Karaoke Confession at the Norman Rockwell Museum

WHO? Norman Rockwell Museum staff, artists of all ages, clients and staff at six Berkshire healthcare settings, homeschoolers aged 6 - 14, and audience members co-creating a performance about forgiveness that culminates in a walking tour through the NRM galleries.

WHAT? A guided tour through the Norman Rockwell Museum led by singer songwriter JoAnne Spies that wove poetry, song, story and dance around a central theme of forgiveness using Norman Rockwell's paintings as the focal point.

WHEN? Created over several months for the Berkshire Festival of Women Artists, the performance took place on March 16, 2012

WHERE? Galleries of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA.

Earth instrument made from locust pods, Stockbridge Indian burial ground

St. Patrick and St. Joseph jimmyjangle earth instrument by JoAnne Spies

I wanted to explore the theme of forgiveness in a performance called Karaoke Confession and wanted to use earth based instruments, audience participation and the talents of poets and dancers in the community, as well as perform my own songs.

Melinda Georgeson of Norman Rockwell Museum welcoming us to main gallery

I was creating something from scratch for the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers and was fortunate to have the Norman Rockwell Museum as the site for this performance. In the photo above I'm starting the performance by inviting everyone to shake the percussion instrument that I handed out to each person before the show ~ a locust pod that was gathered from the front yard of the Mission House in Stockbridge, MA.

I've been leading musical/historical walks from this Stockbridge Indian mission to the burial ground a few blocks away to learn about the history of the Stockbridge Indians, the First People in this town, as well as experience rhythm, silence and melody as we walk the land.

It seemed fitting to use the locust pods from the Mission House as the basis of the performance. The steady pulse of the pods sounds like water and represented for me the Sufi idea of forgiveness available to all as a steady stream.

When I read about Ruby Bridges, the six year old girl who bravely walked through angry crowds accompanied by guards in Rockwell's painting "The Problem We All Live With," I learned that she prayed as she walked:
'Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.'

I started looking at Rockwell's paintings from a different angle, and saw that some could be about acceptance, some about pardon as in the case of Richard Nixon's portrait, and so on. I went to the museum each week and learned from Tom Daly's excellent gallery talks and different museum guides' unique tours about Rockwell and his work.
I came to appreciate the myriad stories embedded in Rockwell's paintings.

What if the whole audience walked through the galleries with me for my performance?
"The Waking" poem by Theodore Roethke came to mind: 'We learn by going where we have to go." This experiential way of learning is true for the facilitator of improvisation as well as humankind in its evolution. It certainly referred to the walk I planned through the Norman Rockwell galleries.

I became enthralled with the idea of leading my own tour through the galleries with poets posted by different paintings. I looked around for poets like a character in a picaresque novel, to see who would show up.
I ran into the writer Mindy Dow at the post office and asked her if she had any poems about forgiveness.
I asked poet Jan Hutchinson for forgiveness poems, and she offered to write a poem about the paintings of the boys fishing when I told her that they reminded me of acceptance.
African storyteller, Kasiya Phiri, I met by walking up to his friend at Wild Oats in Williamstown... I was made brave by this mission to find people to help with this performance.

I brought the theme into my work for Community Access to the Arts with elders in health care settings to learn their thoughts. My favorite quote was, 'To forgive, I laugh and I forget.'
I used one woman's line in my song by the painting 'The Gossips:' - 'I mind my own business.'

I was also influenced by being a presenter at the Peace Conference sponsored by Center for Peace through Culture in September 2011 at Hancock Shaker Village.

How do we create a culture of peace?
Looking at different aspects of forgiveness seems a good place to start.

Thank you to these talented performers:
Mari Andrejco
Gracie Berry
Mindy Dow
Ben Friedman
Jan Hutchinson
Cheryl Luft
Rodney Mashia
Kasiya Phiri
Eric Reinhardt
Natalie Shiras
Nathan Smith

People asked where the name Karaoke Confession came from. I've had this title for years and led a workshop by that name at Kripalu during International Day of Peace.
I've always wondered what it would be like if we could walk into a bar or storefront and have deep-meaning rituals taking place as easy as karaoke.
I figured I'd call my performance for Berkshire Festival of Women Writers 'Karaoke Confession' to get myself to write something more on the theme of forgiveness. Little did I know that the title would lead me a lot deeper than I planned and in the company of many co-creators, especially the audience.

