Now anyone who knows me knows that I’m not what you would call a “kid person.” Not to say I hate all the youngsters of the world; I’m just against having my own (the result of many years of babysitting and a staunch disbelief that pregnancy could be anything but a freaky and miserable experience). Well, now one internet sensation is making me reconsider my anti-procreation stance. The PS22 choir is comprised of 60-70 5th graders from Public School 22 in Graniteville, Staten Island, and what sets this chorus of kids apart from others are the songs they sing. No boring hymns to be heard here. These kids rock out to Phoenix and Lady Gaga. The videos of the choir performing are so wonderful that I would actually consider popping out a couple of rugrats just so they could be involved.
The man behind the PS22 choir—or more accurately, in front of it—is director Gregg Breinberg, and he recently talked to LA Music Blog about PS22’s rise to stardom, the choir’s famous fans, and the ridiculously adorable kids making that sweet music.
When did you realize that you wanted to work as a choir director?
I came into teaching knowing that I wanted to teach music. There was a position open in this school that I used to work at, my first school that I was teaching in, for a choral director job. It was really more of a music teaching job. Every year they had the kids performing on a local television station. They’d get schools from across Staten Island to participate in singing holiday carols, and each school would be a part of that. Once I did that with the first school that I was in, and it just was something that really clicked with me. I really liked teaching voice, and I always had a good ear for harmony and arranging, so it was a natural progression for me to follow that line musically.
You hold auditions every year with the kids to get a new group in. What is the process for you to find the right kids?
I try to balance the scales in terms of picking kids that obviously display some musical proficiency, but it’s also a matter of finding kids that I think it will really benefit them. Sometimes we’ll put in a kid that’s maybe not quite as talented, but really needs this for whatever reason—maybe something at home is not right, maybe they’re not doing as well in their class work and they have low self-esteem because of that. I call it my reformation project. We want to use the forum that is chorus to get kids to discover themselves and feel good about themselves. That’s been a key focus to the program and what we’re all about, really.
Now your blog has taken off, and the PS22 Choir has over 15 million hits on YouTube. Whose idea was it to put up these videos? Was it your idea? A student’s?
Everything was kind of serendipitous. I think it was the summer between 2006 and the 2007 school year. I’m a huge Tori Amos fan, so I was on one of the fan forums and I was telling them how I had my kids singing Tori Amos. They were like, “Oh my God, you gotta post some of this,” so I looked into it. I didn’t know how to go about getting these kids’ videos online, so I did some research and I visited the computer specialist within the Department of Education, and I designed a website. That was when the website was first designed, that summer of 2006. They loved what they saw, and they sanctioned that as long as we had the parents’ approval, we were good to go. I just made a mad dash at the beginning of that year to get the parent approval. What started as showing what these kids were doing for the sake of my Tori Amos friends turned into something obviously a lot bigger.
Did you expect this kind of response?
No. Absolutely not. It blows my mind how this took off. I just never would have expected it. At the time, I was just putting the kids’ work up to show a few friends of mine, and then it became where people were finding these videos. I think what happened was we sang with Tori Amos after we put a few of her videos up that year. Her management had come across us and wanted to work something out that we could get her and the group together. We met at the Sony Atrium down in Manhattan. That video is online, by the way, so you can check that out. She came down, we sang for her, she was crying, and she just fell in love with the kids and was absolutely amazing. Her response was amazing.
Perez Hilton, who happened to also be a big Tori Amos fan, had found this video, and then he posted it on his blog. From there things just really took off. This was the bare beginnings of our internet success, the Tori Amos meeting video. Then from there, he just started posting—any time we would cover a Tori Amos song, Perez Hilton would post it, and then it just branched out.
The real crazy Internet phenom thing happened with “Eye of the Tiger,” the first PS22 chorus video, which was a real surprise ’cause I kind of put that up not expecting anyone to really care about that song [LAUGHS]. It’s from the ‘80s, so I didn’t think anyone would really take notice of that, and of course, that’s the one that people just all of a sudden woke up to what we were doing. All sorts of crazy stuff happened from there. The Bonnie Hunt Show, and Nightline, and everyone became interested in what we were doing. And yeah, it totally blew my mind. [LAUGHS]
How do you feel this has impacted the kids that are involved with the PS22 chorus?
I think it depends on the kid. There are certain kids who do this for their self-esteem, and I think it gives them that. It gives them confidence. It shows them that there’s something that they can do that they’re good at. It also develops a sense of teamwork because obviously chorus is a thing that you can’t do by yourself. You need the teamwork aspect of it to make the group a success. So I would say sometimes it’s toning kids down a little bit, and sometimes it’s boosting them up a little bit.
I think that in terms of their scholastics it helps also, ’cause there’s a lot of focus that needs to happen for fifth graders to create harmony that you can actually make out and not make you want to claw at a chalkboard. [LAUGHS] These guys sound good. It’s a focus, it’s a discipline, and they pick that up, and that same focus and discipline will usually carry over into their classwork. I think it helps instill a work ethic. These kids have seen that with hard work, look what you can do. I think there are so many benefits. The greatest thing about the website and the whole internet phenom thing is that it’s waking people up to what the arts can do for kids and how important it is for their education.
You’ve taken a different route with the music that you teach kids, opting for more modern songs rather than traditional classical songs and hymns. What initially made you decide to go that route?
