Ep. 154 Transcript

Disclaimer: This is transcribed using AI. Expect (funny) errors.

Mindy Peterson: [00:00:00] I’m Mindy Peterson. And this is Enhance Life with Music, a holistic look at the power of music in our everyday lives. I was at a concert a few years ago. It was a singer songwriter named Jason Gray performing. At some point in the concert, he stopped performing and was just talking to the audience and sharing parts of his story, and he shared that he stuttered when he talked, but not when he sang. And I found that so fascinating. And since then, I’ve learned that is very typical. Almost all people who stutter sing fluently, which I found really intriguing. And I’m looking forward to learning more today about this relationship between music and stuttering. Joining me today is Dr. Heather Grossman, board certified specialist in fluency disorders and clinic director of the American Institute for Stuttering, which we’ll refer to as AIS. Dr. Grossman is one of a small number of speech language pathologists holding a PhD in fluency disorders who works primarily in a clinical setting. She is a sought after expert on stuttering, presenting regularly at national and international conferences for professionals. She is also regularly called upon for journalistic and media coverage of stuttering. Welcome to Enhance life with Music, Heather.

Heather Grossman: [00:01:23] Thank you. Thank you so much. That was interesting story about Jason Gray because I learned about him recently. I didn’t know about him as a person who stutters.

Mindy Peterson: [00:01:32] Oh, did you say you did recently hear more?

Heather Grossman: [00:01:34] Only recently, yes. That’s when you said that I was like, Oh, Jason Gray. I just heard that name.

Mindy Peterson: [00:01:39] Oh, interesting. Yeah, he was. He’s originally from Minnesota. I think he may be in the Nashville area now, but he was performing, like I said, it was it was several years ago. I’m trying to remember now if it was before or after COVID. I think it was after COVID. I think it was in the last couple of years here that he was performing. And, you know, just was performing right off the bat. Didn’t start talking until midway through the concert. And once he started talking, you could hear occasionally that stutter. And he talked about it right off the bat and how it doesn’t affect his singing. And I was so intrigued by that and then realized after that that that is very common. So first of all, can you explain to us why we don’t stutter when we sing?

Heather Grossman: [00:02:26] Well, first of all, stuttering is very much a communication disorder. Not, you know, I mean, yes, it is a speech production issue. And those are two very important points. So the first one is communicating with other people. Different areas of the brain are working to formulate spoken speech and how you’re judging your listener, hearing what you have to say, all of that dynamic completely changes when you sing. When you sing, it’s usually something that you’ve learned sort of by rote. You’re not really formulating. If someone asks you, How do I fix this computer, that’s not when you start singing, you know, singing or things, you know, you kind of are overlearned them. Interesting.

Mindy Peterson: [00:03:22] Searching for words at all.

Heather Grossman: [00:03:23] Exactly. Exactly. And completely different areas of the brain go on when you sing. So we know that the right hemisphere of the brain has more to do with melody, phrasing, rhythm, pausing, and those areas are more involved in singing. So what’s an interesting fact to that point about the brain? Similarly, when people who stutter sing, they’re fluent. There are actually people who have strokes who lose the ability to speak formulaic speech, but can still sing somewhat songs because again, that area of the brain is still working.

Mindy Peterson: [00:04:03] Right. Or traumatic brain injuries like Gabby Giffords, the senator from Arizona who survived the shooting, she had aphasia where she couldn’t speak and sort of had to relearn how to speak. And that happened using music therapy and using music.

Heather Grossman: [00:04:21] Exactly. So you’re using the areas of the brain that don’t have the difficulty and, you know, sort of building new pathways through maximizing what’s already working. The problem is with stuttering, people tend to over simplify and say, well, if you can sing fluently, why don’t you just sing all the time? It seems like a very, very logical question, but that is actually considered in the stuttering community, what we would call a microaggression, because it would be infantilizing to Hi, when are we going to go to. You know, you can’t really do that. So it makes people who stutter very frustrated when people say, Oh, but you sing so beautifully, why don’t you just sing when you speak? You know, that that can actually be considered insulting and dismissive. Okay. You know, so people have to be careful with that. The other issue that’s kind of interesting is that this dynamic of people who stutter, being able to sing fluently has been around for a very, very long time. You know, Mel Tillis, I think, was one of the first who was a singer who talked about, you know, that he was a person who stuttered. And he realized, as people do, that when you tell people about it, like what Jason Gray did was was fantastic.

