Inspiration Information — Gregg Breinberg and PS22 chorus

by aaron on January 15, 2011

“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back.  Those who wish to sing always find a song.” –Plato

If you aren’t already acquainted, allow me to introduce you to the incredibly joyous and inspiring PS22 chorus, a 5th grade public school located in Staten Island New York.  There is something undeniably powerful listening to the raw fire and passion pouring from these young lips.  You can see it in every single face,the depth of feeling, that reckless abandon and purity of emotion — resonates an inexplicable catharsis I can’t vocalize through words or thought.  That only my heart comprehends.

Famed Danish childrens author and father of Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Anderson once wrote that “where words fail, music speaks.”  Listening to these kids harmonize is for me the equivalent of opening a bottle of unfiltered joy.  No matter how difficult the day, my darkest moments are instantly transformed to light simply by clicking on a link and hearing them sing Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida”.

And yet, as inspiring as the videos and the spirit in which these kids sing, the story behind their teacher “Mr. B” and the evolution of PS22 is one of cinematic sweep…

It begins in the summer of ’98, 3 years after Music major Gregg Breinberg, graduated from SUNY New Paltz university with a Bachelor’s degree  in music theory and composition.  Like most struggling musicians, Gregg found himself broke, floating between private piano and guitar lessons while working pickup gigs at bars in Manhattan.   And that defining moment arrived, when the road forked sharply into a unexpected detour and a job as an elementary school teacher presented itself back in the same Staten Island Borough where Gregg was born and raised.

The son of two teachers, Gregg found the transition into education rather fluid.  His background as a summer day camp music specialist for 9 years, as well as a previous job as a musical clown didn’t hurt his ability to connect and entertain a class.  That combined with his wild, unharnessed energy.  His charismatic and uncorked enthusiasm… all lending to a natural ease and repoire all truly great teachers possess.

He was hired at PS60, a public school with a slightly better socio-economic makeup as well as the funds for an arts education position.  But after only a year, Gregg was excessed from his job when an old teacher returned and Gregg was bumped.  To his dismay, he found himself jobless.  And when he was finally placed in PS22, a school only a mile away but with a student population of much different ethnic and economic diversity, Gregg was thrust into a 2nd grade position.  Aside from the politics of placement and bureaucracy, Gregg had to leap through so many credential and qualification hurdles to even be allowed to teach music.  It was just the start of a chain of adversity Gregg would have to face in the following years of building his choral program.

At the time, there was no music program in the school at all.  What existed in many public schools nationwide was a shared”minstrel position”, where one music teacher would split his time visiting 3-5 different school once or twice a week.  After 9/11, even this budgeted position was cut.  Which just so happened to be the first year Gregg started teaching.  Not only did he have to build the entire music program from scratch, he had to fight against economic policy in which art programs are often the first and fastest axed.

Take all those challenges before the students even set foot in the classroom.  And then come the kids.  50-80 in a class.  Ages 11-12.  None with musical training.  Most hyperactive, many shy.  And all embarrassed to sing outloud in front of their peers.  And then factor in the backgrounds of the individual students.  Three quarters qualify for free lunch programs.  Several require Special Ed or english as a second language.  A lot of them struggle academically.  A lot of them deal with difficult, often broken home-lives.

And yet, in spite of all these obstacles, Mr. B’s choral program has flourished.  It has grown, from a small public school class of underpriviliged 5th graders to an international and internet phenomenon.  The key to their success?  In Mr. B’s own words…

“Kindness and patience are #1 with me. I also think it’s important to be willing to try things, step outside your comfort zone, embarrass yourself, make mistakes…  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 height…  As long as they sing with feeling, from the heart, they can never go wrong.”

With only 45 minutes a week for General Music class, and an additional 2.5 hours for supplemental chorus, it’s unbelievable to witness the professional scale on which these kids perform.  They transcend the music.  Hope and joy and breath made visible in their unabated smiles.

“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.

Indeed people have recognized the extraordinary talents of these kids.  They’ve had over 15 million hits on their youtube channel: http://ps22chorus.blogspot.com/ where Mr. B posts all the lastest songs, as well as every past class’s performance.  They’ve performed sold out concerts with Tori Amos, Stevie Nicks, and Crowded House.  They even sung for the first family at the annual White House Christmas show.

What strikes me most about PS22 is that there is nothing special about these kids, nothing that makes them any different from any other 5th graders anywhere in the world.  Every year a new batch of students enter the class with the same anxieties and ambitions of the class that came before.  With the same talents and potential.  And every year they come out of the chorus experience with the profound ability to move mountains with their joined harmonies.  As individuals they grow exponentially.  As a collective family of voices, they become a positive wave of inspiration that uplifts all who hear them sing… including and perhaps most importantly– themselves.

In the words of their teacher:

“For some of them, [the program] means everything. It really does. Some of these kids, I truly believe this program will save their lives, ’cause they will go on and they will know they have something they’re good at… The chorus is an avenue to success and an opportunity to be recognized.  It boosts their confidence in everything else they do. This experience is intrinsic to their education and their humanity.”

He goes on to say this, “ I always try to remind them that they themselves have become living proof that through hard work, anything is possible.  They are my heroes, knowing the obstacles so many of them have to overcome, yet they get up and come into school smiling and sharing their positive energy, they are little miracle people.”

Watch their faces.  Hear it in their voices.  These kids ARE special, every single one because they believe what they are feeling.  They KNOW beyond a doubt that if they pour the full force of their hearts into the music, into their lives… that anything is possible.

And of course, it doesn’t hurt to have such an inspiring teacher as Gregg Breinberg. Thanks PS22 for the beautiful music and the much needed inspiration.  You are wonderful reminders that the human heart is something to be shouted out, to be praised and shared.  Through song.  Through dance.  Through the uncontrollable and intoxicating excitement of being alive.

Leave your comment

Required.

Required. Not published.

If you have one.