Glee Club: How an elementary school choir found global fame.by Sophie Gilbert
It’s a rainy, gloomy Friday afternoon in Staten Island, but Gregg Breinberg refuses to let the conditions dampen his enthusiasm. Inside the PS 22 school auditorium, 70 fifth-graders are rehearsing choral arrangements with Breinberg, their musical director, affectionately referred to by all as “Mr. B.”
“Sopranos, give me a little more oooooey,” says Breinberg, raising his hands skywards. “And if you’re going to start, then start with the note, please.” The assembled kids giggle at his mock exasperation. Breinberg begins playing the piano introduction, and the chorus wait to come in. The song they’re rehearsing isn’t “Shenandoah,” or “Kumbaya” or another standard of the elementary school repertoire, but a more incalculable choice: “Flying Dutchman” by Tori Amos.
Hey Kid/Got a ride for you/They say/Your brain is a comic book tattoo/And you’ll never be anything…/What will you do with your life?/Is that all you hear from noon till night?
It’s unusual, but it works. In a school where more than three quarters of the students are eligible for free lunch, the lyrics of the song have resonance, and the performance is haunting, emotive, and delivered with far more soul than one might expect from a bunch of fifth-graders. As Breinberg plays, he makes eye contact with the kids, coaxing performances from them and letting them enjoy themselves. Later, Davoya, one of the chorus members, explains how he does it. “At first, when I sang, I had no emotion,” she says. “I didn’t move. But Mr. B taught me to sing with feeling. With feeling and heart.”
Feeling and heart (along with an unusual repertoire) is what has made the ps 22 Chorus famous. In the last two years, this small, elementary-school choir has piqued the interest of people all over the world: music lovers and parents but also a random, devoted cross-section of the World Wide Web. In 2006, Breinberg started posting videos of the ps 22 Chorus on YouTube. He’s an ardent Tori Amos fan, so most of the songs covered by the chorus in the last five years have been by Amos; although notable exceptions include Pulp’s “Common People” (Breinberg changed the lyrics to be more child-friendly), Billie Holliday’s “God Bless The Child,” and “People Are Strange,” by The Doors. It could be gimmicky, but it isn’t: Breinberg says diversity of sound is the key to inspiring ten-year-olds. “The most important aspect of my job is to foster [the kids’] love of music,” he says. “You can make it accessible to them by offering a variety of sound. Technique comes later.”
Somewhere along the line, people began to notice the little kids singing the grown-up songs. The chorus gradually attracted an illustrious posse of fans, starting with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and ending with bilious celebrity blogger Perez Hilton. When Hilton linked to “Flying Dutchman” early in 2008, the video went viral, immediately making the top ten most-viewed YouTube videos in a single day. To date, more than 1,250,000 people have visited the ps 22 Chorus page, giving the site more hits than the Coldplay and Radiohead pages put together. For a grade school choir from Staten Island, it’s quite an achievement.
Defining what has made the chorus so successful is no mean feat, but it helps to start with Breinberg whom one besotted interviewer dubbed “the guitar-playing chorus teacher with the killer smile.” The students adore him. Settling down 70 high-spirited ten-year-olds almost effortlessly, he kids around with them, jumping up on the piano seat, making faces and sustaining an easy banter. “Who can tell me what a bridge is?” he asks early in the rehearsal. Hands shoot up in the air. “If any of you say Verrazano, I’m going to come over there…” At 35, Breinberg is handsome, erratic and funny, and he looks and acts like an overgrown fifth-grader himself. “Sopranos: smack that chorus!” he yells, punching the air for emphasis. “Not Andrew. Unless you want to.” Andrew, a boisterously charming kid in the front row, grimaces in mock horror. Later, he explains to me why Breinberg is such a great teacher. “Mr. B makes it so much fun,” he says. “He brings extra feeling into the song and makes it energetic. And he doesn’t even have to be here! He could be out drinking…” Breinberg shakes his head as the other kids snicker. “Man,” he says. “You are full of baloney.”
Breinberg has been running the chorus since 2000. A musician by heritage, he also worked as a clown at summer camp before settling on teaching as a career. “Best decision I ever made for myself,” he says, “although full credit must be given to my parents for pointing me in the right direction and practically pushing me off the precipice.”
