Photos by Claudio Papapietro
One of the amazing aspects of music education is the range of effective ways with which music, and the important life lessons that its study holds, can be imparted upon young people. Perhaps no one embodies this diversity of methodology and repertoire so unexpectedly and with such astounding success as Gregg Breinberg, a fourth and fifth-grade music teacher and choral director in New York City’s Public School 22.
The PS22 Chorus, as it is commonly referred to, is a select group made up of somewhere between 50 and 80 fifth graders, depending on the year, from a socio-economically challenged neighborhood in Staten Island, New York. Inspired by Breinberg’s own positivity, as well as his passion and enthusiasm for music, this culturally diverse group of youngsters has achieved dizzying success. They’ve performed live on television innumerable times, including recent appearances on Nightline, MTV News, VH1, and Good Morning America. The group’s performances on YouTube have received millions of hits, and the list of celebrities who’ve fallen for these amazing kids includes Tori Amos, Suzanne Vega, Marcia Gay Harden, and the nation’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Even less musically renowned figures like David Hasselhoff, Ashton Kutcher, and Perez Hilton are singing the PS22 chorus’ praises. In fact, it seems that the only people raising their eyebrows over what the ensemble is doing are a few music teachers who frown upon Breinberg’s musical selections, which largely eschews standard choral repertoire in favor of customized arrangements of pop hits from artists like Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Amos, and Stevie Nicks.
The group’s astounding success can all be traced back to Gregg Breinberg, who is, in a nutshell, an eccentric, energetic teacher with a great attitude. Gregg was born and raised in the same borough in which he now teaches, and he points to the experiences he had with music when he was growing up as the foundation for what he tries to create in the classroom. As a child, he used to sing and harmonize on Everly Brothers tunes with his mom and brothers. In high school, he began writing original songs and creating vocal arrangements with friends.
In a recent Choral Director interview, Mr. B., as his students call him, discusses the methods he uses to make his students feel special, whether in the confines of his classroom or in the national spotlight.
Choral Director: How did you end up in music education?
Gregg Breinberg: After I finished college, I was really floating around. I was giving private music lessons and working in the city at a few clubs just nonsense jobs. It became time for me to start thinking about what I was going to be doing with my life. It was three years after I had graduated from college, and I really just didn’t have a clue. The fact that both of my parents were teachers definitely played both a direct and an indirect influence in my career path that, and the fact that if I didn’t get a job, I’d be living on the street soon. [laughs]
It was a matter of going with what I knew. I was lucky in a sense, because I didn’t understand the whole politics of the education system when I was first starting out. I just thought, “Okay, I’m going to be an elementary music teacher,” but it wasn’t quite as easy to work out as that. Fortunately, once I was able to show my administrators what the class could be, things seem to have smoothed out.
CD: Would you talk about your first teaching experience?
GB: This is the second school I’ve worked at fulltime. The first school was PS60; it’s only about a mile or two down the road from PS22. It has a very different population in terms of socio-economics. The kids were a little bit better off financially at my old school. I was there doing my thing, I loved it, it was great, it was a successful program, the parents were happy, the administration was happy, I was happy, but I got excessed from the schools, which basically means someone came back, and being the newest hire, I was the first person to get the boot. My principal tried desperately to keep me in the school, but it didn’t work out. I was devastated.
Eventually, I was placed at this school, PS22. I was happy, at least, when I got here because the principal already knew who I was. She had seen me when I was doing my student teaching she was doing quality review at PS60 while I was teaching there. Because of that, I was hoping she’d be able to put me into a music position quickly. When I first arrived at PS22, I went into the building and was like, “Hi, I’m going to be your music teacher!” She said, “No, it doesn’t quite work that way,” so I was given a crash course in the politics of how music positions are given out at the elementary school level. I had made sure to have all my licensing and credentials in order so that my qualifications could secure me the job, but it was too late for me when I first came in to go straight to the music department because those cluster positions music, science, art, et cetera are assigned the year before. So I had no choice but to be given a classroom position teaching second grade. So my first year, I taught second grade. Of course, I was petrified, but we made it work. Fortunately, that’s a non-testing grade, so that took some of the stress off.
CD: Was there a music teacher in fifth grade at that time?
GB: There was no choral program at the school at that time there was no music program at the school at all. This was before September 11th. After 9/11, all of the elementary school music programs where a band teacher would travel to different schools once or twice a week were cut. Unfortunately, that was my first year teaching. Since then, we’ve been able bring music back in the schools and actually do it at a more consistent level. As opposed to just a few kids studying band, we now have all the kids studying general music, and the select group gets the chorus.
CD: Then the following year you started up as the choral and general music teacher?
