The 5 bad hours
Notes from the Harp #3
By Christina Baehr
Last month I encouraged you to make mistakes well, but we didn’t get to why mistakes happen in the first place.
This is what’s at the top of the list for musicians, public speakers, and performers of any kind:
Butterflies in your stomach.
Adrenaline pumping through your system.
Cold sweat on your hands that you can’t wipe off because you are wearing a slippery evening gown.
(You can tell I have some experience in this, no?)
I remember climbing to the stage to sing in a competition and my knees were literally knocking. Running through my head: who knew that knocking knees were a real thing?!
Now, this is no secret: a big part of getting the better of this is just experience.
You know that rule that says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become expert at something? (Malcolm Gladwell wrote a whole book on it, though it’s not necessary for every field.)
I think there must an undiscovered rule like this: it takes 5 hours or so of performing as a basket case before you can begin to enjoy yourself.
Here’s the secret part. People who see me play live assume that I am a born performer. I talk extempore about music history, laugh, and interact with audiences. No matter how silly I am, they seem to enjoy it, partly because I am having such a rollicking good time myself.
I wish I could show you a video of one of my first performances (it exists somewhere in storage land). I am about 10, and I look like I am at a funeral. My eyes are fixed on the floor. My lower lip is trembling. I look like I am going to the guillotine myself. You get the picture.
It took a lot of bad performances and mistakes (certainly not good ones) to change that picture. I am grateful to my parents for persevering and encouraging me, instead of taking pity on my obvious misery and suggesting I take up quilting, computer programming, or anything that never required me to go on stage again.
Next time you are struck by the charisma of a “born performer”, don’t assume that they are a breed apart. You, too, can breathe through the heart pumping until the day your body learns that you are not, in fact, facing a firing squad. You can tuck a cloth in the back of the harp until your hands stop sweating. You can wear a long puffy skirt to hide your knocking knees (unless you are a man).
Unlike Mr. Gladwell, I don’t have exhaustive research to back up the 5 Bad Hours. It’s definitely more for some of us. I bet it’s less for others. You can’t avoid those hours.
However, you can choose them wisely. Residents of a local retirement home, kind friends at your dinner party, or a handful of tourists who give ear to your busking can all be the recipients of your requisite bad hours. They don’t have to happen on the stage of Carnegie Hall, nor should they.
If you aspire to fearlessly and graciously perform in public, take heart and plow right on through those hours.
It gets better, I promise.
Editor’s note: After a career as an international harpist, Christina Baehr married Peirce Baehr (Dr. Ted Baehr’s eldest son) and settled down in Tasmania, Australia, to have lots of babies and run a hospitality ministry to travelers. If you please:
- Download her music:
- Follow their ministry: