Feature stories

Dreams really do come true

Staten Island’s PS 22 music teacher takes his students over the rainbow — and beyond

Dreams really do come trueAssociated PressThe PS 22 chorus wows the crowd during the Oscars' grand finale, signing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow".  View more photos >> What can you do once you’ve already performed with Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Common, Queen Latifah and Stevie Nicks?

Perhaps perform at the Oscars?

As students from the PS 22 chorus in Staten Island bounded down the red carpet for the Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 27, they were stopped by Robin Roberts, host of “Oscars Red Carpet Live,” who told them, “You’re already the toast of the town!”

Before the night was done, they would perform a heart-warming rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the star-studded evening’s grande finale, as Oscar winners filed in behind them.

They followed that up with a performance on the same Kodak Theatre stage the next day, joining Katy Perry in singing her hit “Firework” for Oprah.

As UFT Staten Island Borough Representative Emil Pietromonaco put it, “What Gregg Breinberg has accomplished at PS 22 is a great example of the importance of the arts to a well-balanced education.”

How do you go from being a 5th-grade public school chorus — from a “regular public school, not a magnet school,” as their Graniteville, Staten Island, chorus director says — to being beamed into the homes of millions around the world?

That chorus director, Gregg Breinberg — Mr. B to the kids — has a lot to do with it.

“I could never have dreamed this was possible,” Breinberg said, “but these kids are a testament that with hard work, anything is possible.”

It all started when Breinberg felt he didn’t have a clue as to what to do with his life and so he went for a master’s in education. He began teaching in 1998.

This undergrad music major says he was never a top musician or singer himself, “but I like to think I’m a good teacher, and that makes up for what I lack in musical ability.”

He found that his musical strengths — “arranging, composing and pitch” — were well suited to teaching, adding that “it’s almost a professional sound these kids are getting at a young age.”

But before his students were able to achieve all this, Breinberg had to hone his teaching style and techniques.

“When I started off, I wasn’t as confident in my technique as I am now, and wanted to prove myself as a new teacher,” he said.

But he found that the harder he tried, the more the kids became stressed.

“In something like music, their emotional connection to the song is what it’s all about,” he said. “Stress is counterproductive.”

By 2006, Breinberg says, he felt more comfortable in his work and more confident to explore his own path with the chorus, even if it meant throwing “proper” technique to the wind.

“There’s a sound that I like that many music teachers would be appalled by,” Breinberg said. “Sometimes I want them to slam out those vocals; I tell the kids you can get the most interesting music when you break the rules.”

His first music lesson with a new group of students is to play different chords on the piano and ask them what emotion they feel, because “music is the language of emotion.”

His students, Breinberg says, relate to the songs, and he chooses music from a variety of genres, not just the present moment. “These kids come from a whole range of life experiences and they can tap into the emotion of the songs,” he said.

PS 22’s students are diverse, with 78 percent black, Hispanic or Asian and 80 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

As Breinberg was hitting his stride as a teacher, the Internet was becoming popular and he began posting videos of the chorus on YouTube, where they quickly became a phenomenon.

“We went from a few hundred views to a few thousand and now we’re up to 30 million,” he said.

From that platform came the invitations for students to perform alongside many famous musicians.

“For me, as a kid, the best way to bond with friends was to jam with them and make music, so here we are doing it on a major scale,” he said. “The people who wrote and performed these songs want to jam with the kids ... to inspire your inspiration, it’s the greatest thing in the world!”

Finding his passion, making sure his students love what they’re doing and working very, very hard have all been part of the secret behind the success of PS 22’s beloved chorus.

“I can’t imagine doing anything that would give me more pleasure than what I’m doing right now,” Breinberg said.

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