Sunday, January 16, 2011

Put Away The Blow Torch

When Eli was 12, I asked him if he remembered being told by his therapists that "it was okay to stutter." He said no, he was never told that. I know for a fact he had been told this -- several times by several therapists. All he remembers is that he was expected to use his techniques to avoid speech errors. Research for my upcoming book "Voice Unearthed" unearthed many voices warning of potential risks to focusing on eliminating speech errors. Yet these voices are not readily accessible, especially to those making the decisions about if, when, and what type of therapy a child will receive including parents and even speech therapists.

In the "Short Report; Is it Possible for Speech Therapy to Improve Upon Natural Recovery Rates in Children Who Stutter?" (Kalinowski, J.; Saltuklaroglu, T.; Dayalu, V.; Guntupalli, V.; 2005 International Journal of Language Communication Disorders), a volcano analogy is used:

"We have been impeded by the misguided faith, faith in the reality of the ‘units’ of stuttering…the ‘units’ are the smoke…stopping the smoke does not stop the volcano."
In order to prepare for his role in "The King’s Speech," Colin Firth says

"I tried to play it as the character would be experiencing it, which is to try not to do it. The sheer physical effort that requires had an effect on my whole body, and while shooting The King's Speech I suffered from headaches."
Sounds like Firth, as an actor, tapped into the essence behind trying to cap the volcano and it worked."

The late Joseph Sheehan, an eminent speech and language therapist who also stuttered, used an iceberg analogy:

"The part above the surface, what people see and hear, is really the smaller part. By far the larger part is the part underneath, the shame, the fear, the guilt, all those other feelings that we have when we try and speak a simple sentence and can't. Like me you have probably tried to keep as much of that iceberg under the surface as possible...."

Russ Hicks, past president of the Dallas Chapter of the National Stuttering Association and national "Member of the Year in 2000" takes Sheehan’s analogy a step further…

"What if we had a giant blowtorch and quickly blasted the top off the iceberg? It would have a flat top, right? Then what would happen? As ice is less dense than water, the iceberg would slowly rise out of water again to maintain that 10/90 above/below ratio. (Thank you Archimedes!) Unfortunately with stuttering that's where the analogy is slightly off. When you blast off the top, in stuttering you typically make the bottom even bigger. Take off the 10% above, add at least 15% below. You now have a stutterer who's failed. He (or she) didn't work hard enough. He didn't care enough. He just isn't smart enough. Lazy, doesn't care, stupid... guilt, anger, shame... the bottom of the iceberg has just grown even bigger. Not only does he now stutter - AGAIN - but he's got even MORE emotional baggage down below. Been there, done that. No fun. Do that enough times, and you've created a monstrous lifetime problem."

The blow torch aimed at Eli’s speech errors served to melt the thin ribbon of "it’s really okay" woven into his therapy. Capping off the volcano or blasting off the tip of the iceberg only adds to the emotional baggage that feeds stuttering. Let’s focus instead on a risk-free plan to keeping kids talking.

1 comment:

  1. As an actor, I understand Firth's statement about getting a headache from the way he fully inhabited the characteristics of the King. If you're able to get to a certain point in your acting where you throw away the methods and techniques of getting into character, and simply allow yourself the vanity of knowing that if you just relax, it will happen, and you will live the life of that character "in the moment".

    Which gave me pause as I read what you wrote about all the techniques that are often thrown at those with speech issues; I know that it's nearly impossible as an actor to keep all the techniques, methods and tricks in one's mind while you are performing -- you will go slightly mad if you try to do so. Even in rehearsals, actors often feel as though they are under pressure to keep the techniques in mind (so as to please their acting coach), while still saying the words in the script and trying not to look like an automaton. Its a losing battle. Because while acting techniques can have merit, you need to get to the point as an actor where you have the confidence to "forget" all about them, and just know it'll be okay. I had to take several months away from acting classes in order to get there, in which time I was able to absorb and process what I'd learned, throwing away things that didn't make sense for me, keeping some of the rest, but mostly leaving nearly all "technique" behind.

    This analogy may not transfer over fully into the "real world", but I think there are some points which may resonate. One way in which techniques can be of service is as a demonstration that certain things are possible (as in the scene from "The King's Speech" where Firth's character is given Shakespeare to recite whilst headphones are blaring music in his ears). Perhaps those moments, if they trigger a spark of inspiration within the subject, can start to instill the sense of confidence in their ability to "perform" on cue.

    When I perform, I come with the experience of having done so many performances of so many pieces, that I have all that background propping me up and carrying me forward; I rarely exhibit "stage fright" at all anymore. There are occasions, however, with certain people, and if I'm feeling "under-the-gun", that I will lose my mojo and start to falter... but I am able to snap back the next time, just because I know I've done alright, so many times in the past.

    I applaud the idea of education without pressure, of providing opportunities to express freely, explore possibilites, and play. At the same time, this provides that "experience" of a successful "performance", if you will -- until stage fright and performance anxiety is slowly replaced by poise... and faith in oneself.