Learning From the ProsI’ve always been really good at picking things up from books and learning through theory, but I recently learned just how valuable learning from the pros, in whatever field you’re interested in, can actually be. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a member of Toastmasters and that I am currently working on improving my public speaking skills and battling my stage fright, and a few days ago I had an experience that totally changed how I view public speaking in general, and how I now approach all of my speeches. It was kind of odd in a way, because my “breakthrough” came from a musician, rather than an expert speaker, but it made me realize that when we remain open to possibility, opportunities for growth and learning can come from any direction.

Learning from the pros: lessons from a concert

Last week I took a few days off and took a train up to Toronto to spend a few days with my sister. The reason for my trip was that my sister and I had decided to go and see Nana Mouskouri do her Birthday Tour concert at Roy Thompson Hall.  It’s probably her last tour (she is eighty, after all) and it was one of those nostalgic childhood things for us; my father used to take us to see her at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa whenever she came through town, without fail. I grew up listening to her music, and I still love it.

Watching her perform again was amazing, and I’m really glad I went. It was interesting from another perspective though – I was enjoying the concert, but I also really learned a lot about how to handle being in front of an audience. There’s just no substitute for learning from the pros – it’s amazing how much you can pick up just by watching someone who really knows and loves what they’re doing. Here are my three biggest take-away lessons from the concert:

1. Energy is contagious

Nana was touring with her daughter this time, and what really struck me was how much they both seemed to love being up there on stage and doing what they do, even though they had very different styles and stage presences. It was fascinating to watch this with my Toastmasters background… it really made me understand how important it is for a performer to be comfortable and to enjoy themselves. Usually when I’m up on stage, I’m so focused on just getting through my speech without passing out or forgetting anything, and trying to remember all the little technical points of a “proper” speech that I forget to think about the audience. And this, I realized, is a big mistake. Because the energy of the performer has a huge effect on the audience’s enjoyment of the performance, something I’ve been told in Toastmasters and which I understood on an intellectual level, but hadn’t really seen demonstrated so clearly before. In trying to fight my own fear, I put the focus completely on myself and forget the main reason that I’m up there in the first place — to create an experience that will engage and inspire my audience. My focus needs to be on the audience, and the energy I bring to my speaking is a huge part of what their experience becomes.

2. Mistakes aren’t fatal

I also learned how a pro handles it when she makes mistakes. Nana forgot some of the lyrics to her songs a few times, and where something like that has me panicking when I’m on stage (there have been a few times where I’ve been doing speeches and just mind-blanked completely on what I wanted to say next), she just kept going and didn’t let it phase her one bit. It made me realize that mistakes aren’t as big a deal as I thought they were. And that they can’t wreck your performance unless you fall apart and let them – if you can keep it together, keep going and keep having fun, then your audience is still going to be with you, and they will still get a lot out of the experience. This is probably one of the biggest benefits of learning from the pros – as a beginner it’s fairly easy to handle things when everything is going well, but I think that knowing what to do and how to react with grace and composure when things don’t pan out as expected is the mark of a real professional. And I think that if you realize that you can keep it together even if you make a mistake, then there’s less to fear when you’re up there; you’ll know that no matter what, you’ll be able to pull it off and everyone will still enjoy the experience.

3. The heart knows best

This lesson is not specific to Toastmasters, but I think it’s one of the more important ones any of us can learn. Nana Mouskouri officially retired in 2008, but she just couldn’t stay away. And it’s not that she loves to sing, I think it’s more that she has to sing. The music is such an integral part of who she is, that she just can’t let it go. And I think that’s awesome. It reminds me of that quote about building a life you don’t need to escape from. She knew from a very early age that she wanted to sing and she dedicated herself to that right from the start. She has spent her whole life doing what she loved most and what a career she’s built, recording 1500 songs over 450 albums, in 15 different languages. She’s got 230 gold and platinum albums to her name, and with record sales of over 300 million she is recognized as one of the best-selling musical artists of all time. She is eighty years old now, and you can feel how much she still loves what she does and how happy she is doing it. She’s such an inspiration and is living proof that dreams really can come true, in colossally spectacular fashion, when you follow your heart and dedicate yourself to your goals. You just need to have faith, and the willingness to keep working towards that vision.

All in all, the concert was a great experience on multiple fronts: I got to listen to some incredible music, I got to hear some of my favourite childhood songs, and I also learned a lot that will help me in my own journey. Learning from the pros is something we all can do, just by watching and listening to what happens around us. And sometimes, our most valuable lessons can come from experts in fields that aren’t even our own. If we can remember to keep our eyes, ears, and hearts open it’s amazing what we can learn and how it can affect us.

photo credit: Pete Prodoehl via photopin cc
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