At the age of around twelve, I remember watching a TV commercial advertising TWA airlines and I used to love watching it as it had some attractive cheer leaders zooming across the screen shouting “TWA in the USA”.
I remember one day trying to copy them and then realising that I stumbled over the words and more alarmingly began to stutter. No matter how often I tried to repeat the phrase, I always blocked and couldn’t get the words out. And so began many years of life as a stutterer.
The turning point came when I was given the chance to be the bass soloist in Handel’s Messiah in my school concert.
Having attended a few speech therapy sessions and numerous people offering advice, my early years at secondary school were at times challenging as I withdrew from many conversations to minimise the risk of being ridiculed for having a stutter. I was a keen sportsman and worked hard at my academic studies, but I didn’t quite realise that what I was about to be offered was in fact the key to my monumental breakthrough in my fluency in speaking - the opportunity to sing.
I had been singing as a chorister from the age of seven and hadn’t truly understood the power of singing until recent years.
The turning point came when I was given the chance to be the bass soloist in Handel’s Messiah in my school concert. Normally this was a part given to a member of staff but the Director of Music obviously saw something in me that I hadn’t seen. So, there I was at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, singing the bass solos and almost immediately, any feelings of being ‘not cool’ or being withdrawn vanished. Singing finally gave me something to get my teeth into and an outlet to express myself freely. It was a revelation and a fantastic feeling.
I used to say that I’d be useless at being a contestant on a TV gameshow, pressing the buzzer because I knew the answer and then being unable to say it on time.
With my speech, however, nothing much changed and I developed systems for coping and thought of myself as being a supercharged, human thesaurus, able to rapidly call up new words into my head testing them for their susceptibility of me stuttering over them. At first, this was a slow process and one that was often the source of great hilarity - not with me I hasten to add - when I was put in the awkward position of being introduced to someone and obviously didn’t have a substitute for my name to call up from my in built thesaurus. I’d pause, pretend not to have heard them ask me, smile nervously before coughing and spluttering out “RODNEY.” There had to be a better way or at least another option for me?
When I had the chance, I’d ensure that I’d always introduce myself first, having given myself a few private practice run ups in private or under my breath at saying my name since that way, the pressure was off.
I used to say that I’d be useless at being a contestant on a TV gameshow, pressing the buzzer because I knew the answer and then being unable to say it on time. These things plagued my mind and I decided to set targets for myself, small challenges which would improve my confidence.
I took part in drama classes and plays which I enjoyed and deliberately put myself into situations by which I would have to find a way through. Learning and reciting words was always easier as you’d know what word was coming up next but it still wasn’t something you felt you had full command over or indeed a choice. It was often still restrictive.
Months after the school performance, my Head of Music decided to put me in contact with the Head of Vocal Studies at the Royal Academy of Music. I had a consultation lesson, auditioned and was fortunate enough to secure a place. I followed my passion, turning down university places to read other subjects. I studied for several years to become a classical singer and graduated with a First Class Honours Degree in Music Performance. I was stubborn, but driven and remain so, as I now fully understand how important singing is to me.
In the busy years that followed, I didn’t have much time to think but one day the penny dropped. You can’t stutter when you sing. Ok, I had heard that but not really worked out why?
I had unconsciously embedded some good speaking habits through my deep practice of singing.
I’d even become sensitive to noticing other stutterers especially those with the same category stutter as mine namely ‘covert’ - being very good at masking it.
It made me curious and keen to help. Although something didn’t sit well with that label - Covert. Here’s the crucial thing, I didn’t feel that I was hiding my stutter when I was actually trying to speak but hiding it from becoming public knowledge that I stuttered. Subtle difference.
The question is, why did I not feel as though I was hiding the fact that I stuttered when I spoke? Well, this is because I didn’t feel that i was speaking! What I’m about to say isn’t new, but what I found from researching and asking around was that not every sufferer had had the positive reinforcement to continue on this path to what I call Singing Speaking. There needed to be a deeper, yet concise technical handbook out there, giving stutterers a toolkit of methodical steps to take in moments where they felt their stutter was ruling them. A deeper understanding was required.
As a freelance singer I dedicate part of my time to vocal coaching and now I have decided to extend my skills and experience to help Stutterers and those who speak in public, learn the techniques I have used over the years.
So, as I mentioned in the beginning, I want to give something back and create the possibility for others to learn about my journey and how I overcame my stutter. I have first hand experience and personal knowledge about stuttering and how I changed the focus of the label. I perfected my technique, giving me the chance to have what I believe to be a richer representation of myself, able to chose the words I actually want to use.
I have grown in confidence, embracing conversations, enjoying meaningful and fluid discussions with family and friends and becoming more open to meeting new people and take on greater challenges in the workplace setting myself targets, enjoying high levels of fluency which have enable me to work in television (BBC Presenter) as a Award Ceremony Host, a live presenter in concerts and a prize winner for speaking and delivery competitions.
I suppose you’re wondering what exactly are these techniques I am using and how you can benefit from them yourself. Well, I’m in the process of creating an online course called Singing Speaking where you can learn the techniques I use ranging from breath control and phonation through to confidence building and acceptance but before I go any further I want to ensure I’ve covered everything. This is where I need your help. Can you tell me what your top two challenges are when it comes to your speech?
Lastly, it’s important for me to say that I’m not offering a cure to stuttering but a real opportunity to change your focus about how you speak and discover an honest alternative to fluency in communication.
Thanks for taking the time to hear a bit a about me and I look forward to hearing a bit about you!