I always said that if I’m gonna teach chorus, I’m gonna do it in a way that I would enjoy if I were in their shoes. I’ve sat through choral experiences where you’re just singing music in which there’s nothing to relate to. There’s nothing that makes you want to sit up and sing and really put your heart and soul into it. I think for me, when I pick music for the kids, I want it to be something that both they and I can get something out of and that’s gonna be rewarding for them. No matter how much time and how much harmony you put into Kumbaya, it’s not gonna be satisfying in the end result—for me, anyway. I guess for some people it would be, but not for me. [LAUGHS]
The kids tap into that too. They mirror your enthusiasm. If I’m not excited about the music, that will definitely impact the final product. And there are times that I have to kind of fake my enthusiasm a little bit. Honestly, “Eye of the Tiger” wasn’t one I was really enthusiastic about. A kid had asked me to do that song. The kid who sings the solo, in fact, had asked me to do that song, and honestly, I really didn’t want to do it, but I’m really glad we did because it made me like the song better, number one, and it made this kid who had issues with self confidence solo on that. He really discovered that he had a talent that people were enthusiastic about and wanted to hear him.
You guys have had several artists come in, from Tori Amos, to Randy Jackson, to Lady Gaga, to Beyonce. Is there anyone who’s come in who’s made a bigger impact than the rest?
I think the kids just appreciate and love every bit of attention that they get from anywhere. What’s great is that we had a college choir come in from Ithaca, their acapella choir, and what I loved was that the kids rated that as one of their best experiences of the year. Some of them said it was their favorite day of the year when Ithaca came. What’s cool is that I don’t think that they’re judging so much by how popular they are; I think they’re judging their experiences by how good they make them feel.
I have to say, we really have been very, very fortunate. I think the artists that seek us out, they get it, and they see that this is something that you don’t see most elementary school kids capable of doing. There’s many reasons people are drawn to the group, but the ones that are seeking us out, I think those are the ones that really get it. I can’t really say if the kids enjoyed meeting Lady Gaga more than Beyonce or vice-versa. I think it depends on the experience—it’s not so much who it is, but how they’re treated.
Is there anyone who that you personally would like to have in for the kids?
I’d be happy to see Tori again. I’ve got a one-track mind when it comes to my music.
What do you hope that the people who are following this get out of the videos that are already out, as well as future videos to come?
It depends. If it’s just random people that are watching it on the internet, I just want them to enjoy what they’re seeing. There are certain target audiences that it’s nice to be hearing from, particularly other music teachers or even just regular teachers. They’re saying, “Wow, it’s just so inspiring to see these kids so into what they’re doing,” and that they could see that the education is going beyond the music. It’s reaching them at a deeper level. It’s great to hear that from other educators, college professors. That, for me personally, is probably the most rewarding.
Also hearing back from the artists whose music we cover [is rewarding]. Phoenix had said some really nice things in the Guardian over the weekend, which was great to see. Honestly, it’s great to hear from everyone. What’s great is that I think it appeals to all different age groups. Kids enjoy it ’cause they see kids up there singing and they enjoy it for that. Young people, maybe high school, college people say, “Whoa, this is neat hearing elementary kids sing music that I listen to.” Then you have the artists themselves or people in college that are trying to get a music education or a music license to be teaching. It’s just great to hear from everybody.
As part of a public school system, what are your thoughts on how music and art are currently funded? it seems obvious that you guys have a large enough following to prove that it has interest just beyond the kids itself.
I think the budget is obviously devastated. The first thing always to go are the arts and physical education, and all the things that the higher-ups consider extras that I consider intrinsic. That’s a shame, because it’s so sad to see education becoming so myopic. Everything is just literacy and math, and even here, we try our best to incorporate the arts. We’re one of the few elementary schools on this level that actually does have music and art programs, so we’re very lucky, but we’re always constantly with our fingers crossed and just hoping that nothing’s gonna impact it for the following year. Every year I’ve started the year worrying whether or not my program is gonna be able to continue as is. Fortunately, I think certainly the success that this group has had has helped lay down the foundation for it, but next year I’m gonna be sweating it the same way. It’s just unfortunate that the arts are not given the proper respect by the higher ups.
Growing up, I don’t think I had as much fun in my music class as I think these kids are having, but I always enjoyed it. I have decent skills for the level that I teach, but I don’t know if I would do as well or it would be as impressive if I worked with an older group. I think I just have a good rapport with these guys and their age, and I know how to get what I need out of them, but I would feel uncomfortable going into a high school age where some kids would probably be a heck of a lot more talented than me. Some of the kids here are a heck of lot more talented than me, but I know more. I felt that this was the right age group for me. I’m a good musician. I’m not great, and not all of my students are prodigious. They’re not necessarily little child prodigies. There may be one or two or three mixed in the group, but we’re not working with exceptionally talented kids. These are kids who were just zoned for the neighborhood school.
What are the plans for you and the chorus for the year to come?
Honestly, we take things as they come. There are definitely some exciting things in the works—some things I’m not allowed to speak about yet—but there are some things that definitely PS22 chorus fans will have to look forward to. [LAUGHS] Usually what happens is they get an offer two weeks before they’re needed. Last week, for instance, they performed with Matisyahu, which is just awesome, and they contacted us a couple of weeks before. Celtic Woman had contacted us a couple of weeks before they needed us, and we were able to do that. We take things as they come and just hope that it’ll keep coming.
To see more videos of the PS22 chorus, visit: