|Colin Firth in The King's Speech|
I went to sleep last night having read my friend Susan Hurley's dissertation on Tomatis' listening training for singers for the 4th time, and remembered my own experience in 1999-2000. I had gone to the Listening Centre in Toronto in November, and then returned in May of the next year, and had very interesting experiences during both trips.
I keenly remember not singing a note during my first sojourn, then returning home, putting down my suitcase, running to the piano and vocalizing, only to find that I had gained two notes on either side of my range and an overall sense of ease that astonished me. Something had changed, of course. What was it? The way in which I heard myself.
Something entirely different happened during my second visit, which brings me to the subject of this post: I stammered as a child starting in 4th grade. Not as bad as Colin Firth in The King's Speech, but enough so that my parents sent me to a speech therapist, who taught me to breath, and slow things down. For the self-conscious chap that I was, this made me even more self-conscious. "There's something wrong with you. Please slow down and pay attention to it." That's the message I got. Was it the message my kind speech therapist intended? I doubt it. What she taught me, however, did help.
Jump to my May 2000 trip to the Listening Centre in Toronto. What happened? I started to stammer as I had when a kid. When a friend invited me to a party on lake Ontario that was attended by many highly regarded educators, I found myself stammering up a storm, and thought it funny. Really. There I was, the accomplished opera singer from New York with all these smart people, and I couldn't say a sentence without stumbling all over myself! That I could laugh was because I found the experience intensely fascinating as well as liberating. I remarked to Paul Madaule, the director of the Listening Centre (and the author of When Listening Comes Alive), that it was a curious thing to experience stammering without the anxiety that accompanied it, since I knew what it felt like to be in the midst of uncontrollable vocalization. However, my stammering in Toronto was not like that. Even though I heard myself hacking out words, there was a sense of calm inside. There was something else too: I remembered what happened when I started stammering many years before. Something I tried to put out of my mind.
I was different from other boys. I was gay and in love with my 4th grade homeroom teacher - a tall, handsome blond-haired man by the name of Mr. Casper. I also knew this was totally unacceptable. Boys didn't fall in love with other boys. And I couldn't tell anyone about it. Nor did I until many years later. But by that time, I was better skilled at hiding my anxiety, stammer and feelings. But my ability to cope didn't change the knot in my brain. I could feel it waiting for the perfect moment to show itself, usually when I was bottled-up, under-the-gun, fearful of the very thing I wanted.
Tomatis' listening training untied that old knot, something self-talk and therapy could not -and didn't- do. It reset the dial in my head back to zero, enabling me hear my voice anew. If that sounds fantastic, I can only reply that it felt fantastic.
The unremitting stammer that surfaced during my listening training quickly abated. Now, I hardly ever experience it, even when I think of Mr. Casper.