how stammering affects those in the arts

Stammering is a silent affliction that affects many in the arts, but as i-D finds out for International Stammering Awareness Day, it can be the driving force for actors and singers to find self-expression on-stage. i-D talks to three artists to...

22 October 2015, 4:09pm

At age four David Meads found himself drowning in the sea - his lungs filling with water as he tried to cry for help. Thereafter, a witch visited him most nights, haunting his childhood dreams. Yet every time he tried to scream, the words never came.

Meads, better known as spoken word artist Scroobius Pip, found that decades later, the words seem to flow freely on stage, full of cerebral wordplay that has drawn critical acclaim. But the driving force behind this is far from poetic. "I'm known for having a wide vocabulary," Pip explains, "but the broadening of it has come from trying to hide my stutter." A stutter that began after the traumatic drowning episode.

Stuttering is a problem that affects one in 100 worldwide. An often deeply psychological affliction, it impacts many in the performing arts. Notable actors, from Bruce Willis to Emily Blunt, have found release in their profession - through accents and 'living' as other characters.

Medical understanding of the causes remains inconclusive, but a major strand of thinking suggests it is, in part, neurological. According to Leys Geddes, of the British Stammering Association, "it is generally thought that if you stammer you don't use the normal pathways in your brain that control speaking, so the brain therefore uses other pathways, which causes the problem."

The double-edged sword of the disorder is sharpest with rappers and other singer-songwriters. Singing uses a different part of the brain to speaking, rendering the stammer obsolete - a fact visibly revealed to the British public during Gareth Gates' Pop Idol audition in 2001. The future teen heart-throb struggled to get his name out, but sang beautifully without hesitation.

Gareth remembers "I found that my only form of expression without being hindered was through music and I think that's why I excelled so young. I knew speech wasn't my forté and so I had to excel in other areas."

This needs-must pragmatism towards the debilitating effects of the stammer was soon reversed following his TV audition.

"My speech, for the first time ever, was quite a positive thing. It made me stand out."

Scroobius finds the relationship between his stammer and profession even more inextricably linked. As a child, he developed coping mechanisms that directly influence his rapping. "I'd panic knowing there were words or sounds I would stutter on so I'd be thinking ahead and then replacing them with other words".

In school he dreaded moments where word substitution was not possible, such as reading aloud in class. Teachers would try to help by making the class aware, but Scroobius feels "it didn't help, 'cause you're getting 'special treatment', which just highlights things".

The 'puzzle element' of hip hop, slotting words together to create meaning, appealed to Scroobius who was transfixed by the constraints of trying to tell a story but the fact "You need certain syllables to sound certain ways in certain places".Finally he was using his hitherto enforced wordplay.

"These 'survival methods' I brought in have benefited me. A beat, a rhythm helps, it distracts me. I've always been able to have two trails of thought going on at once, conscious and unconscious. For example, I can be performing a song, but also thinking about the next stage of the show."

Today Scroobius finds stammering no longer jars as it once did thanks to relaxation techniques learnt through hypnotherapy and meditation. Whilst having no direct influence on the stammer itself, they did help him shift his attitude. "I just recognised it as an aspect of who I am, I didn't let it become a defining part of me."

When I speak to him the hesitations are only slight but it is never something that fazes him. Scroobius's parents helped with this. "They never said 'Are you sure this is a good idea?' they always pushed me to be involved in everything."

For both Gareth and Scroobius, this desire for freedom of expression strikes at the core of the conflict every stammerer faces.

Indeed, although Scroobius found a greater level of control through relaxation, he is keen to stress the puncturing impact the impediment can have: "Wars have gone on for years for the right of freedom of speech, and a stammer, whilst not visible, can form a huge change in your mindset."

Australian singer-songwriter Megan Washington found music became an absolute escape from prohibitive speech troubles that worsened in high school and continue to challenge her today.

"Singing really is the only time that what comes out of my mouth is what I planned, as a stammerer it is like anti-gravity for speech…I am on an even playing field."

No wonder then, that her passion for singing, as much as her natural talent, "absolutely influenced" her career path. Bestowed with a voice of honey, Megan bluntly admits that when stammering off-stage "People either think I'm lost in thought, drunk or that I have some kind of learning difficulty."

Word substitution becomes a way to get by "I still get really nervous introducing myself or ordering food. S and T words are hard for me, so if I want to order a steak, I'll just say 'I'll have the meat'. I'm always hiding it," she concedes, "I'm hiding it right now. I'm constantly aware that if I was to actually not try to speak slowly, this interview would probably take like a fucking hour and a half."

The solution Megan presently relies on, in the game of pop stardom and media circus, is "slow speech", a technique utilising a sing-song tone and "considered" speaking pace.

Megan sees herself "sort of lucky" for being "really good at the technique", especially when coping with increased media attention. Until recently, this stop-gap solution let Megan enjoy an imperfect separation between her speaking and singing worlds.

That is until last year, when an opportunity arose for Megan to speak at Melbourne's TedX conference, a series of keynote talks intent on spreading new ideas and perspectives.

Believing that "As a songwriter the only thing I'm an expert in is myself", she decided to open up about her speech, in front of a packed auditorium.

"I hate making speeches for obvious reasons. Of course I was afraid that I'd stutter, but my biggest fear was that I wouldn't stutter, like by some weird miracle, I would be considered fluent, and then it would be a nightmare."

Megan need not have worried. Full of vulnerable charm and frank humour, the speech went down a storm despite the stammer, and went viral.

Yet for some severe stammerers, such as Gareth, progress on the mental aspect can never adequately overcome the physical act of the stammer. Reflecting more than a decade on from Pop Idol, he says, "It was hard for me because despite the success and selling millions of records, I wasn't able to show my true personality." Gareth felt his itch for more wholesome self-expression, could only be soothed by a more hands on fight.

For this, he joined the McGuire speech programme. Run by stammerers for stammerers, the method revolves around breathing from the lower costal diaphragm. This avoids tightening the vocal chords and articulators that occurs when someone stammers. Course instructors stress it is not a cure and requires a painstaking amount of training and practice, but for those who follow the steps conscientiously, over time the results can be life changing.

Gareth is testament to what can be achieved. Through daily exercises and belligerent use of the techniques, he has carved out the once unimaginable - a career on the stage, including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Legally Blonde.

As with music, the fluent escapism it offers is tied to identity and personal perception. 'I can't stammer on stage, Gareth Gates does. On stage I become a different persona. If I'm playing Warner (from Legally Blonde), a suave, smooth talker who's all confidence, I'm not allowed to stammer."

Yet in the commotion of everyday life, Gareth has still struggled at times. A number of fluent TV interviews, including The Jonathan Ross Show, led people to believe his stammer has gone. But a live appearance on Loose Women revealedit still lurks in the shadows. Watching it, I recognise the hesitant panic in his face. There is nothing worse than when you slip out of control into what the McGuire course refers to as "the swamp".

Fortunately, Gareth now has the tools to fight back from these moments of horror, a battle aided in part by his acting duties. Does Gareth ever regret not having the control he has now when he was in the pop star bubble?

"That's a tricky subject...looking back, now that I have this control when I put the work in, I'm glad that I've been through what I've been through [with the stammer] because it's made me the person that I am. The journey of recovery has made me a better, and a stronger, person."

It is an answer that makes clear freedom of expression is nothing without identity - musical or otherwise.


Text Alex Taylor