These Kids, They Twinkle
by Beth Winegarner
Undented managing editor
Mr. B tuning guitar
[Staten Island], N.Y. — Fifth-graders at New York’s PS22.... have found their voices—and even a touch of stardom—by singing some of Tori Amos’ best-known songs.
Tori [Amos fan] Gregg Breinberg started teaching at PS22 in 2000, where he spends three days a week giving the school’s older students lessons in the rudiments of music, including ear training, instruments and music notation. The other two days, he focuses his energy on the fifth-grade chorus, adapting Tori’s music—and other classic, gospel and pop songs—for the voices of 60 kids, leading them in performances for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, CNN anchor Paula Zahn and many others.
Breinberg earned his bachelor’s degree in music theory and composition from SUNY New Paltz, but couldn’t find his niche among the students there, most of whom were focused on classical or jazz styles. It was only when he recalled his love of teaching music at summer camps that he returned to college, earned his master’s degree in education in Wagner College in Staten Island and started to teach at PS22.
The results — for Breinberg and for his students — have been transformative.
“[The] music brings out something in kids who felt like they just didn’t belong and had nothing to offer,” Breinberg said.
Breinberg has adapted a variety of songs for his students’ voices—everything from Destiny’s Child and Gregorian Chants. But it’s their versions of Tori’s songs such as “Carbon,” “Twinkle” and “Purple People” that have earned the chorus major kudos from Tori fans—and even a mention in author Neil Gaiman’s blog.
Mr. B and friends with Tori
Once in a while, a student blossoms after performing Tori’s songs with the PS22 chorus. David and Deon, the boys who soloed on “Not the Red Baron” and “Flying Dutchman,” respectively, barely spoke to anyone when they first came to PS22, but rocketed into popularity and confidence after their classmates heard them sing.
Parents, too, love what happens as Breinberg helps children discover their voices.
“It’s so wonderful to see a parent overwhelmed by a talent they didn’t even know their child had,” he said. “Many of my best soloists didn’t even know that they could sing.”
Breinberg arranges one to two of Tori’s songs each year. By now, the PS22 chorus has performed an album’s worth of her songs, including “Twinkle,” “Winter,” “Wednesday,” “Hello, Mr. Zebra,” “Humpty Dumpty,” “Purple People,” “Carbon,” “Not the Red Baron,” “Flying Dutchman” and “Cornflake Girl,” as well as Tori-esque versions of songs such as Tom Waits’ “Time,” Chas & Dave’s “That’s What I Like, Mick,” The Doors’ “People Are Strange,” and classics like “Common People,” “Sentimental Journey” and “God Bless the Child.”
Although most of the students are not familiar with Tori as a professional pop singer, they adore her music, Breinberg said. When they performed for DJ Judy Torres, they enthusiastically asked to sing “Carbon” for Torres. Tori’s version of “That’s What I Like, Mick” is also an enduring favorite. “It’s a fun kinda song [and] I liked the topic—all the things you want!” said one student, Mariah.
“I thought [‘Purple People’ and ‘That’s What I Like, Mick’] were really inspiring,” said another student, Justin, in a letter to Tori. “I also like that song ‘Flying Dutchman’ because it matches the way I sing. I hope to become a great singer like you.”
Chorus with Paula Zahn
In the 2005-06 school year, Justin performed with the chorus although he was only in fourth grade. This year, he’s back and has been invited to perform at the nationally televised Martin Luther King memorial observance in Albany, NY in January 2007. The whole chorus will sing Oct. 30, 2006 at the YMCA of Greater New York’s Arts & Letters Auction and Reception. Their version of “Carbon” was used in a YMCA promotional CD, and their cover of “Time” was used in the soundtrack for a Sept. 11-themed movie co-written by Breinberg and Leslie Johnson.
Many of the tracks have been heard on the Internet, and videos of the PS22 chorus singing “Twinkle” and “Carbon” have surfaced on YouTube. Breinberg is hoping that one day Tori will hear their voices for herself, but in the meantime, he’s just happy to get these kids singing.
“They are my heroes, knowing the obstacles so many of them have to overcome, yet they get up and come into school smiling and sharing their positive energy,” Breinberg said. “They are little miracle people.”