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NEWSARTICLE

From Recess to the Oscars

PS22 Chorus Director Gregg Breinberg talks about the elementary school kids, the music and their road to the Oscars in Once In A Lullaby: The PS22 Chorus Story.

Tribeca: Tell us a little about Once In A Lullaby. How do you describe the movie in your own words?

GregG Breinberg: On the surface, Once In A Lullaby is a behind-the-scenes look at how a little elementary school chorus from Staten Island came out of nowhere to become a YouTube sensation, and ultimately to find themselves performing at the 2011 Academy Awards ceremony. But upon closer inspection, the film tells a much larger story about teachers, children, and overcoming adversity. It shows how kids interact with their peers and their educators, how they learn, how they are reached, and how there are life lessons to be found in every experience, good or bad. Many will describe it as a feel-good story, and certainly it is just that, but it's also much more dramatic than many might expect, particularly those familiar with the group's uplifting performances.

TRIBECA: Tell us a little bit about your background. Did you always aspire to be a music teacher?

GREGg BREINBERG: I was fortunate enough to come from a musical family. My mother, my grandmother, and my brothers are all quite gifted musically. Even my dad, who is slightly challenged in that department, is a great lover of music. So it was always a part of my existence. Music was the key that opened the doorway that led me to self-expression and then to self-actualization. Growing up, I never really knew where I was going to take it, or perhaps more accurately where it would take me, but I knew it would factor into my livelihood somehow.

When I was a senior in high school, I interned at an elementary school with an amazing kindergarten teacher who inspired me greatly. I remember writing songs for them to sing to complement the lessons being taught by the teacher in the classroom. During and after high school, I worked with kids as a music specialist at a camp, and then I went on to become a Music Theory and Composition major at SUNY New Paltz. Also, my parents are both retired educators. All of these factors certainly contributed to bringing me to my work at PS22.

TRIBECA: How did Once in a Lullaby come to fruition? Did director Jonathan Kalafer approach you directly about the film he wanted to make?

GREGG BREINBERG: Jonathan was in attendance at our now legendary winter concert in December of 2010, when Anne Hathaway and Oscars producer Bruce Cohen came to present the Oscars invitation to the kids and their families. He approached me following the performance and told me that he would love to capture our journey to Hollywood. He and I really hit it off well, both being teachers and artists, and both extremely passionate about those roles. It was just an instant connection. I let him know that if he were able to get the necessary permissions from our school’s principal, the kids’ parents, the NYC Department of Education, and the Academy, that I would be thrilled to have him along for the ride. He did, and the rest is now movie history.

TRIBECA: I remember watching the remarkable performance by PS22 on the Oscars telecast last year, so learning about how they came to be part of Oscar night was fascinating. Could you describe some of the high and low points of their unlikely journey? How did the group react to the pressure of performing on national television?

GREGG BREINBERG: I'd say the most personally harrowing part of the journey was having the integrity of our performance threatened by creative differences we had with the producers the day before the broadcast. PS22 Chorus has a stamp that makes the performances unmistakably ours. Most other choirs you see are either stiff and mechanical or elaborately choreographed (a la Glee), but PS22 brought something new to the table: a new, free-form method of choir performance. I encourage the kids to express the music with their entire bodies, individually within the group setting. So when we were told by the producers that our “style” of singing wasn't working well for TV purposes, it was devastating. So yeah, that was the low point for me. The high point came in seeing how the kids handled that situation and how they ultimately spoke up for what they believed in.

As far as the pressure of performing on national television, fortunately the kids had the advantage of having many live performances under their belts. By the time the Oscars rolled around, they were well-seasoned and familiar with being in front of the camera, another added benefit of filming all the performances at their school rehearsals. Also, performing within the context of a group setting takes a lot of that pressure off the individual members—there is most definitely strength in numbers!

Once in a Lullaby

TRIBECA: I loved how down to earth the kids remained even after their constant brushes with celebrities. Meeting stars like Anne Hathaway didn't seem to change them at all. Do most of the kids want to pursue the arts after they leave PS22?