GB: Yes, I started those programs in tandem that next year. It started up much more low key, obviously, than it is now. I was really experimenting. I’d never even done harmonies with kids that age, so it was definitely a learning year for me. It’s nice to look back on the old recordings because you can see the energy and the passion and the talent there, but it’s also great to look now and see the refinement of the sound and see the kids really enjoying the music. It’s hard for me as a young person in a position like a music teacher because I found that there were older teachers who had been teaching for years and wanted to get out of the classroom and into music, which they considered a cushier position. It was tough navigating the politics and dealing with teachers that resented me. I felt like I had to prove my program and I was really intense about it. Fortunately, once the program started showing that it was being successful, I was able to lighten up and do things the way they come more naturally to me, which is really more laid back. Like I say, the most important part of my job is making the kids love music.
CD: But you were also teaching fundamental musical concepts like harmonies, notation, theory, and so on?
GB: Exactly. They don’t even touch that stuff in my school until the kids get to fourth grade because there is no money for a music teacher for the younger grades. I don’t even see them until fourth grade, and then I only see them once a week for 45 minutes. There’s only so much that you can get done in that amount of time. Of course, I try to give them the notation, theory, appreciation of different genres and all of that stuff in their general music classes, and then incorporate whatever I can into the chorus.
It’s funny because a lot of people read and write about our chorus and say, “This is a pop chorus,” but that’s interesting to me because a lot of the songs that we do aren’t all pop music. Pop music is a big genre, and you could cut it down into many different sub-categories. The best way I’ve heard it put is that it’s not about what you church you go to, it’s that you’re worshipping God. That’s how I feel about my music program. It’s not necessarily important exactly what the music is that the kids are learning, it’s more important that the kids are simply learning about music, notation, theory, appreciation and all of that important stuff.
CD: So you have these kids who are very raw musically, although obviously they’re very talented, for only 45 minutes a week in fifth grade?
GB: General music continues at 45 minutes per week in the fifth grade, and the chorus is a supplemental program. It’s good that I’m able to take the select the kids for the chorus, the ones who are more focused and into the music, and use the concepts that we’re learning in general music in a more hands-on kind of way.
CD: And how often does the choir meet?
GB: They meet about two-and-a-half hours per week.
CD: That’s still not a lot of rehearsal time, relative to how they perform, which is obviously at an extraordinarily high level. So what’s your secret?
GB: I was so hoping you wouldn’t ask me that question! [laughs] Honestly, I’m a person who works by instinct. If it had to do with musicianship, my chorus would not be nearly as good as many others. There are far more musically sophisticated classes out there. I don’t know if that’s fair to myself, though. I think we all have a different musical side, and that musical talent takes its own path in each of us.
For me, I always felt left out in college. I didn’t have a burning love for classical music, I didn’t have a burning love for jazz of course it was great to get that exposure because I was able to find classical music and jazz music that I love, but in terms of developing what I wanted to develop, which is more of the creative side, definitely more along the lines of “pop” music, I just felt like there was nothing for me. My goal for these kids is just to provide a little something for everyone to keep them involved. Yes, I want to expand their horizons, but I also want to meet them at their level and to take it from there.
CD: So what do you look for in terms of repertoire when you’re selecting music?
GB: I look for variety of genre. We seem to be known as the “pop” choir, but if you delve into our repertoire, there’s a lot going on there. We do some traditionals, and we’ve done some classical music, and of course we can’t do arrangements to the tune of a professional choir these are fifth grade kids! so we try to work within their level. I think arranging is my best skill as a musician. Arranging and harmony, that’s just what I grew up with.
I’m trying to give them the music education that I guess I feel like I missed out on in some ways. As for how I do it, when you’re a real teacher, and I know that that is my path in life I’m more of a teacher than I am a musician it’s just a matter of being patient, persistent, and inspiring work ethic in the kids, inspiring the kids to want to take the music to great heights. They seem to be open to the inspiration that I try to give them. They seem to be able to take the little words of encouragement that I give them “Come on, guys! You can do it! It’s going to be great!” they just want to do it. They love it. Fortunately, there’s a mutual respect, where they encourage me and I encourage them to do the best job possible. There’s a magic, and I don’t know if I can put it into words.
CD: What’s the bottom line here? You talk about words like “magic” and “inspiration” down the line, what’s the broader goal?
GB: I have to be honest: the whole internet success thing was nothing that I had ever, ever dreamed of or planned for. So if you ask me what my ultimate goal is, yes, it’s just for my students to have that love for music and hopefully inspire them to pursue the development of their talents.
CD: Five years from now, what do you hope the kids have taken away from their time with you?