The word karaoke means 'empty orchestra.' I like to think that when we improvise in the simplest way, our senses become our own empty orchestra, each sense 'sitting on the edge of its seat,' ready to play with beginner's mind and a sense of wonder. My goal as facilitator, or 'museum guide,' is to lead people with this sense of wonder and discovery.

Instead of a well-known music track, at the Norman Rockwell museum we used the commonality of museum silence, call and response and rhythm as our soundtrack. The iconic images themselves were our soundtrack also.

The audience shook locust pods in call and response and also in affirmation to anything they heard that they liked.

I found a different variety of locust pods at the Stockbridge Indian burial ground a few blocks from the Mission House, and made an instrument for myself. (pictured above)
The seeds were closer together and looked like hearts.

Karaoke Confession is the official, full-blown launch of the Elemental Orchestra.
The elements represented with instruments:
earth: gourd four-string kora, locust jimmyjangle, st.patrick/joseph jimmyjangle, guitar
water: rainstick, plucked strings of kora
air: accordion, flute
fire: sunflower instrument, loud accordion, guitar

The audience and instruments comprised the Elemental Orchestra.

'We learn by going where we have to go..'

Most of my performances the past ten years have been based on walking. RiverMASS was a procession through a church, and on the land in its other incarnations. I've been leading musical/historical walks in Stockbridge, MA called 'Sounding Mohican Pathways' the past four years. My everyday work has been as a troubador for Community Access to the Arts. I walk from room to room in health care facilities to sing with people and share their stories with others.
All these endeavors share a commonality: there is co-creation, healing and a building of community.

It was fascinating to walk through the NRM galleries again and again and find new meaning with different lenses as I prepared the piece.
It was powerful to hear each artist by each painting and realize how much we need each person's perspective.
It was joyful to have a large audience participating fully as a chorus and walking along together in discovery mode.

What images in our own mental 'galleries' do we revisit? Which stories are ready to be re-written with the help of forgiveness?

We learn by going where we have to go.
We learn by going what we need to know.

Karaoke Confession

by JoAnne Spies
M a R c H 16, 2012

Thanks to all who made this event such a success!

I'm grateful to Jennifer Browdy and the team of organizers and volunteers who make the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers a month-long celebration.

Thank you to the John A. Sellon Charitable Trust for its sustaining contributions to International Women's Day and the Festival of Berkshire Women Writers, with particular gratitude to Mr. Michael Sellon for his commitment to promoting the rights and celebrating the achievements of women worldwide.

Special thanks to Melinda Georgeson and Tom Daly at the Rockwell Museum.
They gave me free reign and their willingness to let me lead a parade with an accordion through the galleries was appreciated.

photos by Tammis Coffin

Melinda and Tom provided everyone with camp chairs and were stage managers and instrument bearers.

Tom Daly's ability to step into the performance with just the right info needed for the paintings at a moment's notice was spot on.

...if you look closely you can see Tom Daly in doorway holding sunflower instrument

Nathan Smith with earth instrument; seated right, Ben Friedman

Mari Andrejo reading poems of Nathan Smith by the cobbler painting

Rodney Mashia leading through Four Freedoms with flute

Forgiveness Quotes

Many of these quotes were passed out to the audience and were read in the second gallery.

There is no revenge as complete as forgiveness
~Josh Billings

To carry a grudge is to be stung to death by one bee.

Love manifests towards those whom we like as love; towards those whom we do not like as forgiveness.
Hazrat Inayat Khan

Forgiveness is a funny thing
It warms the heart and cools the sting
~William Arthur Ward

Forgiveness is the oil, the WD40 to make life go more smoothly;
It fills the gap between expectations of others and the reality of what we deliver.

Do not choose a coward's explanation
that hides behind the cause and the effect
Do not say the moment was imagined.
Do not stoop to strategies like this.
~ Leonard Cohen

The greatest teachers of all inflict the most pain.

