Is There A Cure For Stage Fright?

May 23, 2014
Originally published on March 11, 2016 9:47 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode What We Fear.

About Joe Kowan's TEDTalk

Folk singer Joe Kowan talks about the visceral, body-hijacking experience he feels when he's performing in front of an audience, and how a song helped him cope with stage fright.

About Joe Kowan

Joe Kowan is a Boston-based graphic designer and musician who has been struggling with stage fright since he started writing songs at age 27. Despite his fears, he charms audiences with his quirky folk and acoustic hip-hop. In 2009 he released the video for his song "Crafty," and in 2011 he was a finalist in the U.S.A. Songwriting Competition.

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Are you afraid right now?

JOE KOWAN: Afraid? Maybe.

RAZ: This is Joe Kowan.

KOWAN: I'm a little nervous.

RAZ: By day, he's a mild-mannered graphic designer. It's nerve-racking being on public radio with like millions of people listening.

KOWAN: Yeah, well, that's not helping.


RAZ: Don't worry, nobody is listening now. It's just me and you.

KOWAN: Yeah, it would be nice if my body believed it.

RAZ: OK, there's a couple of things you need to know about Joe. First of all...

KOWAN: I have stage fright.

RAZ: Which you might already have guessed. And that would fine because a lot of people are completely terrified of getting on the stage, except Joe, he's also a folk singer.

KOWAN: So the funny thing is I've always wanted to be able to be in front of people, be able to perform, be able to sing songs and do that kind of thing. So in my head, I've always been like - I've totally got, I can do this and all this. But then in reality, whenever I've been presented with that opportunity, it just seems like a different thing is going on.

RAZ: When did you first, like, notice that you were afraid to be up in front of people.

KOWAN: So I remember trying out for the school play and I remember going up there and then my voice just going like, ahhh, like, for every note throughout the whole entire song. And I was just like how could this be happening, I mean, why can't I fix that?

RAZ: Do you think anybody noticed?

KOWAN: Everyone noticed.

RAZ: And so for years, Joe just avoided getting on stage. He didn't perform in front of anyone until he realized that he really wanted to do it. And he didn't want his stage fright to hold him back. Joe picks up the story in his TED Talk.


KOWAN: On the week of my 30th birthday I decided I was going to go to this local open mic and put this fear behind me. Well, when I got there it was. There were like 20 people there.


KOWAN: And they all looked angry.


KOWAN: But I took a deep breath and I signed up to play and I felt pretty good, pretty good until about 10 minutes before my turn when my whole body rebelled and this wave of anxiety just washed over me. Now, when you experience fear, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in so you have a rush of adrenaline, your heart rate increases, your breathing gets faster. Next, your nonessential systems start shut down, like digestion.


KOWAN: So your mouth gets dry and blood is routed away from your extremities, so your fingers don't work anymore. Your pupils dilate, your muscles contract, your spidey sense tingles - basically your whole body is trigger-happy. That condition is not conducive to performing folk music.


KOWAN: I mean, your nervous system is an idiot. Really, 200,000 years of human evolution and it still can't tell the difference between a sabertooth tiger and 20 folk singers on a Tuesday night open mic?


KOWAN: I have never been more terrified - until now.


KOWAN: Then it was my turn and somehow I get myself on to the stage. I start my song. I open my mouth to sing the first line. And this completely horrible vibrato - you know, when your voice wavers - comes stringing out. And this is not the kind of good vibrato like an opera singer has. This is my whole body just convulsing with fear. I mean, it's a nightmare. I'm embarrassed, the audience is clearly uncomfortable. Their focused on my discomfort. It was so bad.


RAZ: So you understand like intuitively why this happens, right? 'Cause our body is designed to protect us. Like, we're designed to survive.

KOWAN: Yeah. I mean, you know, if you're in danger, your body does certain things to get you out of danger whether that means run away.

RAZ: Yeah. It wants you to get away from the tiger, yeah. And, like, that part of our brain just hasn't changed. Like, it's still there and it can't really, like, figure out the context sometimes.

KOWAN: And, you know, maybe that's a good thing 'cause you wouldn't want it to mess up. If there really was a tiger in your room, you don't want to be like, oh, I got this, I'm pretty relaxed, it's just a tiger.


KOWAN: That night I promised myself I would go back every week until I wasn't nervous anymore. And I did, I went back every single week. And sure enough, week after week, it didn't get any better. The same thing happened every week. I couldn't shake it.


KOWAN: And that's when I had an epiphany, and I remember it really well because I don't have a lot of epiphanies.


KOWAN: All I had to do was write a song that exploits my nervousness. That only seems authentic when I have stage fright. And the more nervous I was, the better the song would be. Easy. So I started writing a song about having stage fright. First, fessing up to the problem - the physical manifestations, how I would feel, how the listener might feel and then accounting for things like my shaky voice.

And I knew I would be singing about a half-octave higher than normal 'cause I was nervous. By having a song that explained what was happening to me while it was happening, that gave the audience permission to think about it. They didn't have to feel bad for me because I was nervous, they could experience that with me. And we were all one big happy nervous uncomfortable family.


KOWAN: By thinking about my audience, by embracing and exploiting my problem, I was able to take something that was blocking my progress and turn it into something that was essential for my success.

And having "The Stage Fright Song" let me get past that biggest issue right in the beginning of a performance and then I could move on and play the rest of my songs with just a little bit more ease. And eventually, you know, over time, I didn't have to play "The Stage Fright Song" at all, except for when I was really nervous. Like now.


KOWAN: Would it be OK if I played "The Stage Fright Song" for you?




KOWAN: (Singing) I'm not joking, you know, this stage fright is real. And if I'm up here trembling and singing, well, you'll know how I feel. And the mistake I'd be making, the tremolo caused by my whole body shaking. As you sit there feeling embarrassed for me, well, you don't have to be. Well, maybe just a little bit.


RAZ: Eventually, I mean, it sound like you did it. You conquered your fear, right?

KOWAN: I conquered it a little bit. You know, if I am in front of an audience, if I'm playing music every week or twice a week, I do relax and overtime I just kind of settle into that thing. But if I stop for a couple of weeks or a month or longer and when I go back to it, it's like I have to start over. It's always a setback, it's never cured forever. It's never cured forever.

RAZ: Joe Kowan, graphic designer by day, folksinger by night. You can hear his full talk at Our episode this week - what we fear. In a moment, a freak of nature. A man who fears nothing. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.