Understanding my stammer before university
12th August 2022
Tom Wells tells us about the drama teacher who made him want to learn more about his voice, and the technique that helped him with university interviews.
In a few months, I will be studying history at either Oxford or Hull university. I am excited and nervous for the experience. I'm excited because I get to move away from home and start a new academic challenge. Nervous… well, I not only have to make new friends and look after myself without my parents, but I also must make sure my old fears of my stammer don't come back to haunt me. However, I am glad I have past and present memories of my stammering journey to help along the way.
GROWING UP WITH A STAMMER
As a child, I didn't sound like other children. I struggled to say what others could easily communicate. My parents thought I would grow out of it and did not think I required professional help; they thought my confidence would get knocked if I did go. Nonetheless, fast forward to when I started secondary school, and I still had my stammer. I was still socially awkward going and mingling with others. However, I took a leap of faith and auditioned for the 2015 school production of the musical Oklahoma. I got a small role and for whatever reason my stammer was less noticeable on stage. This encouraged me to audition and participate in house events and school shows throughout my secondary school life.
My confidence was knocked following that conversation; nonetheless, I was determined to figure out how my voice worked.
My journey to understand my stammer started when I was in Year 10. It was after a rehearsal for the school play of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when my drama teacher called me over. I thought he wanted some help tidying the set but the conversation quickly turned towards my stammer instead. He said that as I was taking GCSE Drama it might be beneficial to get help for my stammer as he didn't want me to be disadvantaged. Up to this point, I lived in a bubble where I thought nobody noticed my stammer. But my confidence was knocked following that conversation; nonetheless, I was determined to figure out how my voice worked.
I began to record myself imitating famous speeches from films or history. Although, when I recorded myself I would listen back and almost shiver as I heard a high-pitched crackly voice that stammered. But looking back now, I realise I was trying to be something I was not. My younger self didn't understand the obstacles, experiences and training required to become a good voice actor. Great actors like James Earl Jones, who had a stammer himself, still have to struggle to perfect their craft. Nevertheless, it is always great fun speaking to music like Colin Firth in The King's Speech!
LEARNING THE TOOLS OF THE TRADE
In my speech therapy sessions, we discussed various tools and techniques I could use. I feel the most important tip I learned was that words only communicate a simple message. I realised my speech did not have to be flash or fluent in addressing people — 70 to 90 per cent of human communication is non-verbal. Instead, I focused on my self-esteem to get my points across; easier to write in a post than doing it.
I realised my speech did not have to be flash or fluent in addressing people... instead, I focused on my self-esteem to get my points across.
I try and use the following exercises: 'smooth and soft', 'soft voice' and reading out loud. The smooth and soft technique encourages me to connect my words smoothly using soft contacts on the lips and the tongue. So, instead of focusing on individual words, I try and think of my voice as a swan on a lake (please ignore the cliche!), gliding steadily along, each word flowing into one another. I found a soft voice prevents damaging my vocal cords from slamming together — very helpful for a tired voice. As I like drama, I wrote small speeches and marked them where I was going to pause and emphasise certain words. Practically, I used 'smooth and soft' in my Oxford interviews.
Other times, there were techniques which didn't help me. The 'freezing' technique, for example, is when you try to hold your stammer until you feel the tension in your throat subside. As my stammer is quite quick, it was like trying to hold water.
Ultimately, I try and keep calm and practise with family members or close friends before I try techniques with strangers. If you are braver than I was, however, you could go straight for new people!
For the future, I will keep holding onto the mandate of living life on my terms. So far, I have completed what I set my mind on: I have achieved my Bronze and Silver Duke of Edinburgh Awards, I was Head Boy at my local secondary school, and I applied to Oxford.
I am warmly touched when people are curious to learn about my stammer. And at the end of the day, I am proud to be a part of the stammering community.
Bring on university!
If you're starting uni soon, see our College & University section and our article Freshers Week & Stammering for tips on coping and getting the most out of it. Listen to the Freshers Week episode of our podcast too, with Gemma & Matty chatting about how they felt when starting uni.
See our Therapy & Courses section if you want to discuss techniques with a therapist.