The PS22 Chorus is an internationally celebrated children’s chorus. Among their fans and champions are Tori Amos, blogger Perez Hilton, Coldplay, Common along with a host of industry types, movie and television stars, politicians and... well, the list goes on and, as soon as you watch their videos, it will likely include you as well.
To appreciate the chorus, you need to start with the man who dreamed it up. Gregg Brienberg is certifiably Staten Island born. Even as a child, the self-described “nature boy” had a love and fascination for music that, while setting the scene for future success, probably also messed up his life at the time. Neither a stellar student, nor as he said, “having left higher education with a clue,” Gregg pursued the musician’s dream of... well, being a musician, only to find that a fiery passion for music doesn’t mean you have the chops for the pro circuit as a performer. Besides, he had already suspected his particular talents lay more in the adapting, arranging and teaching areas. So for a while, he gave music lessons. Three years of this earned him an invitation to move out of his parents’ house (by his parents), so he went into teaching and earned his masters in Elementary Education, becoming a Children’s Music Specialist.
It took a while, enduring stints as a classroom teacher, before Breinberg got his first chance to teach Music, but it was a thing largely of “pageants.” He made his move to PS22 with help from a former principal who always suspected what he would be capable of, left to his own devices. However, there wasn’t an arts program at the school (ironic, since now it is considered a to be one of the country’s top “performing arts” schools), and Gregg had to spend a year teaching 2nd Grade. But even while he wasn’t teaching Music, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t using music to teach, in the form of little songs to help kids remember facts. The music was always in him. He finally was hired to teach Music in his second year, and there the scene was set.
Breinberg wanted the kids to be as excited about music and singing as he was, and here he took the revolutionary approach of picking songs that don’t suck. He picked songs from Tori Amos, Bjork and The Smiths. Proud of his kids, he started shooting video of the pieces and posting them on Youtube. So, everything that follows, including the bear that Greg claims he never killed, is partly because of Youtube.
It seems a devoted Tori Amos fan saw one of the videos and re-posted it on a Tori Amos fan-page in 2006. Next thing Gregg knew, he was contacted by Tori Amos’ management and he and the kids were invited to appear with her in NYC in May of 2007. To this day, Gregg counts this as the most exciting moment in rather remarkable career. Along with Tori Amos, influential culture blogger Perez Hilton (a Tori fan himself) championed the PS22 Chorus. The attention was coming in loud and strong. This actually made Breinberg’s supervisor’s supervisors somewhat nervous and, for a while, they actually encouraged him to tone it down and take the videos down off of Youtube. While he did take many of them down, he also put a new one up at a ratio of 3 down, 1 up. Two things happened:
1) Perez Hilton was enamored of their cover of “Eye of the Tiger” and posted it on his blog,
2) Coldplay discovered PS22’s cover of “Viva la Vida” and posted it on their internet newsletter. So, the singing cat was out of the hush-hush bag, to the tune of millions and millions of viewers worldwide. Since then, PS22 has performed with Stevie Nicks, Katy Perry, Crowded House, and Celtic Women, in addition to having appeared at the Oscars and on Oprah Winfrey shows, among so many others.
You’d think this would make Gregg Breinberg rather full of himself, but the man remains humble, approachable and constantly turns the subject of conversation back to the kids. Speaking of their performance at this year’s Oscars where they attempted an impressively difficult 3-key change while singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Gregg says, “They looked like they belonged there, on that stage, in front of 40 million people!” Even the likes of the famously cranky Simon Cowell said "It wasn't great, but their YouTube videos are much better!” adding, “I want to find the next one of those!”
We finished our discussion with me asking if Gregg was willing to talk about his future plans for this vast, finely-tuned singing army, which only prompted him to try to bring the discussion back to the melting pot aspect, where kids of different backgrounds come together to sing. He was never more excited than when I asked him how the chorus impacts their lives. He spoke of shy kids that grew to shine, withdrawn kids becoming engaged, and not just in this part of school, but in education itself. He marked the growth of self-esteem in the kids, of the dawning realizations of their own self-worth. Obviously an advocate for Arts Education, Brienberg sees how kids doing well in creative expression directly translates to doing better in the academics. “Find the thing that lights them up and they do better in other classes. Kids wake up through the arts. This is life-saving and life-changing.”
(Writer’s note: no bears, actual or virtual, were harmed in the events described in this story, or anywhere in Gregg Breinberg’s life. Any similarity to persons portrayed in this piece and bears of any kid, is accidental and unintended.)
Ryk McIntyre is a Multi-Hyphen sort of person. Poet, critic, performer, workshop facilitator and co-host at both GotPoetry! Live (Providence) and Cantab Lounge (Cambridge,MA). He's been living in RI for the past 6 years, with his wife and daughter. Ryk has performed his work at Boston's ICA, NYC's New School, Portsmouth, NH's Music Hall and Lollapalooza, to name just a few. He has toured the US, performing in countless Poetry open mics and festivals. He turned down Allen Ginsburg once.