They're an Internet sensation with more than 40 YouTube videos. They've been courted by celebrities, they've been on Nightline and MTV, they've sung songs with Tori Amos and Stevie Nicks, and they're only 10 and 11 years old. They perform in the fifth-grade chorus from Public School 22 on Staten Island, N.Y., and their singing has captivated millions.
PS 22 Chorus takes a break from rehearsals in Central Park for a group photo.
PS 22 Chorus takes a break from rehearsals in Central Park for a group photo. Margot Adler/NPR
It's a hot summer day in Central Park. School is still out, but Gregg Breinberg, the choral director of the PS 22 Chorus, is rehearsing with the kids for a performance only hours away. They start with warm-up exercises.
Because it's summer, only half of the chorus is here, and for many of the kids, it's a bittersweet experience, because all these children will leave for the sixth grade in a few weeks. They will all go to different middle schools, some of which may not even have a music program, given current budget cuts. But with only half of them present, and even though they have not practiced in months, you can feel their magic immediately.
They start learning a new song: "The World" by Empire of the Sun. Their harmonies are exquisite, even in this early practice session. The words are haunting: "I asked the world a question, 'When did you begin?' / I asked him of his problems, 'Where did you go wrong?' "
Gregg Breinberg makes them do it over and over, coaxing emotion and feeling.
"I want a little more power, guys," Breinberg says. "I don't feel it! You are questioning the world! Didn't you ever wonder how did all this happen? I want to see it. I want to feel it."
A Nontraditional Chorus
PS 22 has its share of troubled kids and poor kids. Seventy-five percent of the students qualify for free lunch, and English is a second language for many of them. But the fifth-graders say Breinberg, whom they call Mr. B, has brought feeling and emotion to their school and to their lives.
"He is not like any other music teacher," Maimouna Faye says. "He really works with us. He helps us get it right. He doesn't yell at us. He is really nice. I am going to miss it."
Breinberg describes himself as "nontraditional and intense." He says he's extremely passionate about the music.
"[If] I don't feel that they are giving 100 percent, yes, I will get intense with them, and I will say, 'This isn't fair. I am working so hard for you, I am trying to do my best for you — you have to come through for me,' " Breinberg says.
But Breinberg is also a goofball. He's eccentric and emotional. He's been known to weep at performances and show the boys in the chorus that it's fine to cry and show emotion and be themselves.
"What is so wonderful about these kids," Breinberg says, "they are in this environment that we have created together, that allows them to express themselves and totally be wacky and silly and not worry that they will be made fun of — to be able to sing a solo, make a mistake, and know that it is a safe place and a place they can go to and express themselves."
Gabriel Vasquez says being in the chorus has allowed him to do something that he often doesn't have a place for: "letting out your emotions and everything, showing your feelings and letting it all out."
"If I was mad one day," Maimouna Faye says, "I could go to chorus without yelling at somebody or getting mad or pouting or something like that."
More To Music Than Radio
Breinberg says many factors have contributed to the group's success.
"I think they are good," Breinberg says. "There is something magical about their performances. I also think it is their selections. I think they sing selections that people don't expect. I try to teach them [that] there is more to music than what they hear on the radio, and to be open, so they are exploring all these different genres. And they bring their own thing to it: They have their own twist, their own sound, and when you bring something unique to the table, that catches people's interest."
The PS 22 Chorus has found millions of viewers on the Internet, but Breinberg says the future of the chorus remains uncertain. He is still waiting to hear whether, amid education budget cuts in New York City, his chorus will be fully funded, allowing him and the kids the time to practice and perform as they have done in years past.