nothing to look forward to when they get home — and knowing that when they come in to my class to sing, you can just see the depth of their emotional experience come through.
It’s true, some have a hard, unfair life. And even with its notoriety and the good it does for the children, the PS22 Chorus has come close to losing its funding in the past. When the children graduate and move up in the school system, there is no guarantee their next school will have any music program at all. But, hopefully, their experiences at PS22 will make a lasting impression that will help them through their tough times.
[H]is passion and commitment to his students reminds us of the power a teacher has to change the world. And as a mother of two little daugthers(sp), I couldn’t think of a more hopeful sign of our future generation than the shining eyes and soaring voices of the fifth-graders in P.S. 22 Chorus.
Hopefully, this wonderful program that shows the importance of the teaching of the arts by someone passionate in our public schools will continue. This spring, after many refusals by the Board of Education, a new documentary Once in a Lullaby is set to be released by New Jersey Pictures. Hopefully, many more of us can share the same excitement and wonder as the mother who said, watching the chorus, “I can’t believe that’s my child.”
Some people think music education is a privilege, but I think it’s essential to being human.