GB: I hope that these kids take away a confidence, a sense of empowerment, and a sense that anything is possible. That last bit is certainly more along the lines of the last few years because of the amazing opportunities we’ve had, but I don’t want this chorus to be just about the exposure that these kids are getting. I do think it’s so important that this is blowing up at a point where our budget is a mess and music and arts programs are being cut left and right, so in a sense, globally, with the success, I’d love to keep people thinking about how important music is. I don’t think anyone can miss by watching how those kids sing how important it is to them, how it keeps kids wanting to come to school. Every kid in my chorus will tell you that they look forward to coming to school. That’s something we take a lot of pride in because we just happen to be a school that really subscribes to the arts.
We’ve also used the music to teach other areas of the curriculum. The kids learned PEMDAS through rhythm equations that I made. I try to keep things fun and keep the students on their toes. I want them to love music, learn, be engaged, and I want them to come to school. When you take the arts out of schools, there’s a risk of drop outs, especially among children who maybe don’t have great parental support and might be saying to themselves, “Why am I going to this place where I’m not succeeding, I’m made to feel like an idiot, there’s nothing I do well in this life, and I have to come back tomorrow to feel like an idiot again?” I want to reach these kids, and a lot of the children in my chorus do not necessarily succeed in other academic areas as well as they and their families would like. It’s so important that we tap into other avenues that kids are capable of succeeding in. I think that every one of these kids in my chorus has something to offer. Maybe they don’t have that prodigious, exceptional vocal talent, but there’s more behind the music that these kids are tapping into within themselves. They’re amazing people and that’s a part of it, too. I want them to be open to each other. I want them to be open to life and to new things.
CD: Have you started getting feedback from older students who passed through your class five, six, seven years ago?
GB: Yeah, even 10 years ago! All throughout my career I’ve been lucky enough to get visits from former students and now with the Web site, they can hit me up online. It’s great! So many students have been nice enough to say that the chorus has really affected their lives and given them that inspiration to pursue their dreams, whether that be in music or something else.
There was one young lady who was a star and soloist in my chorus who has gone on to become an entrepreneur of her own hair products line, and she’s recently been on TV talk shows like Oprah, Montell, and Donny Deutsch. It is great to see that the confidence and things that they’re learning in the chorus are actually driving them to succeed; it’s showing them that they can do things. Whether or not our group becomes popular and we get the accolades from Nightline or Good Morning America, the kids themselves know it is special. In the past, before we got the major coverage, these kids knew that they were doing something special. It is a great feeling for a kid to know that he or she is good at something.
CD: What about for you? What’s your barometer for success?
GB: That I feel good about what I’m doing. That I feel that it is right, that I’m doing my best, and that I’m working hard. In terms of the public success, yes, I would love to keep that going because if it didn’t, I would feel really bad for all of the kids in fourth grade who are seeing their fifth grade compatriots getting all of these experiences, so I’d love to keep that going for them. Ultimately, though, that’s hardly what this is about. If that happens, great, if it doesn’t, we’ll still find our own successes. As a teacher, that’s my job, to make them feel special and important, and to help them find and develop their gifts. So if I can keep doing that, I’ll feel successful.
CD: Do you feel like this degree of success can last? What is your game plan moving forward?
GB: What I’m doing seems to be working. I just have to keep my head on straight and deal with the blows as they come. There are always little innovations along the way and there are always ideas that come across, but I have to say that I’m trying very hard to just keep the program running smoothly. I don’t want to see us get hit by budget cuts. I’m very worried about that, and I’m sure that I will be losing some time with my students, so I hope that I can keep my positive frame of mind. That’s the thing about teaching; the students look to you. So if I can be happy with what I’m doing and continue to put that out there, and be happy with the students and put that out in a genuine way, they will tap into it. Whether or not they get on Nightline or Good Morning America, they’ll be happy with the program.
CD: You’ve mentioned budget cuts a few times. Is there anything that you are doing to protect your program?
GB: I am in a very precarious position. I’m not allowed to solicit donations. It’s very tricky and I don’t totally understand it. In a way, it seems like the New York City public school system has empowered the principals so that they could look for funding for their own schools, but then we seem to be getting confronted with red tape when we try to work out creative ways to increase the school’s funding. We’ve had record offers from major labels, and we just haven’t been able to see it through because it’s so hard to convince the Board of Education that this is something that’s actually a good thing. I don’t know what they’re not seeing, or what they are seeing that I’m not seeing.
It’s hard because I have a ton of ideas of how I could make money for the schools. If I had any aspirations for making money, I wouldn’t be in this profession. That’s not what it’s all about. I want to help the program, so I don’t know why they’re having a hard time with it. It is tricky with kids and money, but the way I see it, if parents are agreeing to it and are excited about it and want their kids involved, I don’t see why the department would turn down opportunities for them that would also bring in some funding for the program.
That said, I leave that stuff to my principal. I wish [the administration] would understand that we were doing something that makes them look very good, but I have to leave it up to them. The Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan gave me a call and said that if there’s anything he can do for me, to let him know. So if I have to, I’ll get in touch with him. He should have some pull with our chancellor, and he did offer, so hopefully things will turn out okay for us.
