A New York fifth-grade chorus has become a world-famous cyber phenomenon touted by top media outlets, celebrities, and politicians, thanks to the online video-sharing web site YouTube.
And yet, the young singers from Public School 22 have rarely left Staten Island, a water-ringed New York City borough reached by ferry from Manhattan.
Much of the credit for the group’s newfound celebrity goes to a music teacher who apparently is a natural at public relations. "A friend in advertising told me that if I ever want to leave teaching, I should come and work for [him]," jokes the children’s music director, Gregg Breinberg.
About three years ago, he taught his kids to sing the group Coldplay’s hit single "Viva la Vida" and posted the performance on YouTube, followed by a performance of a Tori Amos song.
"They’ve reached the world strictly by internet," says Breinberg.
One day, gossip blogger Perez Hilton came across them on YouTube singing the Amos song in a Manhattan atrium–with Amos tearing up as she listened. Hilton was bowled over by the innocent-sounding voices that matched faces exuding energy and personality.
He posted the link on his blog, triggering a deluge of interest that made the clip one of the top 10 most watched YouTube videos recently.
Since then, the P.S. 22 Chorus has been featured on television and in major newspapers, while 7 million viewers (and counting) have watched them on YouTube.
The chorus even popped up on celebrity Ashton Kutcher’s Twitter feed.
"Honestly, I never imagined that things would take off for the chorus the way they have in the last few years," says Breinberg. "But these kids have risen above tremendous obstacles and have made their voices heard."
Other fans include Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, who invited them to sing at Madison Square Garden. Neil Finn, lead singer for Crowded House, was so enthused by the children’s online performance of his song "Private Universe" that he asked them to perform with him for the band’s sold-out New York show.
But there’s much more to the success of P.S. 22 than brilliant promotion.
Many of the 70 kids come from struggling families, with about three-quarters of them eligible for free school lunches. Others have academic difficulties or are learning English as a second language.
Bypassing traditional children’s music, Breinberg had taught them grown-up songs that speak to their tough urban lives–like The Doors’ "People Are Strange" and Amos’ "Flying Dutchman," which opens with the line: "Hey kid/Got a ride for you."
And the rest is not exactly kid stuff: "They say/Your brain is a comic book tattoo/And you’ll never be anything. … What will you do with your life?/ Is that all you hear from noon till night?"
When 10-year-old Gabriel Vasquez first entered the chorus, "I was scared, I didn’t want nobody to tease me," he says. "But Mr. B taught me how to let out my feelings and not to hold it back in … tears, joy, excitement."
With sometimes aching openness or unbridled joy, they sing about love, loss, belief, and betrayal in music by Amos, Nicks, or even Billie Holliday, linking their own New York world with the whole world.
Breinberg started the elementary school chorus more then a decade ago, persuading the school to create one despite cuts in arts programs.
The children dote on the man they all call "Mr B"–a 36-year-old guitar-strumming teacher with the winning smile who cracks jokes and makes faces for them.
"The most important part of my job is to make the kids love music," he says. "Technique comes later."
In fact, vocal prowess is not the key to their popularity. Most of them have voices like other children their age, with a few exceptions.
"Maybe individually they don’t have that prodigious talent, but when they come together, they work off each other and become bigger than they are individually," says Breinberg. "They’re able to sing very difficult harmonies, already in fifth grade."
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