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Behind the music: How a teacher led his chorus to internet fame

The most famous public school chorus is headed to the Academy Awards this year, led by Gregg Breinberg, the music teacher behind the group’s rise to international acclaim. Breinberg took some time out of his busy schedule today to talk about the chorus’s beginnings and how the internet and YouTube made everything go “insane.”

How did you become a music teacher?

Well, I come from a musical family. So music was always ever-present in my house when I was growing up. Music just became part of my being and I wanted to find a way to share it and at first I considered putting my own music out there, but I knew I didn’t have the vocal chops to go in that direction. I’m a good writer and I’m a good arranger, so that’s where my strengths lie in terms of my musicality. I think life just kind of threw me on the right path.

I was kind of floundering once I got out of college — I went to SUNY New Paltz for my undergrad, for music — and I knew I needed to do something in music. Both of my parents are retired teachers and both worked in Staten Island. My family, my background kind of led to the teaching thing. That and them saying, “Just get a job and get the heck out.” So I got my masters at Wagner College in Staten Island — they were pretty much the only ones that offered a one-year all-inclusive program. So I was able to start teaching as soon as I secured my master’s degree.

How did you come to P.S. 22?

I started teaching music at P.S. 60, where I was for a year. It was a great year, I loved it, but then I got excessed. My principal really tried to keep me, but there’s no way around the system. It’s basically, the last person in was the first person out. I was the last one in and there were two teachers who returned from maternity leave, which forced me out of the building.

My new school was P.S. 22 and I was really happy because the principal was just really, really innovative and she loved people to kind of take their ideas and run with them. That’s been the strength of our school. The art teacher has an art background; people just aren’t given these positions. Sometimes they are just given with regard to seniority. Whereas my principal said no, I want experts in their fields because she knew what makes a school come alive are the programs. So I was very lucky to end up there.

But for the first year I had to kind of sit and bide my time because there was no music position available. I was a second grade teacher for my first year, everything was taught through music. Everything: synonyms, antonyms, math — everything through music. I was really in a panic because it was never my intention to be a classroom teacher. Then in 2000 I started teaching the chorus and general music.

You’ve been directing the chorus for ten years. How did it suddenly get so famous?

Once I started with the chorus, they were definitely getting what I’d now consider minor accolades, winning local contests. It was exciting though, it was a very slow build-up of excitement around these kids. I always said they were the best kept secret in Staten Island.

For the first three or four years just I wanted to keep the program going. You’re always afraid your program could be cut, so I was really intense — I was too intense — about teaching music. It was counterproductive in the results. Eventually I realized these kids are doing some great stuff and let them enjoy what they’re doing and I can’t be a music Nazi. I have to just make sure that they are are getting the main idea of music, which is that it’s something that can really change your life.

I would say that’s probably the key to the whole thing, one of the many keys. It’s one of the bigger answers to why these kids are so moving to people.

And then 2006 came, and we started getting our stuff onto the internet, and that’s when things just kind of blew up and really, it’s insane what’s going on right now in the most wonderful way. They’ve definitely made a name for themselves in the industry. It’s funny. They’re 10-year-old kids from public school. That’s just funny to me.

Do the kids audition for the chorus?

They do. They do have to have some semblance of musicality. Some kind of ear. But they don’t have to have the best voice. I’ll take a kid who seems really hungry over a kid who maybe can sing beautifully but isn’t showing any interest or enthusiasm or wanting to be part of the program.

How have you weathered the budget cuts?

Every year we worry about the program. I don’t think I have to worry about losing my position as a general music teacher. But in terms of the funding for my program, it’s very minimal, but it does require money and every year I have to leave for the summer just hoping everything will be intact. We’ve had some blows to the program but we’ve managed to work around them.

What about fundraising? You guys are celebrities!

It’s tricky, because the Department of Education has very strict regulations. It’s been driving me a little crazy because, God, we have such a money-making opportunity. There’s so much we could be doing to raise money for our own cause and other causes, music in schools, but it’s been very tricky to navigate through the department.

I just cannot even believe that DOE approved the Oscars. It was almost unfathomable when I heard the offer, so I didn’t get too excited because we’ve had big offers like that we just could not do — like making CDs, like movie projects, documentary projects, with amazing people.

Some of the biggest record companies wanted to work with us, but unfortunately it was just something we never could get approval for. But I’m still fighting because I really want that to work, because this should be captured and people should see what you can do in a public school setting and actually be doing something that’s like, woah, taking the whole world by storm.

Do other music teachers from around the city come to you for advice?

Oh God, daily emails. Honestly, I do my best to tell them what I think is most important, but it’s hard because my skills musically are innate skills. I don’t know if you can teach adults who don’t already have that…honestly I knew what I was doing form the get-go. Have I gotten better? Definitely. But in terms of my interaction with the kids and my knowing how to get the best out of the kids, that is just an innate thing. People are just innately teachers or they’re not. It’s hard to give advice because I’m just doing what I do.

I always tell people if you want to try harmony, start very simple. Get one section singing one note, and another singing another note and repeat and repeat and repeat. Constantly encourage. Leave a separation between your sections. Little technical things. I just remind them that just do what your passion is.

How did this Oscars invitation come about?

Basically, the producer, Bruce Cohen had contacted me. He called on a Friday and I was working with my chorus and the secretary called and said we have a big Hollywood producer on the phone. And I said take a message. The Pope could call and I would say take a message. When I’m with my chorus, that’s it. I don’t want to be bothered with anything else.

So I didn’t even take it seriously because I knew we had been turned down for Hollywood things before. I didn’t call back. On Monday or Tuesday I saw the message in my mailbox and I thought Ok let’s get this over with. And I called up and Bruce said, “Oh I’ve got such an amazing offer for you.”

So I was like listen, thank you, regardless of whether this happens or not — which is my basic answer when I think something won’t happen — we truly appreciate the offer. And I figured that’s the last time I’ll ever be talking to Bruce Cohen.

Then he called my principal and she said it’s a wonderful offer and thank you, but I would not have a clue as to how to go about this. He said he had some people who maybe could help out in terms of getting to the mayor’s office. He said let me see what I can do.

A week later my principal calls me and says are you sitting down and I said ok, and she said it was approved. The DOE approved. I was like no way, I couldn’t believe it. It was crazy, definitely, never expected.

What song are your students going to sing at the Oscars?

Everything is completely under wraps at this point. They tossed out a few ideas to me, but I’m not at liberty to say, and I don’t even know for sure. It’ll be a surprise.

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