TAKE ME BACK TO PS 22!
(October 23rd, 2012)
Circus Heart Tour, Day 43
I am 8,000 miles and 43 days into my Circus Heart CD Release Tour. Traveling this distance, and for this much time, is definitely challenging and can honestly be a little mind-numbing. At the beginning of the tour, I resolved to do as much sight-seeing and side-adventuring as possible, to soak up as much of the terrain I’d be traveling through as possible. So in addition to the work and daily grind of lugging gear and slinging songs I have, in past 43 days, skirted the borders of Mexico and Canada, dipped my toes in the Pacific Ocean, driven up the historic Pacific Coast Highway, sung in the wedding of two of my dearest friends, learned how to play slot machines in Nevada, seen the Aspen trees in Colorado for the very first time, crossed the Missourri and Mississippi Rivers, sampled gourmet meatballs in Manhattan and peeped some glorious autumn leaves in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Vermont.
So far so good, yes? But today I did one of the most incredible things I have done in my life: I sang with the PS 22 Chorus in Staten Island, NY.
PS 22 is the largest public school in Staten Island - 1200 students, kindergarten through 5th grade. Their 5th grade chorus has become the stuff of legends, as their charismatic young director posts videos of them singing soulful covers of an interesting array of modern and classic pop/rock tunes online. Their Youtube videos have gone viral. Last year they performed at the Academy Awards. And on Oprah with Katy Perry.
I have been a huge fan of their Youtube videos for the past several years. Last spring, when I saw a video of them singing with my good friend Alexa Woodward, I worked up the nerve to email chorus director Gregg Breinberg to introduce myself and let him know I’d be in town and would love to meet the chorus. Luckily for me, it turns out that he was a fan from my time on The Voice, and he invited me to come sing with them.
I met them in the auditorium today at 4 pm sharp, with no idea what to expect from the experience in person. I walked in to find the kids seated in folding chairs, facing their teacher Gregg (‘Mr. B,’ as they call him) who was sitting on a piano bench at the front of the room, playing guitar. The kids were boisterous and started spontaneously clapping as soon as I walked through the double doors. Mr. B suggested that they sing something they had been working on for me, so I sat on the stage at the front and watched in wonder as Mr. B strummed a few chords and the frenzy the kids had just been whipped into dissipated instantly. They closed their eyes and began to bob their heads, unconsciously swaying to the beat while they sang “Wonderwall” by Oasis.
Technically, they sounded wonderful but what floored me was the emotion behind it; so naturally assured, ethereal yet plainspoken, effortlessly blended in precise harmonies. As the song ended their eyes opened and they grinned from side to side, watching each other as they all immediately began clapping and cheering. This is how they ended every song they sung all day.
The next half hour was goofy and fun. Mr. B “auditioned” me for the choir in front of everyone, and decided I would fit in nicely with the alto section. This was a major identity shift for me, as I always sang soprano in choruses growing up. “That’s ok,” he said. “You could do both, but we would want you in the alto section. What happens, kids, to your voice as you get older?”
“Lower!” They all screamed, “It gets lower!”
He winked at me and sent a student off to grab me a lavender PS 22 Alto shirt for the 2013 school year.
Before we began singing again, we let the kids ask some questions, and there was an endless stream of hands shooting up in the air with questions, questions and more questions. What is it like traveling so much? What is your favorite place you have been to? What was it like being on The Voice? Did you get to meet Cee Lo? How did you get onto show? Did you sing in the chorus when you were in school? On a scale of 1-10, how scared do you get when you perform for people? What is the first thing you ever sang? Why do you like to sing? If you could travel back to any time in history, when would you want to go to? Do you have any talents besides singing?
At this point, I showed them all how I can bend my pinky finger straight back, flat against the back of my hand, and they shrieked and screamed and covered their eyes and all tried to do it to their own pinkies. I became immediately concerned that someone would break their hand.
Luckily, Mr B suggested that we start singing at that point, so I pulled out my guitar and we jammed together on my songs “Swallowed by the Sea” and “Mercy” (at this point I would like to mention that Mr. B is an amazing piano player).
As I mentioned earlier, I have been on the road now for almost 7 weeks. I’ve played dozens of shows on this CD release tour, and I’ve probably sang those songs hundreds of times. I can’t describe how incredible it felt to hear them get new life coming through the hearts, minds and lovely voices of these incredible singers. Yes, I got kinda misty. Yes, I tried to hide it. I think I succeeded too. Mostly, I was just having too much FUN to get caught up in sentiment!
Since we ended our jam time with my song “Mercy,” (not exactly appropriate for kids, but one of only a few on the new record that doesn’t overtly mentioned boozy sexytimes or some equally inappropriate topic), we decided to pick things up and play through a couple cover songs that they’re currently working on. Mr B pulled up soloists and they treated me to their renditions of “Titanium” and “Dynamite.” I don’t know those songs very well, so I tried to compensate by dancing. Hopefully those videos do not surface.
And just like that, it was over. Two incredibly happy hours had flown by. The chaperones began reading off lists, separating the kids into groups to be returned to their parents. I wasn’t ready to leave, I was dying to talk to Gregg, to bombard him with questions about the wonderful work he does with the chorus. I had one question burning on every lobe of my brain…’How?’ How is this possible? How do you do this? What is your secret?
The amazing thing about what Gregg does is that he does this with different kids each school year. It’s not a matter of having a couple stellar soloists, or magical water that somehow makes a particular group of 5th graders freakishly good singers… The fact is, children are FULL of this beauty, joy and creative energy and Gregg has the the right mixture of musical talent, charisma and enthusiasm to help them express it. He gives them a place to channel it, a vocabulary with which to develop it, and tells them that they are great at it. Both the language he uses speaking with them and his attitude towards them are empowering and respectful.
It all very much reminded me of a woman named Suzanne Shull, who happened to be my middle school music teacher. She made sure that there were guitars and keyboards available in the music room of our public school for all students who were interested in learn on. On Friday mornings she came to school an hour early to teach a guitar class to any kids who wanted to learn to play. She would take the time to learn and teach me the songs I wanted to know, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be doing music professionally if it wasn’t for her. We are still very close, and as I sat observing and participating in Gregg’s class, it made me excited to call her and tell her that I’ve discovered another one of her comrades.
The last thing I stammered to him is that I hope he’s getting recognized for the incredible work he is doing, and he laughed and said that they have been “heaped with so much praise,” they couldn’t possibly need anymore. I know that they’ve got 49 million views on their Youtube channel, and have visited with Oprah, President Clinton and Carrie Underwood just in the past year, but I think that there is yet more to come. In a time when arts education is getting slashed all over the country, Gregg has taken actions that are exactly the opposite. He is just one man, but he has chosen this time, this place, this group and he has created a space that brings art into the lives of dozens of children and families in his community, to say nothing of millions of music fans world wide, every year. I don’t think I’ll be truly satisfied until he wins a Nobel Prize :-)
I think there’s video footage from my visit coming soon, but in the meantime, please check out the PS22 Chorus Blog — subscribe to their Youtube channel, check out some videos, leave some comments. I dare you not to smile :-)