Heather Grossman: [00:05:44] That’s considered therapeutically a very healthy thing to self-disclose your stuttering as a way to free your mind from having to worry about how people are going to judge you when you do it. You’ve put it out there. This is what it is, you know, and you’re and you’re treating it with self respect. You know, there was someone on America’s Got Talent very recently who stuttered. They were someone on American Idol, Lazaro Arbos. And every time these things happen, the person who stutters talks with the stutter. They sing fluently, and then they cut to somebody in the audience with this shocked face, like with their hand. Oh, and. And it actually makes people who stutter, like roll their eyes, like, really, like, seriously. Everybody’s still making such a big deal out of this, huh? You know, it’s like really, this is like kind of like old news already. So it’s kind of an interesting thing. But yeah, stuttering is still so unknown. People don’t know about it that it is natural for people to still say, Wow, that’s so interesting. You know, I didn’t know that.

Mindy Peterson: [00:06:56] Right. Well, it’s interesting that you bring up the different parts of the brain and how they are engaged differently with different forms of speech compared to singing. And one reason it’s interesting is there is another guest that I had on quite a while ago who was talking about a similar situation, how the two different parts of the brain are engaged with music. And in his case, he was talking about how trauma resides in the same hemisphere of the brain, the right side of the brain that is utilized for processing melody and pitch. And that’s one reason that hearing words in a song or singing words in a song can allow words to really go deeper in our own lives and help us process trauma. Like people have said, I’ve read those words and people have said those words to me down through the course of years, but it just never really sunk in the way it did when I heard it in this song. And it’s because language and speech are processed by the left hemisphere of the brain and melody and pitch are processed in the right side of the brain. So combining those really allows people to process the words in a much deeper way. And what you’re talking about is similar but different. It sounds like language, speech, phonological processing use more of that left hemisphere of the brain and then melody and pitch music are using the right side of the brain. So those two hemispheres of the brain are collaborating more in singing. Is that accurate?

Heather Grossman: [00:08:33] Well, maybe actually do more collaboration in speaking. In other words, speaking is actually more complicated because the left and the right, you know, there is still melody to speech, you know, in other words, all of that stuff has to work together. I think you sort of maybe take some of the areas offline when you speak because you’re not worried about the judgment of what you’re saying.

Mindy Peterson: [00:09:00] When you’re singing. You mean, right? Yes. Okay.

Heather Grossman: [00:09:03] Sure. A lot a lot of stuttering is, you know, part of like and there’s also some theory that the the hearing feedback loop, the way people hear themselves, you hear yourself very differently to when you sing. Also when you sing, you’re also breathing completely differently. You know, that’s another thing in stuttering therapy, a lot of people work on breathing. We don’t at eyes because we find that that’s sort of just slapping paint on the problem and just taking a physical approach where we find when a person is very, very confident and comfortable in the fact that they stutter and they accept it and they’re no longer fear it, then their speech tends to flow without them having to do anything special to their breathing. Yeah, people to speak spontaneously and authentically. Yeah.

Mindy Peterson: [00:09:54] I like your tagline. Speak freely, live fearlessly. And I. Saw on your website that your philosophy is to help individuals maintain the confidence to speak without fear, struggle or avoidance, whether they continue to stutter or not, which I thought was really cool.

Heather Grossman: [00:10:10] Thank you. Yeah, I mean, and that’s it’s hard because you don’t get universal acceptance on that idea. You know, there are still people that want very much to be fluent. They feel that society is not accepting of stuttering or the fact that they stutter and people chase fluency. You know, what can I do to be fluent? And it turns out that people who stutter, it might look like their breath is off. So people want to say, Oh, take a breath, which is, by the way, not a good thing to do. It actually is not helpful because it’s not the breath problem that caused the stutter. The stutter is causing the struggle with the breath. Oh, okay. So what can we do to reduce the struggle? And sometimes now I have heard many very interesting stories of people saying, well, I can’t really speak, but I can sing and I can play this guitar, so I’m going to find my way to be present through my voice and through my guitar playing and my rapping or my performing, and then that sort of generalizing into a larger confidence that then turns into, well, if I can be present and the center of attention with my voice singing, maybe I can take some risks and actually do it with my speaking.

