Episode 11: Inside Out Portrait


In this activity, students will explore what it means to express their own authentic voices by examining Shundeena Beard's relationship to the viola as a vehicle for self-expression. Through a free writing exercise, students will explore how they best express themselves, considering the important activities, experiences and relationships in their lives. They will then create a self-portrait using mixed media that reflect their internal, authentic self. [Note that this interdisciplinary activity involves listening, writing, and creating visual art and may take several class periods if fully implemented.]

Grade Level

9-12 (can be adapted for younger students)

National Music Standards

8 Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts


Shundeena Beard Shundeena practicing for a Native American Festival in her community

In this episode 17-year-old Shundeena Beard talks about how she is able to express herself fully through her chosen instrument, the viola. After a rough start on the violin at the age of 9, Shundeena was introduced to the deeper, mellower member of the string family by her teacher and quickly fell in love. We see how the viola is truly her voice in a beautifully expressive performance of the Rebecca Clarke Sonata for Viola and Piano. In the hometown footage we learn more about the other important parts of Shundeena's life: her love of different languages and cultures, her diverse family including Navajo Indian heritage and her close relationship with her brother. All of these things have shaped her as a person and supported and inspired her musical development.


Computer with media player and Internet access; speakers and projector if needed; large sheets of unlined paper, assorted markers and colored pencils; collage materials

Activity Instructions

  1. Explain to the students that they will be exploring the idea of personal expression by watching one young woman's musical performance and video story. Ask the students to look for how Shundeena expresses herself as a person and note the things she says are important in her life.
  2. Watch the video segment that includes Shundeena's viola performance, interview and hometown footage. Ask students for their reactions. Discuss with students the elements they observed that make her who she is. Some "who, how, what" questions to consider:

    • What is Shundeena's primary mode of expression?
    • What does she love about playing the viola?
    • How would you describe her personality?
    • How do you think the viola fits her personality?
    • What didn't she like about the violin?
    • What else did you notice about her personality/attitude/behavior in her performance? In the rehearsal footage?
    • What other interests does she have? How are they connected to her playing?
    • Who are the important people in her life? How does she relate to them? How do they connect to her playing?
  3. Create a visual map of the students' responses on the board (this can be done by the teacher or a student volunteer). First, establish music as the central idea since this is Shundeena's main form of personal expression. Then add the other elements (interests/activities/relationships/personal attributes) and link them visually. What are the connections between the different parts of her life? For example, there are her step-mom's encouragement and support in studying music, expressing her Navajo heritage by playing in a Native American festival, and using music to relate to her brother.

    Mind Map Mind Map copyright Paul Foreman; used by permission (http://www.mindmapinspiration.co.uk)
  4. Now students will create personal visual maps to explore their own authentic voices. Give students large sheets of unlined paper and different color markers/pencils. Ask them to take 10 minutes working alone to list all of the ways they express themselves. This can include any type of activity. Instruct the students to write the first things that come to mind without judging what they write. They can be as messy or neat as they like - there are no rules about how to organize the words on the page. Here are some questions for them to think about:

    • What things do you absolutely love to do where you can lose track of time? What feels easy and natural to you? What do you most love to do? Why?
    • What are you really good at? How does it make you feel?
    • What makes you unique? Is there anything that you wish people knew about you?
  5. Ask students to look over their lists and circle the one or two items that feel the most important in terms of how they express themselves to the world.
  6. On a new page, have the students quickly write all of the places, people, things and ideas that are important to them. They should work quickly without thinking too long about any one thing.
  7. Now have students start to connect their favorite mode(s) of expression and the other important elements in their lives, just as they did with Shundeena. They can do this on a new piece of paper or use the same one. Students can follow the visual model on the board or make up their own system: lists, random/scattered, spiral, circles and lines, a spider web or tree branch structure... whatever seems right to them.
  8. Invite students to share their self-portrait pages with the class.

Extra Credit! Have the students create a more finished portrait at home using this writing exercise as the starting point. Tell them that they are now going to organize all of the ideas from the brainstorming list into a portrait that communicates who they are and how they express themselves in the world. Supply students with poster board and let them know that they can use any visual media, personal objects, magazine photos, text, fabric or natural materials to create their internal portraits. These self-portraits should reflect the students' personal means of expression, interests and talents - who they are inside as opposed to what they look like on the outside.

Find out more!

About Rebecca Clarke and the viola

Born in England in 1886, Rebecca Clarke was unusual for her time in being a woman who had a performing career as a violist and composed some of the most beautiful works of the 20th century. As one of the few women of her era attempting to make a professional life in music, she faced many obstacles, including the reluctance of publishers to take on her compositions. Her music has been "rediscovered" since her death in 1979.

About self-portraits

An excellent visual arts lesson plan for middle school on multimedia self-portraits is at:

Self portrait
From the Top The Bernard Osher Foundation Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Carnegie Hall Don Mischer Productions WGBH From the Top