GREGG BREINBERG: The wonderful thing about what PS22 Chorus has achieved is that the kids get all the benefits of fame without somebody trying to turn them into “child stars.” This is ultimately a school group, and everything they do and experience is accompanied by a lesson, which is an aspect of their success I'm proud to have been able to maintain throughout these past few years. I think it was very important to Jonathan to capture that in his film; you see that these kids are kids, not a horrid little clan of 10-year-old divas addicted to fame. Many of the kids do indeed graduate from the chorus with the intent of pursuing a musical career, but most just want to continue making music somehow in their lives. Lots of them tell me they want to teach music when they get older, which of course makes me very happy to hear.

TRIBECA: The PS22 Chorus performs so many wonderful songs on the YouTube videos. How did you select the numbers for the video? Do the kids themselves have input?

GREGG BREINBERG: As much as I'm not really a commercial pop person (my musical taste is more indie/alternative), I definitely see the need to reach them on their level before taking it to the next. Initially, I select songs with their taste and requests in mind, and then try to broaden their horizons with more complex music selections that they wouldn't necessarily be exposed to.

TRIBECA: Can you give us an update on some of the children who were featured in the documentary? What are Denise and Azaria up to?

GREGG BREINBERG: Azaria is currently in a school with a wonderful music program, and I have no doubt that her music teacher is thanking her lucky stars to have her there! Denise was just featured in a Target commercial that aired during this year's Grammy Awards, singing the song that became her trademark with the PS22 Chorus, Adele's “Rolling in the Deep.” In between her school work and assignments, she is now going to castings and being solicited by some of the biggest record companies out there. It’s very exciting, and we are all very proud of her for continuing to make a mark beyond the halls of PS22!

TRIBECA: The kids in the PS22 Chorus, under your direction, have already achieved so much: they have performed at the Oscars, achieved international fame, and enriched their own lives in the process. What future goals have you set for Chorus and for yourself? What happens next?

GREGG BREINBERG: Future goal? Sleep! Seriously, I've said it before—I have no delusions of grandeur. I'm a teacher, and I'm doing exactly what I'm meant to be doing, and all the success we've had up to this point is proof positive that's my role in this world. But every year is a new experience, because every year I'm working with a new crop of students, with different performances, collaborators, and opportunities. That keeps things from getting dull—each group has its own unique personality and feel. I still have the same passion for what I do as when I began teaching and directing. So I just hope to keep on keeping on.

TRIBECA: What is the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during filming?

GREGG BREINBERG: The craziest thing that happened was my getting lost just minutes before we were set to hit the Red Carpet!! Crazy, but typical! I'll say no more—watch the film....

TRIBECA: What are you most looking forward to at Tribeca?

GREGG BREINBERG: Three things actually. First and foremost, I'm looking forward to seeing last year's members again. They were a special bunch, and we bonded as a group so tightly, especially after the Hollywood trip. Secondly, Perez Hilton is going to be attending. We've never met, but anyone who knows the PS22 Chorus knows that he is the person most responsible for the kids’ continued public success throughout the past few years. I owe that man a big hug, and I'm so happy I'm finally going to have the opportunity to deliver it in person! Lastly, I'm just really looking forward to experiencing other people watching the film. It's such a beautiful tribute to our kids, and I can't wait to see how people react to it.

TRIBECA: What's your favorite New York movie?

GREGG BREINBERG: I'm a classic film buff, so I'm going to say All About Eve for presenting some of the most quotable lines of dialogue ever in a film.

TRIBECA: What would your biopic be called?

GREGG BREINBERG: Dazed and Confused?

TRIBECA: What makes ONCE IN A LULLABY a Tribeca must-see?

GREGG BREINBERG: The kids. People will leave the theater as inspired by them as I am on the day-to-day. They are a bona fide New York success story, which makes Tribeca the perfect film festival for the premiere.

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