Heather Grossman: [00:11:32] So to me, that’s a beautiful case scenario when someone like I think that’s sort of like Ed Sheeran’s story, Ed Sheeran talks about being a child who stuttered and then rapping along with Eminem and saying to himself, Wait a minute, I do have control over my mouth. You know, we tell kids, look, you do have you are the boss of your own mouth. You stutter sometimes, but you’re still the boss of your mouth. And I think that’s like what you’re teaching yourself when you experiment like Emily Blunt, who’s not a singer. But she was encouraged to experiment with different voices, different accents, making silly voices. And when you make a silly voice and do an accent, it sort of is like singing, you know, you’re putting on a de de, de de. And and it’s and it’s also and again, another fascinating thing, back to strokes and the area of the brain. I’ve known people who have a stroke and they lose one language that they learned, but they can still speak another language. That primary language. Yes.

Mindy Peterson: [00:12:38] Oh, wow. That is interesting.

Heather Grossman: [00:12:41] So just the way language is organized in the brain, there’s so much we don’t know that we’re still learning about. And these observations tell us a lot about how the brain is organized.

Mindy Peterson: [00:12:52] Yeah, well, you mentioned the American Idol contestant. You mentioned Mel Tillis and Ed Sheeran, who are some other well known musicians who people may not realize stuttered.

Heather Grossman: [00:13:04] Well, very few people realize Carly Simon stutters.

Mindy Peterson: [00:13:08] And she’s on your board, I.

Heather Grossman: [00:13:09] Believe. Yes, she is very cool. Robert Merrill He was a baritone, an operatic baritone. There was a man named Scatman John who had a famous song that was a disco hit, I’m the Scatman. And the lyric actually went, Everybody stutters in one way or another. And this is my message to you don’t really. Yeah. And it was about stuttering. It was very cool. Bill Withers okay. Marc Anthony the singer. Oh, B.B King Kendrick Lamar, as I said. Ed Sheeran. Oh, I read that. Elvis stuttered.

Mindy Peterson: [00:13:48] I saw that too. And I had never seen that until, you know, right before our conversation when I was looking up some information.

Heather Grossman: [00:13:55] No, Me neither. So sometimes these lists don’t differentiate those people who stuttered in childhood and then kind of, quote, grew out of it because 75% of people do grow out of it. Okay. But it’s the it’s the one quarter percent that continue into adulthood that are people like Jason Gray who feel the need. You know, and it is very helpful to self disclose.

Mindy Peterson: [00:14:20] I saw a quote by a renowned speech pathologist who’s done a lot of work with Stuttering Charles Van Riper. I don’t know if I’m saying his name correctly, but he said music serves as a carrier for communication, which I found really interesting. Can you tell us how how is music used for those people who do want to increase fluency and speech control when they have a stutter?

Heather Grossman: [00:14:45] Well, Charles Van Riper, by the way, was a person who stuttered and he sort of considered the father of the field of speech, language pathology. You know, our field began with stuttering, you know, as being.

Mindy Peterson: [00:14:58] Oh, really?

Heather Grossman: [00:14:59] Puzzle to be solved. And at the time he was absolutely considered one of the pioneers. But there were other pioneers working at the same time in the 1940s who didn’t even agree with what he talked about, you know, and said that, you know, certain things were not helpful. But so Van Riper was very much about what we would call modifying the stutter. So don’t work on being fluent, but try to stutter more easily. For example, people who if you sort of adopt somewhat of a rhythm when you speak, that actually could give you a little bit of increased fluency. Okay. The problem is the trade off of authentic, spontaneous communication. You know, that’s the difference. We can do a lot of things to make a person fluent, right? So singing is just one. There are other things that can make a person sort of temporarily fluent, and one of them is talking on a rhythm. So there are therapists that teach people to tap their hand while they speak. And it sort of works a little bit. But the problem is you’re not addressing the fear of stuttering and you’re not giving the person back the joy of communication and more importantly, you’re just giving them more mental gymnastics and asking them to work harder to speak.

