Lucy in the sky...

27th February 1998 at 00:00
Ted Wragg demonstrates how a well-known song can paint a pretty picture, with a little help from his friends

I am a funny creature where the arts are concerned. I love music, but hate dance; I like good paintings and sculpture, but am useless at creating them; I enjoy drama, photography and video, either as maker or onlooker.

Like most people, therefore, when it comes to teaching the arts I have my favourite kinds of lesson. Under no circumstances will I teach dance. Forget it. I would be about as convincing as a cart-horse.

Nor will I teach ceramics. I once tried using a potter's wheel, but every ambitious attempt at a Greek vase tottered eccentrically until I was left with a tiny spinning piece of wet clay. Still, I did manage to make 10 miniature candlesticks.

As a result, my favourite painting lessons combine my weakness (art) with my strengths (music and photography). I love getting children to paint to music. Create a bit of atmosphere with a story or description, put on the music, ask children to paint what they hear and keep replaying the music as they paint.

There are some wonderful evocative pieces of music. For instance, Mendelssohn's 'Hebrides Overture' produces superbly atmospheric pictures of Fingal's Cave, (provided you tell the class that was the theme of the music!): a Gregorian chant links with history and painting the interiors and exteriors of abbeys and churches; Ravel's 'Bolero' is excellent for capturing the colour and movement of dance.

My all-time favourite art lesson, however, involves music and photography or video. It was inspired by Denis Kemp, who worked for Kodak encouraging the use of photography in schools. Of all the Beatles' songs 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' probably has the most graphic words. "Picture yourself in a boat on a river" it begins, "With tangerine trees and marmalade skies".

I start the lesson by inquiring if anyone has heard of the Beatles (they usually have). Next I play the song and ask the class to listen carefully to the words, because they're going to do a painting of some of them. At the end of the first playing of the song, see if they can remember any of the words. They often recall evocative phrases such as "newspaper taxis", "the girl with kaleidoscope eyes", "rocking horse people". The text is full of unusual and striking phrases. The children are then given a piece of paper with a single line of text they must paint, such as "Cellophane flowers of yellow and green towering over your head". I usually ask them to make their paintings as colourful as possible, because they are going to be photographed. The song is replayed several times as they paint.

Once they have finished, mount a camera containing colour slide film on a tripod. One by one, children place their picture on an easel and photograph it (watch out for the problem of taking pictures from close up, known as "parallax" - you must aim slightly higher than the overall frame so that they don't chop off the top of their picture).

The slide film is then sent away for processing. When it comes back, the slides can be projected in sequence to the accompaniment of the music. It makes a striking presentation as part of an assembly or parents' evening.

If you have a video camera, you can do the same thing in video form. This has the advantage of offering instant, rather than delayed, reward. The children stand in a circle, holding up their paintings in sequence. Place a video camera on a tripod in the centre and slowly pan round the pictures with the music playing, so you focus on each next picture as the words move on.

I love this lesson and so do the children. Just don't ask us to dance to it!

Ted Wragg is professor of education at the University of Exeter and a regular contributor to The TES


Needed for the lesson:

Paper, paints, brushes

Newspaper (for the taxis) and glue

A cassette or CD player

A recording of the song 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds'

One line from the text of the song written out for each pupil

Needed for the end of the lesson:

An easel and clips for mounting paintings

A still andor video camera and tripod

A 35mm slide film andor video cassette

A carousel-type slide projector andor video recorder

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