Gregg Breinberg – The Teacher Behind the PS22 Internet Sensation
It seems only fitting that a week after The Atlantic asked the question, What Makes a Great Teacher? we are able to offer our readers a Q & A with Gregg Breinberg, the educator behind PS22′s rise to internet stardom.
His fifth graders have sung for the president. They have wowed Tori Amos and Beyonce. They have performed everything from Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” to the hip hop anthem, “Run this Town” by Jay-Z, Rihanna & Kanye West. A glance at their web site reveals a never-ending list of stars smitten by these wondrous young singers.
Observing him working with students, reporters have described Gregg as “handsome, erratic and funny” and that “he looks and acts like an overgrown fifth-grader himself.” One of his students told NBC news, “Mr. B, he’s a handful – he teaches us but we teach him – he’s not just a regular teacher – he is un-ordinary.”
Energetic and un-ordinary, indeed. Gregg has inspired countless youngsters at one of those everyday public schools filled with kids from all walks of life to reach for heights they could never have imagined or accomplished on their own. He is a young man with incredible passion and a never-ending commitment to his craft and his students. He is also proof positive of what a great teacher can accomplish.
To garner the level of success PS22 has reached, there has to be both hard work and luck. Utilizing powerful arrangements and an eclectic repertoire of musical choices, Gregg saw to it that the students took care of the first part.
They then caught the attention of the likes of Perez Hilton, Ashton Kutcher and a few others who went on to make America aware of these amazing young singers. Thanks to the kind words of these and other celebrities, PS22 chorus videos have now received more than 14 million views across the net.
Today we discuss with Gregg that fateful decision regarding becoming a teacher, the possible reasons why those in his chorus perform better on standardized tests, his mantra of never underestimating his students (be sure to check out Alicea performing Jingle Bells in a school corridor), and some of the many hats great teachers juggle every day: clown, therapist, social worker, manager and coach.
You have said that your parents were the catalyst to your choosing teaching as a profession. Can you talk a little bit about how they steered you into your life’s work?
My parents were both teachers (now retired) and they definitely had the biggest hand in getting me started on the road to my career. After graduating college (SUNY New Paltz) with a bachelor’s degree in Music Theory & Composition, I really had no clue where I was headed in terms of a career. I always questioned my own abilities as an artist, and decided I didn’t have the vocal or instrumental talent to really make it in the industry as a performer. My songwriting and arranging were my strengths. I didn’t know how those skills would come into play, but I did know that music was going to factor into my life’s work.
So for three years after school, I pretty much floundered, giving the occasional piano or guitar lesson. I made enough to support myself while living at home, but I think my dad especially was terribly afraid I would never leave — a curse that apparently afflicts many parents of creative children! So my folks basically read me the riot act, and I agreed to go back to school for a master’s degree in education. I had worked with kids at camp as a music specialist every summer since I graduated high school. It was something I enjoyed, so it seemed to be a natural transition to go into a career of music education — thankfully a decision I’ve had little opportunity to regret since!
At the beginning of that wonderful MSNBC clip on the chorus, a youngster offers a pretty candid assessment of you: “Mr. B, he’s a handful – he teaches us but we teach him – he’s not just a regular teacher – he is un-ordinary.” What a line!
Joey was a defining presence for the 2008-9 group. He’s one of those all-around great students with smarts, talent, and personality. He was one of my “chorus coaches” that help me test run arrangements and then assist me in teaching it to the rest of the group. To be a coach you have to perform exceptionally in chorus and out. So yeah, Joey is that kind of student. The thing I’ll never forget about him is his laugh — he had this hearty guffaw whenever he’d poke fun at me that was completely infectious!
In prior interviews, you indicated your approach to working with students comes in part from learning what certain music teachers did with you, a set of dos and don’ts so to speak. Can you give aspiring teachers a sense of some of the specific things you learned and now practice?
The Dos? Do understand that there is a direct correlation between achieving results from your students and your students desire to achieve those results. My means of creating that kind of environment in which a student wants to work may differ from a math teacher’s perhaps, but the foundation is generally the same. You have to be aware of and sensitive to your student’s talents and their shortcomings. My favorite subjects when I was growing up were those in which I liked the teachers who ran the classroom. I think that’s how most kids perceive their school experience.
