The chorus teacher who sang with Tori Amos: a Babble.com interview.Gwynne Watkins
I really loved chorus when I was in school, but most of my chorus teachers were crotchety old women who were borderline sociopaths. How did a cool guy like you slip through?
Geez. Well, I always knew I wanted to do something with music, and I always had an ear for harmony. I had worked at summer camps for years, singing songs with the kids and stuff, very informal – which really hasn’t changed all that much. [Laughs] I guess you’ve seen, we don’t run the most formal establishment in our auditorium! And I really never felt like I was the greatest musician, but I always had a good rapport with kids, and it just seemed like this was the right age. There’s no way you can get high school kids to lose their inhibitions the way you can get the little guys to do that. And they come from tough situations, the kids. I don’t know how obvious that is, but most people can kind of tune into that. I worked in another school, very close in terms of miles but it was a world away in terms of the socioeconomic backgrounds and stuff. When I was at that school, I thought it was the greatest, and then I went to this school and I just saw how much these kids really needed this. It’s nice to feel needed. And they’ve brought me to some amazing places as well. There’s no way I could have ever accompanied Tori Amos on the guitar, you know?
How have the kids reacted to the internet sensation that is their Tori Amos performance?
Oh man, I can tell you that yesterday, a kid came up to me and just said – out of the blue – “You know, Mr. B., that was the best day of my life.” I said, “Me too! Me too!” And all together, our videos are up to 410,000 views. I said to the kids, “There are countries that don’t even have 400,000 people in them! Picture everyone in a country just taking a day to listen to the P.S. 22 chorus.” Even I can’t put my head around that – it’s crazy.
Have you always incorporated pop songs into chorus?
Yeah, I just always felt like at this age, you have to give kids music that they can relate to. I mean, I’ve taught the kids Mozart, but you have to integrate that with stuff they’re going to be interested in or else you’re going to lose them. They always seem to love the Tori songs, and I will say that maybe that’s because that’s where I get the most enthusiastic. But they have their own personal favorites as well. We have a little rap song that we do, a P.S. 22 rap song, which they love. Actually, we’ve done a lot of original music this year; I do a lot of improvising with the kids, and some of the improvs that they come up with are just mind-blowing.
I love the cover of Pulp’s “Common People.”
Thank you! They loved that song – I think it really spoke to, obviously, our population. And we talked about that song, about how it’s not so important how much money you have, it’s who you are. And sometimes the people who are least likely to be noticed are the ones who should be the most noticed. And I think they really appreciated that.
Do the kids ever suggest songs?
Absolutely. And it’s cool because they bring me stuff that I wouldn’t think of normally doing, like a Destiny’s Child song. We did “Survivor” one year. We did “Independent Woman” one year – oh my god, that was one of my all-time favorites. We did “People Are Strange” last year. I try to mix in the hip-hop stuff and do things that are taking from their musical experience and taking from my own musical experience. And I think that keeps them open to what I want them to be open to, and vice versa, so it’s good. We inspire each other.