P.S. 22: The new class
The YouTube sensations from Staten Island get a lot more than fame from their chorus-they learn how to learn.
Mon Jul 19 2010
It's a hot day in May and P.S. 22's incoming fifth-grade chorus is singing "One Day," by Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu, in its Staten Island school's auditorium. "The purpose of a chorus is to turn 65 voices into one," explains Gregg Breinberg, the music teacher responsible for making it the elementary school chorus to be a part of. Most of these kids performed in the school's annual holiday show as fourth graders, but as star fifth graders, they'll really get to shine. Turning away from the students for just a moment, Breinberg—or Mr. B, as he's known to the kids—tells us, "Keep in mind that they haven't practiced as a group since the 2009 holiday show." We think he's just being modest: They sound amazing.
It's a bittersweet time of year. Breinberg is getting ready to say goodbye to the graduating class of 2010. "It's hard," he says. "We're a family." And quite an accomplished one: This year alone, the chorus sang for Beyonc, Lady Gaga and President Obama; performed at Radio City Music Hall; and was honored with a Webby Award for its online contribution to music (overall, the troupe's YouTube videos have garnered 19 million views). But the choral director is also ushering in a new crop of students—the 2010--2011 fifth grade chorus, whose rehearsal we're sitting in on. "Every group brings its own unique personality, and this bunch is going to be a fun one. I have a feeling we'll be doing a lot of upbeat stuff, because these guys really have charisma." Among them is nine-year-old Mohammed, who as a fourth grader stole last year's holiday show with his rendition of "Dominic the Donkey." "When you see this kid onstage, he's bopping around," Mr. B says. "He can sing, he can dance. He's got it all."
Another up-and-coming soloist is nine-year-old Azaria. "I got to sing 'Believe' by Travis Garland with the 2010 fifth graders," she says. "It's awesome to get that kind of opportunity. Kids really put themselves out there to get a place in the P.S. 22 chorus—I feel very lucky that I got one of the spots." Mindful of the group's fame, she adds, "I really hope we get to meet some celebrities."
For Breinberg, an eleven-year P.S. 22 veteran, singing with the stars and having the kids featured regularly on Perez Hilton was never the goal—it's just the icing on the cake. Growing up on Staten Island, he remembers singing "boring and lame" songs in his school's chorus and not connecting at all to the music. Now that he's the teacher, his goal is to get the kids excited. "I try to expose them to all types of styles, sounds and emotions—things that are different from what they hear on the radio," he says. The chorus has covered everyone from Tori Amos and Bjrk to Black Sabbath and Survivor.
Breinberg's fifth graders practice three hours each week—a commitment that's unheard of at many other public schools, where arts programs have been cut back to devote more time to in-class reading and math. Of course, what the powers-that-be may not consider is how much kids benefit from music and other performing arts programs. "The students learn that there are four beats in a measure. For kids that aren't into math, this helps them understand the concepts," Breinberg explains. He's also teaching them to interpret music. When the group sings "Believe," Breinberg asks them to dissect the lyrics. "Garland sings 'I'm looking at your future, I see it in your face.' What does that mean? What does it mean to be inspired?" When a student answers, "To be driven to do something," Breinberg tells her that her answer was spot-on and beautiful.
It's clear that members of the new class are already stars in Breinberg's eyes. "They've accomplished more than any group at their level before them," he says. "There are big things in store for them." He's hoping for a record deal—"I'm still working on getting permission from the Board of Ed"—and there's also talk of a documentary. For now, though, he's focused on choosing songs for the fall. "I like to keep it current, so I'll be listening to what's coming out this summer," he says. He also relies on ideas from the kids. Two of the group's biggest viral hits—"Eye of the Tiger" and "Don't Stop Believin'"—were student suggestions. "They heard the Journey song on the Glee promos and wanted to sing it," Breinberg tells us. Funnily enough, Breinberg's never even seen the show. He does, though, share with Glee's head honcho, Mr. Shue (Matthew Morrison), a similar spirit and positive teaching style. "Mr. B taught us that you should follow your dreams and never give up," says nine-year-old Denise. Even so, she adds, the chorus is more than a feel-good lark. "It's okay to fool around sometimes, but when it comes to business, we work hard!"