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TED@State Street

Joe Kowan: How I beat stage fright

November 18, 2013

Humanity's fine-tuned sense of fear served us well as a young species, giving us laser focus to avoid being eaten by competing beasts. But it's less wonderful when that same visceral, body-hijacking sense of fear kicks in in front of 20 folk-music fans at a Tuesday night open-mic. Palms sweat, hands shake, vision blurs, and the brain says RUN: it's stage fright. In this charming, tuneful little talk, Joe Kowan talks about how he conquered it.

Joe Kowan - Musician and graphic designer
By day he's a graphic designer, and by night Joe Kowan is a quirky folk singer-songwriter. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Joe Kowan: I have stage fright.
00:12
I've always had stage fright,
00:13
and not just a little bit,
00:15
it's a big bit.
00:17
And it didn't even matter until I was 27.
00:19
That's when I started writing songs, and even then
00:21
I only played them for myself.
00:24
Just knowing my roommates were in the
same house made me uncomfortable.
00:26
But after a couple of years,
just writing songs wasn't enough.
00:29
I had all these stories and ideas,
and I wanted to share them with people,
00:32
but physiologically, I couldn't do it.
00:35
I had this irrational fear.
00:39
But the more I wrote, and the more I practiced,
00:41
the more I wanted to perform.
00:44
So on the week of my 30th birthday,
00:45
I decided I was going to go to this local open mic,
00:47
and put this fear behind me.
00:50
Well, when I got there, it was packed.
00:52
There were like 20 people there.
00:54
(Laughter)
00:56
And they all looked angry.
00:58
But I took a deep breath, and I signed up to play,
01:01
and I felt pretty good.
01:04
Pretty good, until about 10 minutes before my turn,
01:06
when my whole body rebelled, and
this wave of anxiety just washed over me.
01:09
Now, when you experience fear,
your sympathetic nervous system kicks in.
01:14
So you have a rush of adrenaline,
your heart rate increases,
01:18
your breathing gets faster.
01:21
Next your non-essential systems start
to shut down, like digestion. (Laughter)
01:22
So your mouth gets dry, and blood is routed
away from your extremities,
01:28
so your fingers don't work anymore.
01:32
Your pupils dilate, your muscles contract,
your Spidey sense tingles,
01:34
basically your whole body is trigger-happy.
(Laughter)
01:38
That condition is not conducive
to performing folk music.
01:43
(Laughter)
01:48
I mean, your nervous system is an idiot.
01:49
Really? Two hundred thousand years of human evolution, and it still can't tell the difference
01:52
between a saber tooth tiger and 20 folksingers
01:56
on a Tuesday night open mic?
01:58
(Laughter)
02:00
I have never been more terrified -- until now.
02:01
(Laughter and cheers)
02:05
So then it was my turn,
02:15
and somehow, I get myself onto
the stage, I start my song,
02:17
I open my mouth to sing the first line,
02:20
and this completely horrible vibrato --
02:23
you know, when your voice wavers --
comes streaming out.
02:25
And this is not the good kind of vibrato,
like an opera singer has,
02:27
this is my whole body just convulsing with fear.
02:30
I mean, it's a nightmare.
02:33
I'm embarrassed, the audience
is clearly uncomfortable,
02:34
they're focused on my discomfort.
02:37
It was so bad.
02:39
But that was my first real experience
as a solo singer-songwriter.
02:43
And something good did happen --
I had the tiniest little glimpse
02:47
of that audience connection that I was hoping for.
02:50
And I wanted more. But I knew
I had to get past this nervousness.
02:52
That night I promised myself:
I would go back every week
02:56
until I wasn't nervous anymore.
02:59
And I did. I went back every single week,
03:01
and sure enough, week after week,
03:04
it didn't get any better. The same
thing happened every week. (Laughter)
03:08
I couldn't shake it.
03:12
And that's when I had an epiphany.
03:14
And I remember it really well, because I
don't have a lot of epiphanies. (Laughter)
03:16
All I had to do was write a song
that exploits my nervousness.
03:22
That only seems authentic when I have stage fright,
03:25