True forgiveness is not an action after the fact;
It is an attitude with which you enter each moment

Inhabit your truth without having to speak it.

There is more to a person than the worst thing he or she has done

"Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future."
~Bernard Meltzer

A good marriage is the union of two good forgivers.

He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself; for every man has need to be forgiven.
Thomas Fuller

One forgives to the degree that one loves.
Francois de LaRochefoucald

The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world.
Marianne Williamson

Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.
Mark Twain

Forgiveness is a virtue of the brave.

Forgiveness practice
This practice has its origins in a native Hawaiian healing practice, called Ho’oponopono, and involves taking responsibility for the hurt you have caused, asking for forgiveness, expressing love and gratitude. This practice is done internally and uses visualization. It is not done with your partner, though you may tell them about it. The practice can be adapted for many situations. You think of someone you have hurt, and visualize them. You then slowly say to yourself the following 4 statements:
“I’m so sorry.”
“Please forgive me.”
“Thank you.”
“I love you.”
Pause between the sentences, and allow feelings to arise, and release. You can learn more about this process in a book entitled Zero Limits by Joe Vitale.

ancient Hawaiian prayer, Ho’oponopono:
“I’m sorry, please forgive me, I thank you, and I love you.”

Natalie Shiras, pastor of Church on the Hill, by the Song of Bernadette
For March 16, 2012/ Norman Rockwell Museum
~ Jan Hutchinson

Some of us are privileged, proud and foppish,
others are barefoot, ragged, ruddy.

We’re all fishing
for forgiveness —
that shimmering swimmer
in the current of days.

It is said that forgiveness
does more for the one
who forgives
than for the one forgiven.

Repair your heart.
be part of the light,
not a blank hole
in the bright cloth.

On the path of forgiveness —
with its challenges
and promise,
it doesn’t matter
what you call the light,
just fish for it,
raise it up.

“Each of us has
exactly what is needed
to help repair the world.”

First forgive yourself,
then begin,
ever again begin,
to watch the expanding
circles of forgiveness
ring out from you
around our blue pearl of planet,
as it twirls in its dark setting
of vacuum space and mystery.

Jan Hutchinson by fishin' paintings


Rodney Mashia by Freedom of Speech


~ Daniel A. Harris                                 
Do not ask for them,
words in your mouth like honey: 
taste the acrid herb.

Nor may you cry out
you hunger for ease of speech:
digest the constraints; chew.
Not yours to request,
poems of healing or blessing:
you must wait your turn.

Thanks to poet Daniel Harris of Princeton, NJ for allowing his work to be included in the performance.   He can be reached at:

E-mail: dah43@comcast.net


Said the Deer to the Fox
~ Mindy Dow

this is the weather we met in centuries ago
rain to snow
deep in the thicket of an aspen grove
still amongst swirling winds

fox I know you not
in your village
your promenade
acts of will dreams and horrors

I do know
how you look so directly into my dark eyes
savoring strength
that forested energy of wild
yearning to be held a little longer
if at all

June 13, 1957
~ Mindy Dow

a river stone
speckled with sierra
needle red
sits underwater

looking beautiful

what secret lies inside
the bed of your most turbulent river?

 Atonement, or:
~Ben Friedman

What have we wrought
From the fun that we've sought?
What pains have we bought
From not doing what ought--

To be done in the dark
And the light of the sun
What is right, in God's Sight
As we fight with our fright
And hold tight to our slights

We've denied that we are ONE
We have forgotten that we are all ONE

We but run.

And then--

Regret we have run.

Yes, we run from what's main
In our pain we refrain
In disdain we remain
Until the strain's
Buried deep
In the gray of the brain
Like the mark bright and stark
On the forehead of Cain
Refusing release
Ignoring our pain
Storing up torrents
Torrential as rain
Until wisdom is
Or flushed
Down the

So then we go
And we hide
Like crouching under old blankets...

In flixed patterns we reside
Acting quite thankless...

Warshipping idols
Ignoring what's sacred...

Until fleeing life's field...
We'll pretend or just...

Fake it.