CD: Let’s talk specifics about your choir for a moment. Do the students audition to participate?
GB: It is by audition. When the kids come to me for the first few weeks of general music, I test everyone. I test their range, I test their ear, and it’s basically like a one- or two-minute audition, but that’s usually enough for me to see which kids are able to be in the chorus. And then what I do is try to balance my decisions of “who has the talent” with “who really wants this.” Sometimes we’ll take in a kid who might be, I don’t want to say “tone deaf,” so maybe “tone impaired” [laughs] and make that work because they’re just desperate for it. I have to make my decisions as a choral director but also as a teacher. It’s cool, though, because I like the fact that they aren’t perfect. It’s fifth grade; they aren’t supposed to be perfect. It should be something that makes people happy and most importantly, the kids.
CD: And how many students do you generally have in the chorus?
GB: It’s fluctuated over the years between 50 and 80. 80 was crazy, that’s just too many kids and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to pull that off again by myself.
CD: Do you split them up into a subgroup, like a select ensemble?
GB: Not so much a select ensemble, but I’ll take what I call my “coaches,” anywhere from two to five altos and two to five sopranos, and sometimes test out my arrangements on them and find a soloist from that group. That’s not so much for performances, although sometimes, if we’re performing in a small space and we can’t bring the entire group, I’ll just bring the choral… coaches… people.
CD: Have you gotten feedback from the education community at large? What do they have to say?
GB: Every day I get comments from people and 99 percent of the people seem to be really getting it. There’s always that select bunch that don’t, but that’s okay; that’s a much better percentage than I would have expected. [laughs] It’s funny: the people that seem to take the most issue with my program and who really don’t know a thing about it tend to be music teachers. I don’t know if they feel threatened by what we’re doing or the fact that the kids are happy learning about music. I don’t know. I guess I just have a different philosophy from other music teachers. Maybe that’s why I never fit in with most of the music majors in college, because I just had a different way of doing things. I’ve never been the type of person to put all of my eggs in one basket, be it one genre of music or whatever. I’m all over the place, as you can tell by this conversation!
CD: Would you say that this is your way? Or is this the way that it naturally fits with your students?
GB: I would say both. It’s definitely my way. I don’t think that the whole concept of doing modern music is necessarily a cutting edge thing. People have sent me something from the Langley School Project from the 1970s, and I was like, “Oh my god! A kindred spirit from the 1970s!” But I think there’s a lot more to the program than just the music selection. What people are relating to are, aside from the fact that the kids are singing mostly on pitch and in some difficult harmonies, is that they’re loving it, they’re feeling it, and they’re making a genuine connection to the music. That’s where we are maybe more cutting edge, in terms of the whole dynamic of choral performance.
For me, watching kids stand in a row with their shoulders up, heads out, stomachs in to me at that age, I don’t think you don’t hear that big a difference in the sound, and at that age, I think you get a better sound when you let them be free and let them release themselves. I don’t know how any singer can be at their best just standing up tall maybe it’s just a totally different approach to music. I’m sure there are ways to do it that may be more “correct,” but, again, I’m glad I teach fifth grade. I can balance the cerebral approach to music with a more heart-felt approach. I love the fact that a whole bunch of new choral teachers have contacted me saying, “Wow, I didn’t know that you could have the teachers sing like that!” Well, of course you can! If you don’t tell the kids that they have to stand up straight, they’ll do it however they want to. The performances aren’t being choreographed. The kids aren’t being told, “Put your hand there, move your eyebrow there.” They are just feeling the music.
CD: What’s your trick for getting the kids to feel the music? Is it about the musical sections, the energy?
GB: Yes, I think it’s about the selections, the energy in the class, and my own personal enthusiasm. When I was in choir singing “If I Had Wings Like a Dove,” there’s only so much you can bring to that. Especially as a boy in intermediate school, you’re going to want to hide on stage. It can be painful. What’s great here is that the kids are definitely loving the music, they’re making that connection. We discuss lyrics, and I try to do it in a way that leads them to find a meaning in it for themselves. Even when we do songs from artists like Tori Amos and I don’t even understand what she’s talking about half the time the point is to get them to find something in the lyrics that they can relate to, and find their own meaning to a song. We talk about how important is it for the students to understand what they’re singing about. Number one for me is that soul connection to the music. There’s always something cerebral going on with the musicians that I like, but that’s not what draws me to them. And for me, that’s what I want the children to bring to the music. I don’t want them to look at music as notes and rhythms, because if you’re doing that, then you’re just teaching them math; you aren’t teaching the magic and power of what music can be.
PS22 Chorus At a Glance
Location: 1860 Forest Ave, Graniteville, Staten Island, N.Y.
2008-2009 Musical Selections