So kindness and patience are #1 with me. I also think it’s important to be willing to try things, step outside your comfort zone, embarrass yourself, make mistakes — because you can never forget that’s basically what you’re asking from all of your students at some point or another.
As for the Don’ts? I guess most importantly, don’t ever underestimate your students. Your students should never stop amazing and inspiring you. If I ever began to lose my love for the profession, I’d know the problem was with me and it’s time to close shop and start something else. Needless to say, I don’t foresee that happening anytime soon!
I am a little unclear as to your teaching responsibilities, your schedule and how the chorus fits into your teaching assignment. Can you explain your full teaching responsibilities and how the chorus fits into that schedule?
Three days a week I teach regular 45-minute general music classes to mostly the upper grades (4 and 5). Two days a week I work with the chorus and on projects related to the chorus. The chorus meets in the afternoon, 2 days a week for an hour and half session.
In the videos, it isn’t just the singing that captures a viewer’s attention – it is the passion the students bring and the gestures that show their enthusiasm for what they are doing. One young lady named Davoya said of you: “At first, when I sang, I had no emotion. I didn’t move. But Mr. B. taught me to sing with feeling. With feeling and heart.” What steps do you take to help students be free to show genuine emotion when they sing?
It’s really about creating the environment that I talked about earlier, which is a slow process. At this point in my career, it’s a lot easier, because the kids across the grades see the fifth graders doing this now, so they kind of understand it comes with the territory by the time they reach my classroom. But encouragement is always needed, even with a seasoned group. I try to safely draw positive attention to a confident kid that is doing things correctly and can handle being made an example of. Of course it comes more naturally and easily to some than to others. But having a kid like Joey, who is very self-confident and popular among his peers, makes it okay for the kids that are perhaps a bit more inhibited. And sometimes the kids that perform the most genuinely are those that are the most reserved at the beginning of the year.
The kids are not only allowed, but encouraged to wholly express themselves. They don’t have to sit in the traditional choral setting, with shoulders arched, chest out, stomach in, etc…. NOT for me! I want the kids to convey and elicit emotion when they’re performing, and that doesn’t happen when you have them lined up like musical soldiers. What’s so great about these guys, you can watch their videos with the sound down and you still get the gist of what they’re singing about. PS22 Chorus kids are fully expressed! And when you add those harmonies into the mix that range from blazing hot (like in “Run This Town” by Jay-Z) to wistfully beautiful (such as in “Wintersong” by Sarah McLachlan) performed with startling precision, especially when considering their age, you know you’re onto something special. Sure, you expect something cute when you click on the vids, ‘cuz they’re kids and all, but really you’re getting something so much more.
Also important in achieving soulful performances I suppose is the fact that I don’t park my behind on a piano bench and stare blankly at the keys while leading. I don’t leave my students to do this on their own. We all, myself included, are responsible for putting the work together because that’s what this process demands in order to be done successfully. As I basically said before, the teacher/director had better be prepared to give what he’s asking for.
Your principal, Melissa Donath had this remarkable thing to say: “the test scores and grades of the 10- and 11-year-old warblers have soared since they’ve been together.” This development has to give you enormous satisfaction to say nothing of what it does for support for the arts. Why do you think test scores for your students have soared? Is it about the music? The passion you awaken in students?
It’s all about self-confidence. That is what the arts has to offer, especially to kids that aren’t necessarily succeeding academically. Throughout their chorus experience, my students recognize that their musical achievements are something they earn for themselves through hard work and dedication. That is a life lesson that does not restrict itself to music.
Kids that are musical and not necessarily mathematically inclined, can digest mathematical concepts musically that they might not be able to in math class. The two subjects are definitely related, and I’ve seen many a light bulb go on when teaching fractions through rhythm, from the same kids that were just not getting it otherwise.
Focus, concentration, and stamina are undeniably strengthened as well. Music and the arts are just the tool to unlock the hidden potential, and as it manifests, it carries over to all other areas of school and hopefully ultimately life.