Then we're just rolling wheels
Too quick to feel
The friction of Earth
To allow a New Birth
Forgetting our worth
In the precious short
Time that IS Life
As its passing
Until we're spilling
Like gushers of oil
Straight into oceans
Of conflicting confusion
Until, like the Titanic
We're crashing
Into an icy cold

The media
Bludgeons our brains with
Until we start to just stare
At one another's contusions
And cruelly we laugh
At the oddest of

HOW can we take this?

How can we possibly STILL
Be fighting over creeds, mottos, races
And traces of broken-record relations
Spinning in places??

Forgetting we're ALL just human
Forgetting one another's True Faces..

Until insane we rip up each other's
Sacred spaces...

And unconscious spirit denied

To erase us.

Until I can't tell what's really you
And you can't tell what's really me
And we start to believe that this
Is actually how life is supposed to be??
And we start to forget how much better
This could be
IF and only IFwe set our HEARTS
And minds FREE
If we stopped trying so hard
To grab, to hold, and to covet
If we remember the gentle voice
Of that inner sacred--

The Beloved.

Not rising up above her
But in gentle awe
Within our covenant
Not seeking to own her
Or controlling each moment

Just acting with LOVE!

And seeking--


Ben Friedman by Golden Rule

Gracie Berry by the Golden Rule

The performance could have gone on longer to include another story by Kasiya and a sonnet from Nathan Smith, the poet who read his poem by The Gossips, but the museum was closing at 4pm.
My intention was to end in a big circle in the rotunda with the Four Freedoms, but, even better, we circled up in the main gallery and sang in glorious harmony for three or four minutes. Each person added their own note and we ended with a cheer for Norman Rockwell.

Here's the sonnet by poet Nathan Smith:

it's about a way of seeing things... thought lost
told in legends, embellished over the ages
known equally to idiots and sages
carried over continents and vast
uncharted oceans - it was, although beset
unstoppable as water through a net -
North and South from Center, East and West
it spread like birdsong and rushing waters
was told by parents to their sons and daughters
in every culture, color, creed and cast
inexorable as the spinning of our planet
far reaching as the journey of a comet
appearing everywhere like common dust:
the tale of shaking hands... not the fist

~~ this sonnet was read at an international peace conference at Katmandu
In the same way we get up and sing our hearts out to
other people's songs in Karaoke, we can
sing our hearts out to our own songs as a group,
making up the songs in the moment.

Our songs of forgiveness were sung as a group at the Norman Rockwell
through the co-creation of the audience, the poets, musicians and dancer.

Photos by Tammis Coffin.
Thanks to Lion Miles, Tammis Coffin and Rodelinde Albrecht for media!

Many thanks to all ~
The elemental orchestra has its beginnings in my work with Alzheimer's groups in the CATA Art Cart program. Vowel sounds became a natural sing-along part to songs I've written and I called our group singing the "Oh Orchestra." Participants ran the gamut from Bette, who repeated the sound of 'oh' as a whisper to John, who made his sound as a large spiral gesture. The true meaning of dynamics is present when all are invited to make their elemental sound.

In 2004 I created a performance that was a celebration of the Housatonic River's east and west branches joining in Pittsfield, Massachusetts called 'RiverMASS.' The confluence is a 'Y' shape and I found y-shaped tree branches to make into jimmy-jangles and rhythm instruments. The audience was invited to make its rhythms with these branches and other percussion instruments in a procession for RiverMASS. Rhythm is the basis of the elemental orchestra.

What about the elements?
Earth, wind, air and fire were the basis of a workshop I led called 'Writing Songs of Peace.' We explored the rhythm of each element and wrote songs from conversations with the elements. Call and response, imitation, repetition and invocation are all a part of the exploration.

The elements have been called the 'hormones of the imagination' by Gaston Bachelard and are living pathways to connection with mind and spirit.
Lately I've been listening to Glen Velez's "Rhythms of the Chakras" and improvising with my own elemental orchestra sounds that his rhythms suggest.

"Sounding Mohican Pathways," a walking tour of Mohican sites that I lead in Stockbridge MA, is a wonderful opportunity to be 'in our element' as we are mindful of the land, river and historical sites.
I created this interactive tour with Tammis Coffin, then director of education at the Mission House.