and the more nervous I was,
03:28
the better the song would be. Easy.
03:29
So I started writing a song about having stage fright.
03:31
First, fessing up to the problem,
03:36
the physical manifestations, how I would feel,
03:38
how the listener might feel.
03:40
And then accounting for things like my shaky voice,
03:42
and I knew I would be singing about a
half-octave higher than normal,
03:44
because I was nervous.
03:47
By having a song that explained
what was happening to me,
03:49
while it was happening,
03:52
that gave the audience permission to think about it.
03:54
They didn't have to feel bad
for me because I was nervous,
03:56
they could experience that with me,
03:58
and we were all one big happy, nervous,
uncomfortable family. (Laughter)
04:00
By thinking about my audience,
by embracing and exploiting my problem,
04:05
I was able to take something
that was blocking my progress,
04:10
and turn it into something that
was essential for my success.
04:13
And having the stage fright song let
me get past that biggest issue
04:17
right in the beginning of a performance.
04:20
And then I could move on,
and play the rest of my songs
04:22
with just a little bit more ease.
04:23
And eventually, over time, I didn't
have to play the stage fright song at all.
04:27
Except for when I was really
nervous, like now. (Laughter)
04:33
Would it be okay if I played the
stage fright song for you?
04:40
(Applause)
04:43
Can I have a sip of water?
04:52
(Music)
04:55
Thank you.
04:59
♫ I'm not joking, you know, ♫
05:07
♫ this stage fright is real. ♫
05:10
♫ And if I'm up here trembling and singing, ♫
05:15
♫ well, you'll know how I feel. ♫
05:19
♫ And the mistake I'd be making, ♫
05:23
♫ the tremolo caused by my whole body shaking. ♫
05:27
♫ As you sit there feeling embarrassed for me, ♫
05:31
♫ well, you don't have to be. ♫
05:34
♫ Well, maybe just a little bit. ♫
05:37
(Laughter)
05:40
♫ And maybe I'll try to imagine
you all without clothes. ♫
05:41
♫ But singing in front of all naked strangers
scares me more than anyone knows. ♫
05:49
♫ Not to discuss this at length, ♫
05:57
♫ but my body image was never my strength. ♫
06:01
♫ So frankly, I wish that you all would get dressed, ♫
06:06
♫ I mean, you're not even really naked. ♫
06:10
♫ And I'm the one with the problem. ♫
06:15
♫ And you tell me, don't worry
so much, you'll be great. ♫
06:18
♫ But I'm the one living with me ♫
06:25
♫ and I know how I get. ♫
06:28
♫ Your advice is gentle but late. ♫
06:30
♫ If not just a bit patronizing. ♫
06:34
♫ And that sarcastic tone doesn't
help me when I sing. ♫
06:38
♫ But we shouldn't talk about
these things right now, ♫
06:43
♫ really, I'm up on stage, and
you're in the crowd. Hi. ♫
06:47
♫ And I'm not making fun of
unnurtured, irrrational fear, ♫
06:53
♫ and if I wasn't ready to face this, ♫
07:03
♫ I sure as hell wouldn't be here. ♫
07:06
♫ But if I belt one note out clearly, ♫
07:10
♫ you'll know I'm recovering slowly but surely. ♫
07:15
♫ And maybe next week, I'll set my guitar ringin' ♫
07:20
♫ my voice clear as water, and everyone singin'. ♫
07:24
♫ But probably I'll just get up and start groovin', ♫
07:28
♫ my vocal cords movin', ♫
07:32
♫ at speeds slightly faster than sound. ♫
07:35
(Applause)
07:47

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Joe Kowan - Musician and graphic designer
By day he's a graphic designer, and by night Joe Kowan is a quirky folk singer-songwriter.

Why you should listen

Joe Kowan is a Boston-based musician and graphic designer who has been struggling with stage fright since he first started writing songs at age 27. Despite his adorably expressed fears, he charms audiences with his own style of quirky folk and acoustic hip-hop, by turns poignant, salacious and comical. In 2009 he released the gangsta' arts and crafts video for his original song “Crafty,” and in 2011 he was a finalist in the USA Songwriting Competition.

Kowan is a senior graphic designer on State Street Global Marketing’s Brand Strategy team. With a BFA in sculpture and design, his work explores diverse areas of design including scenic, print, environmental design and wayfinding.

The original video is available on TED.com
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