THE ARTS IN EDUCATION
Elementary School Chorus in PS22, SI Performs at Academy Awards
Music was omnipresent growing up especially on my mother’s side of the family. I started taking piano lessons from the first grade until high school, upon which I deviated from the more traditional classical teachings to write and perform my own original material. I studied music theory and composition at SUNY New Paltz, and after a three-year hiatus of soul-searching, I decided to apply for Wagner College’s Elementary Education masters program in Staten Island. In 2000, I arrived at PS22 for the 2000 school year, hoping to secure a music teaching position right away, but I was unaware of the politics involved in securing “out of the classroom” positions.
My principal at the time, Karina Costantino, was supportive of my proposals to start a general music and choral program, however, as a newbie; I had to “pay my dues” so to speak. In addition, cluster positions at the school were filled because they were already decided upon the previous school year and could not be changed on my behalf. Therefore, I started off as a second grade classroom teacher and it was an educational experience. I learned how to creatively incorporate music as a tool to teach other areas of the curriculum.
Within the following year, my principal informed me about a music position at the school and I started teaching music, and even more excitingly, I put together the PS22 Chorus. The kids slowly gained acclaim around the Staten Island community for their non-traditional performances, in terms of repertoire. They were learning primarily pop and alternative music and performance style. I encouraged students to discuss the lyrics and to individually perform within the context of the larger group setting, rather than standing with hands at sides and with blank faces. The real “novelty” of the group however, is that students were singing difficult harmonies, which was something you would rarely see in elementary school performances.
In 2006, I asked my principal about starting a blog and a YouTube channel for the PS22 Chorus. Once I started uploading the group’s performances to YouTube, the kids started attracting well-known celebrities such as Perez Hilton and Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher and Perez started posting our videos on a regular basis and singers, Carrie Underwood and Katy Perry would ask the kids to join them while they are singing their songs on stage at special events. Additionally, the chorus was featured on Nightline, GMA, Oprah (twice!), and a host of popular national and international broadcasts. The kids contributed background vocals for three songs on the album MANNERS by Passion Pit, which was listed in the Billboard Top 100 albums for over half a year! The PS22 Chorus also received a Webby Award for Artist of The Year and many top-rated artists received this award including The Beastie Boys, will.i.am, and Trent Reznor.
In December 2010, we received a call from Bruce Cohen, producer of the 83rd Annual Academy Awards who apparently had been following the kids online for quite a while, and wanted the students to perform the closing number at the ceremony! Bruce brought actress and co-host at the time, Ann Hathaway to PS22’s winter concert as a surprise guest to deliver the invitation, and total mayhem ensued!! The students and their parents were screaming, crying, and blown away by such an invite. An unexpected mainstream media frenzy followed. The kids were already known internationally with millions of hits on their YouTube channel.
The Academy flew us out to California in February 2011, covering all expenses, and the kids gave the performance of their lives, singing a version of “Over The Rainbow” that closed the ceremony and brought them a standing ovation from an extremely appreciative audience of Hollywood’s biggest names. It was definitely the most surreal experience of a career that has been filled with more than its share!
Gregg Breinberg is a chorus director of PS22.