Megan Washington: How Does Singing Help Achieve Stillness? Megan Washington is one of Australia's most popular singer-songwriters, and since childhood she has had a stutter. She discusses how she finds quiet and serenity in singing.
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How Does Singing Help Achieve Stillness?

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How Does Singing Help Achieve Stillness?

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz and on the show today, Quiet. Now, it might seem strange to think of noise as the thing you would seek out if you were trying to quiet things down, right? But for some people, noise - it's the only remedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEGAN WASHINGTON SONG, "HOLY MOSES")

RAZ: So this is music from Megan - actually, Megan, why don't you introduce yourself, please?

MEGAN WASHINGTON: My name is Megan Washington and I am a musician from Australia.

RAZ: And Megan's not just some random Australian musician. She's a pretty big deal there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLY MOSES")

WASHINGTON: (Singing) Hey, how we breathe and how we choke.

RAZ: Her records have gone platinum. She performs in front of thousands of people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLY MOSES")

WASHINGTON: (Singing) Your heart is broke.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's sounding like next year's going to be a pretty big one for you.

WASHINGTON: Yeah, and I'm really excited about it.

RAZ: On the face of it, Megan seems like a total extrovert. I mean, just listen to this TV interview because she sounds like - she sounds like a pop star.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

WASHINGTON: I've been in London all year making an album and it's coming out next year. We'll have some new music in about February, or January, or March, who knows? Mystery, mystery.

RAZ: Now, this is the person Megan Washington has to be. Sort of like what Susan Cain was just saying, that our value is measured, in a lot of ways, by how charismatic we are and so a lot of us try to be that, including Megan Washington.

So when she went up on the TED stage Megan revealed a secret that even some of her really close friends never knew.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WASHINGTON: I have a problem. It's not the worst thing in the world - I'm fine. I'm not on fire. I know that other people in the world have far worse things to deal with, but for me, language and music are inextricably linked through this one thing and the thing is that I have a stutter. It might seem curious, given that I spend a lot of my life on the stage. One would assume that I'm comfortable in the public sphere and comfortable here speaking to you guys, but the truth is that I've spent my life up into this point and including this point, living in mortal dread of public speaking.

Public singing - whole different thing.

(LAUGHTER)

WASHINGTON: But we'll get to that in a moment. I've never really talked about it before so explicitly. I think that that's because I've always lived in hope that when I was a grown-up I wouldn't have one. I'm 28. I'm pretty sure that I'm grown now.

(LAUGHTER)

WASHINGTON: And I'm an adult woman who spends her life as a performer with a speech impediment so I may as well come clean about it.

RAZ: So Megan, this was like, a really big deal when you said this because people were surprised, right?

WASHINGTON: Weirdly, yeah. I don't know, I just assumed that everybody knew that I was hiding it or disguising it, but I was quite surprised by how many people didn't know, which was everybody (laughter).

RAZ: When did you realize that singing would enable you to completely overcome it?

WASHINGTON: Well, singing is a pretty common therapy for speech disorder, in general.

RAZ: If you were to sing this - your answers - to me, you would not have any stutter?

WASHINGTON: Nope. I would not have any stutter (laughter).

RAZ: That's amazing, isn't it?

WASHINGTON: But you know Guy, like - I can do the voice, if you want - like, there's a voice, like a character's voice, where, you know, that I use in life to get through interviews like this one when my stutter is not sort of welcome.

RAZ: What's the voice sound like?

WASHINGTON: (Speaking in different voice) Well, it's just sort of like this and you wouldn't really tell that it's different to my other voice, except that when I use this voice, you know, everything just comes out really smoothly. I sound much more confident and nothing happens, you know, it's fine, and the problem with this voice is (speaking in regular voice) it's not my voice, you know what I mean? It's not my – it’s the voice that gets the job done.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WASHINGTON: But as an artist who feels that their work is based solely on a platform of honesty and being real, that feels often like cheating. Which is why before I sing, I wanted to tell you what singing means to me. It's more than making nice sounds and it's more than making nice songs. It's more than feeling known or understood. It's more than making you feel the things that I feel. Somehow, through some miraculous synaptic function of the human brain, it's impossible to stutter when you sing.

RAZ: When you sing and when you sort of discovered that this was a way for you to express yourself fluidly, it's almost like you are quieting down this thing inside of you that you don't have control over otherwise.

WASHINGTON: That's completely accurate. I find the act of singing extremely - the word I want to use is tenseless. When I speak a lot, you know, I often find that the muscles in my jaw and my tongue are quite tense and it's - you know it takes a lot of effort to kind of get things out in a way that makes sense and you're always sort of excusing words that you've tried to say and just the simplicity of singing is a place of stillness and calm.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WASHINGTON: Singing for me is sweet relief. It is the only time when I feel fluent. It is the only time when what comes out of my mouth is comprehensively exactly what I intended.

(LAUGHTER)

WASHINGTON: So I know that this is a TED Talk, but now I'm going to TED sing.

(LAUGHTER)

WASHINGTON: This is a song that I wrote last year. Thank you very much. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Australian singer-songwriter Megan Washington. Her newest album, "There There," came out in September. Check out her full talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

WASHINGTON: (Singing) I would be a beauty, but my nose is slightly too big for my face and I would be a dreamer, but my dream is slightly too big for this space.

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