Talent, heart and soul fill the auditorium of PS 22 on Staten Island, as chorus director Gregg Breinberg urges on the fifth-grade chorus, rehearsing for the school's holiday show.
"This is such a beautiful song. I want you to feel it," he says, as the singers dig deeper into "Wintersong" by Sarah McLachlan. "I'm seeing more of you connect with it, keep it up."
Young faces light up, hands are held over hearts, as they join voices in making a beautiful song shine brighter.
"You guys sound fantastic," Breinberg says, standing at his keyboard. Then, responding to some chatter and giggles, he adds, "That noise is not professional. The professionalism you bring to the music, you have to bring to the whole performance."
While similar scenes are played out in hundreds of schools across the state each day, this chorus has made its cultural mark in some unique and incredible ways.
The PS 22 chorus has had more than 14 million "hits" on its YouTube videos. In mid-December, they performed at the national Christmas tree lighting ceremony, yards from the Obama family, on a national PBS broadcast special.
"It was completely surreal, being on that stage, waving to the president and the first family, and seeing their delighted faces," Breinberg wrote on www.ps22chorus.blogspot.com. He is a member of the United Federation of Teachers, NYSUT's affiliate in New York City schools.
The students' journey with Breinberg — and his very supportive colleagues and principal — is a tribute to the role of the arts in channeling creativity, sharpening student focus on academic achievement and expanding the worldview of children of many nationalities.
PS 22 is like many schools. Three-quarters of the students qualify for free lunch, the English as a second language program is extensive. Some 1,300 children fill the K-5 building, the largest grade school on Staten Island. When visitors step in the door, they immediately feel the orderly and positive learning environment.
Breinberg, a Staten Island native and public school product, has led the chorus since the 2000-01 school year. Only fifth-graders can audition each fall; 60 to 70 make the final cut.
They practice twice a week during the school year and perform at school and civic functions — but also go places many adults can only dream about.
Their bus trip to D.C. and performing with the singer Common for the first family are just part of their incredible journey.
In the past two years, they have: Appeared on Good Morning America, Nightline, the Today show, NPR and MTV, and performed for Beyonce Knowles, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Chelsea Clinton.
They also sang at a pre-show sound check at Madison Square Garden, at the invitation of Stevie Nicks from Fleetwood Mac; received a visit at PS 22 from the cast of the movie Fame; and won a $30,000 grant from the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, to be used for a new school keyboard lab.
Despite the bright lights, Breinberg and his students remain focused on schoolwork and their futures. Music shows them teamwork and gives them focus, he reminds them.
"The chorus is an avenue to success and an opportunity to be recognized," he said. "It boosts their confidence in everything else they do. This experience is intrinsic to their education and their humanity."
Breinberg brings many lessons into the music. "All rhythm is math. These kids are musical and I can explain it to them using fractions."
His interweaving of music with other subjects has shown results. "Last year's data shows our chorus students went up one to two grade levels," said PS 22 principal Melissa Domrath. "We want to do what's best for kids. In this accountability-driven world, we want to show how the arts are important."
Leslie Johnson, a 15-year science teacher at the school who often records chorus performances, has seen how chorus participation boosts achievement.
"If students had trouble in the past, when they participate in chorus they develop more confidence, and that carries over into the classroom. Gregg's work with the chorus has turned some lives around," she said.