Brooklynrail.org offered this assessment after watching you teach: “At 35, Breinberg is handsome, erratic and funny, and he looks and acts like an overgrown fifth-grader himself.” How much of your success do you attribute to your ability to understand just what makes a fifth grader tick?
If I had to break it down, I would say it’s equal parts communication, energy, respect (for each other and the music) and a sufficient degree of musical talent.
Of all the pieces on the YouTube site, one of my personal favorites is the Oscar Meyer Wiener piece complete with outtakes. Can you give me just a brief little insight into this wonderful gem?
For several years, Oscar Mayer sponsored a contest for schools across the nation to have students record and submit a video singing the Oscar Mayer theme song. They would choose one grand prizewinner and 2 schools from each state to receive a visit from the Oscar Mayer WienerMobile! So with so much at stake, instead of just having the chorus sing the jingle, I wrote an entire commercial for the kids to act out. I knew Russell was going to be the central character — he was perfect!! He had the biggest smile you’d ever seen on a little second grade face, and was completely irresistible in the role!
As you can tell from the outtakes, the kids all had a blast while filming it, despite the fact that our submission ultimately didn’t win the contest. (Not even a visit from the WienerMobile!
And my understanding is you may have once worked as a clown at summer camp before making teaching your career choice. My guess is that it likely helped you immensely in preparing for teaching? Are there specific aspects of clowning you utilize in the classroom on a regular basis?
Oh I definitely own my inner clown! But I will say that although I do think being a clown is definitely part of my persona, it’s only a facet. Laughter is a good way to start to break the ice with the kids, but the emotional range of the chorus goes far beyond levity. So yes, I’m a clown, but I’m also a therapist, a social worker, a manager, a coach, etc…. Teachers have to know how to juggle their hats.
You and the chorus have become an internet phenomena – heck the chorus is even on Wikipedia. But are there aspects of the teaching profession that at times get you frustrated or discouraged? If so what are they and how do you deal with them?
Indeed, watching experiences for the kids fall by the wayside is extremely frustrating, and could become discouraging if I allowed it to. We have indeed been offered opportunities that the Dept. Of Education did not approve (i.e. making a CD/DVD on a major label, documentaries). I will say, they have gotten a bit easier to negotiate with now that the international recognition has recently hit home within the last year. They seem to understand now that this is all positive attention being brought to a NYC public school, and has provided our students with nothing short of life-changing experiences. Hopefully next time we’re offered something along the lines of what has been turned down in the past, we’ll be in a better position to make it happen.
But as long as I can continue to provide my students with the experiences that they’ve earned for themselves, I can handle the disappointments along the way. The setbacks only make me more determined to set forward with whatever comes next.
Would you ever consider teaching at a different level, say middle or high school? Why or why not? Or consider school administration? And if you were not a teacher, what would you be doing for work?
Right now, I think I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, and I have no plans to go anywhere. Life is about working to your potential to make some kind of difference and trying to find happiness along the way. I quite honestly don’t know if any career could bring me to life more than my work with the PS22 Chorus.
The success you and the chorus have achieved is truly mind-boggling. How do you go about keeping the kids grounded? And for that matter, how do you go about keeping your own feet firmly placed on the ground?
Tom, I don’t think my feet were EVER firmly planted on the ground — just watch the vids! But seriously, the majority of the chorus children come from humble and modest backgrounds — these aren’t spoiled bratty stage kids. We, all of us, live in real life (despite the occasional excursion inside a fairy tale, like singing at The White House for the prez!). When all is ‘sung and done’, it’s back to business and the day to day…. homework and all! So yes, we’ve all managed to stay grounded, making sure to keep the sharing of the joy of music as the central focus of the project.
However I do hope as they move on that the memories of these unbelievable experiences the PS22 Chorus kids have earned for themselves will be a continued source of inspiration that they can call upon throughout their lives. I always try to remind them that they themselves have become living proof that through hard work, anything is possible.
What’s really astonishing is that if you just type in ‘chorus’ on YouTube PS22 vids are the first thing you see. It still blows me away how these kids have really become a bonafide internet sensation!
That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment for a 10-year-old, wouldn’t you say?