It all started with a little rap.
When a first-grader at Crestwood Elementary School had a hard time with his math facts last year, art teacher and local musician Luke Bassuener was enlisted to lay down some rhymes to make the lessons stick.
He performed the math rap with the help of some students, and before long, he had kids asking if they could write songs of their own. Many of them were fourth- and fifth-graders, who were learning basic guitar chords from music teacher Shawn McMahon.
McMahon had already opened her music room for a particularly enthusiastic bunch of students to practice their instruments before school — and now, the aspiring songwriters started to pile into Bassuener's art room during his lunch hour, carrying guitars, ukuleles, hand drums and notepads.
"The art room became like rock 'n' roll camp every lunch period," Bassuener said.
Eventually, Bassuener offered to record the completed songs on his laptop. By the time they'd recorded two or three songs, Bassuener said, he could tell there would be enough to fill an entire CD.
From there, "All I Hear Is Crickets" was born: a CD featuring songs written entirely by Crestwood elementary school students, recorded, produced and mixed by Bassuener, featuring instruction from McMahon and beatboxing from behavior specialist and local musician Anthony Lamarr Brown.
Neither Bassuener nor McMahon planned on making a CD — but with "All I Hear Is Crickets" under their belt, they have plans to continue and expand the project "until the kids get bored of it."
"I feel like part of it was, I gave them a space to do it and time to do it," McMahon said. "I really stayed out of it in the mornings and let them do their own thing. It was pretty cool to see what they came up with by just having time to be creative."
The kids were allowed to write about anything they wanted, as long as it was school-appropriate. The result is a 19-track CD that encompasses love, loss, avoiding bullies, instructions for making maple syrup, lunchroom protocol, math, grammar and Madison geography.
"They don’t have expectations about what a studio is supposed to be like, or how a song is supposed to be written," Bassuener said. "They have a fresh take on the whole thing. They’re not jaded about it. They just do it. They’re not encumbered by other stuff."
In other words, McMahon added, they're not afraid of imperfection.
Leah Metzger, who was in fifth grade at the time, had been writing songs since she started learning the ukulele at age seven. Her song, "So Beautiful," a ukulele duet, was the first song recorded for the CD. She collaborated with classmates on two other songs, including one called "Sunshine on a Rainy Day," which she recorded with a group of friends she dubbed the "Ukuladies."
"It was really fun," Metzger said. "Sometimes you’re trying to think of things that rhyme, and it’s the most random words. It was just funny, because some things were totally ridiculous that you would think of, and you would end up with a song that was totally ridiculous. And eventually, at the end, when you’d have the song, it was really cool that you all wrote a song together."
Metzger said she'd never really collaborated with people before, and she surprised herself with how successful she was when she worked with others.
"It was kind of cool thinking there were teachers that would be willing to do that, and put that much work into it," Metzger said. "And it's really fun knowing that so many people are really into this kind of stuff."
Metzger's mother, Rachel, said she felt like the project gave Leah the confidence she needed to be able to share her songs with others — and to come out of her shell a little more.
Anna Arnoldussen, who collaborated with Metzger on the "Ukuladies" track, said it was really cool to hear a recording of herself and to have a song on a CD that other people will listen to.
"I thought it was so cool because kids you don't usually talk to would come up to you, and say, 'Hey that's an awesome song you wrote,'" Arnoldussen said.
Beyond the satisfaction of having something tangible that they created, Bassuener said he thinks the kids benefited from the literacy skills that come from writing song lyrics. And, more than that, there was an element of problem solving that went into writing each song, with trial-and-error and creative thinking, he said.
The project served as a way to break down the boundaries between music, art and literature and drill down to the basic creative problem solving process, Bassuener said. These things aren't isolated in real life, he said, adding that this provided an opportunity to take away some compartmentalization in learning about them.
Although it was mostly fourth- and fifth-grade students involved in the recording process, several other classes are featured on the CD, and the album art was done entirely by second- and third-grade students.
This year, Bassuener, McMahon and Brown are already discussing how they can top last year's project. For one thing, they'll start a little earlier. Bassuener would also like to record music videos to go along with the songs. McMahon would eventually like to teach the fifth-grade students how to record, so they can be more involved in the entire process.
As thankful as the students are to have teachers supportive of their creative endeavors, the teachers are grateful to have a an educational community that supports the arts and projects like this one. The production of the CD was funded by the Crestwood Association of Parents and Teachers, which provided enough for every student and staff member to have a copy, along with a few extras to sell at school events.
"It’s part of a complete person, having the arts," McMahon said. "It shouldn't be something that only people who can afford to take private lessons are allowed to experience. Everybody should be able to experience the arts."