As teaching styles go, he’s part Mr Holland, part Dewey Finn from School of Rock. On April Fool’s Day, exasperated by all the kids coming up to him and saying, “Mr. B, I quit chorus…not! April Fool…” Breinberg sat the kids down and told them he had some news. “I told them that a producer had seen the chorus online and contacted me,” he says. “I said that he’d offered me a job as musical director on Broadway, and that I’d only be at the school another week. It was great, until some of the kids started crying. Then I felt pretty bad.”
During the course of the rehearsal, chorus members raise their hands, some straining with the effort of containing themselves, to volunteer their favorite memories of chorus. It’s been a busy year: as well as taking the Internet by storm, the chorus have performed at numerous local festivals, and have even opened for New Zealand band Crowded House at the Fillmore. Neil Finn, the lead singer, saw the chorus performing one of his songs, “Private Universe,” online, and sent a note to Mr. B to say how much he liked the arrangement. Then he invited the chorus to be the opening act for the band’s sellout New York show. Breinberg braided his hair in cornrows for the occasion. The kids took it in their stride, although Andrew was impressed by Neil Finn’s musical ability. “He sings real good,” says Andrew. “Even better than me.”
This wasn’t the first instance of the chorus making friends in high places. In October of 2006, Matthew Modine described them as “the best singing group I’ve ever heard,” after seeing them perform at Radio City. In December, they were invited to sing at Marcia Gay Harden’s Christmas party. Then, in 2007, one of Breinberg’s dreams came true when the chorus was invited to sing for Tori Amos at the Sony Atrium in Manhattan. The shaky footage that Breinberg uploaded onto YouTube shows a tearful Amos watching the chorus sing a medley of her songs. “It means so much that they took it and made it their own,” said Amos at the time. “When you have children that can sing your music, as a songwriter there’s no greater feeling.” This footage was also linked to by Perez Hilton, gaining the chorus a lot more media attention. vh1, usa Today, Nylon Magazine and the New York Daily News all mentioned how an unusual choir was gaining fans. Breinberg noticed the traffic on his blog increasing. In April of 2007, average hits per month were around 2,000. The following month, it was over 25,000.
“Honestly, I never imagined that things would take off for the chorus the way they have in the last few years,” says Breinberg. “The enormity of exposure, recognition, and celebrity cameos—the likes of Tori Amos and Crowded House—never entered my wildest dreams when I first started the program back in 2000. The kids have earned themselves something of a cult following due to the eclectic music they cover and through the integrity of their performance. I think people recognize something extraordinary when they see it, and these kids definitely fall under that heading. They’ve risen above tremendous obstacles and have made their voices heard.”
It’s easy to forget, watching the chorus achieve such extraordinary success, that a lot of its members are from disadvantaged backgrounds. Breinberg says that several of the students in the chorus are from special education and English as a Second Language programs. “It’s one of the more rewarding aspects of my profession to see so many of our kids who have difficulties in other areas of academics thrive within the choral environment,” he says. “People often lose sight of how important music is to the education of these kids.”
During practice, almost all of the children profess their dedication to music. “When I go to Junior High, I might start a chorus, or join a chorus,” says ten-year-old Javonni. “And if I go to college, I want to be a songwriter.”
After gallantly raising his hand for a few minutes, chorus member Patrick is called upon by Mr. B to recall his favorite moment from the year. “I think it was when you stopped me in the hall, and called me out,” says Patrick. “I was messing up.” Breinberg immediately interjects. “You weren’t messing up—you were making ‘Poor Life Choices,’” he says, emphasizing the words carefully (Breinberg may be a joker but he’s cautious with his criticism). “But I think you wanted chorus badly enough that you turned yourself around.” As the rehearsal continues, kids let out from other classes gather outside the auditorium to listen, jumping up to try and catch a peek through the porthole windows. “I really, really wanted to be in chorus when I saw them last year,” says Jessica. “They were doing such great stuff.”
All the kids are sad to leave the chorus, although they intend to keep singing. “They learn quick, especially at this point in the semester,” says Breinberg. “Only trouble is, then they leave, and I have to start all over again.”
London, England's Sophie Gilbert is a secret fan of Disney movies who currently resides in Queens.