Heather Grossman: [00:16:34] When we sing, it’s joyful, it’s open, There’s no hard work. You open your mouth. Think of chanting. I’ve had clients who their voice is so tight that I’ll just sort of not to make them fluent, but just to feel their voice move, you know, Just close your eyes and just go. I feel your voice move. Feel yourself phony, You know, that’s so really speech is coordination of our respiration, breathing the phonation, which is the air moving through the vocal folds and then articulation shaping the sounds. And one of the things we talk about is that coordination is often stuttering. You know, often it seems like the voice is closing down the airway or the articulators are making the sound before the word is ready to come out, you know, because the person’s got themselves all tripped up in mechanics. So the last thing we want to do is give them more mechanics. We want to sort of make them, you know, free. What does it feel like to speak freely and speak without fear? And often what you get is a stutter that moves along very easily without you really having to work at it.

Mindy Peterson: [00:17:50] And some of the things that you said, it sounds like music can be used in a variety of different ways and sort of different layers of the onion. Like you mentioned, increasing confidence. People maybe sing as a way to get used to having their voice heard in front of people and then feel like, Oh, well, if I can do this in front of people, that increases my confidence in the area of speaking. And so I can kind of move into that and.

Heather Grossman: [00:18:18] Also be willing to be the center of attention.

Mindy Peterson: [00:18:21] Yeah, yeah.

Heather Grossman: [00:18:22] That’s part of it. And being able to take risks and not be perfect.

Mindy Peterson: [00:18:26] Sure. Oh yeah, totally. When we talked about Gabby Giffords and how music was used to sort of build new neurological superhighways around the damaged areas of her brain, is when it comes to stuttering, Is music just sort of like a temporary Band-Aid where if people sing, then in that moment they’re not affected by a stutter? Or is music actually used to help them reduce their stuttering in other ways besides just building confidence?

Heather Grossman: [00:18:57] Well, I think, you know, a lot of the work we do in stuttering is, you know, cognitive behavioral theory, right? So this idea that you have a core belief, you know, very basic, if you believe that you’re as soon as you walk out your house, something’s going to drop on your head. The idea of leaving your house gives you anxiety and behaviorally you don’t leave the house. If someone could convince you, there’s no way anything’s ever going to fall on your head, you don’t have anxiety and you do leave the house. So it’s all about what the person’s core belief is. If your core belief is that you don’t really have power or control agency when it comes to communicating that you’re hopeless, that you’re alone. These kinds of thoughts tend to make stuttering more severe because you’re always worried about how it’s going to be received. I think some people, through music, start. To change how they think about themselves as a person in the world. I am connected to other people. Other people are enjoying me. I mean, they’re enjoying my music. They’re enjoying my voice. I can engage with other people and have that be successful. Look, I’m not alone. And for some people, I think that’s the pathway to their fluency.

Mindy Peterson: [00:20:23] Sure. Sort of a self efficacy type of an aspect of it. Right.

Heather Grossman: [00:20:28] For other people. I think maybe the the motor aspects, whatever is going on in the neurologic system chemically, you know, I believe that is much more severe in some people. Like we say, this person has more stuttering in their body, you know, for whatever reason, their neurology is more glitchy, computer is more glitchy than another computer. Right. Maybe those people don’t get as far. You know, the confidence helps, but they need, you know, a lot more. You know, some people have a lot of you know, we’re talking about trauma related to their stuttering. And even though, you know, music might be very soothing, it doesn’t necessarily heal it. If the person is walking around feeling the scars of being ostracized for stuttering.

Mindy Peterson: [00:21:13] We’re complicated beings, aren’t we? Very, very. And I’m sure everyone’s situation is slightly different. No. One No. Two people are exactly the same. And I know you mentioned Ed Sheeran using Eminem’s rapping to sort of like that was really helpful for him in terms of gaining increased control. So it sounds like for some people, music can be sort of a stepping stone toward gaining more control.

Heather Grossman: [00:21:39] Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. You know, and people people I think tend to minimize, you know, they’ll oh, it doesn’t seem like what’s the big deal? You know, you trip over a word once in a while. I think people who don’t stutter don’t take into account that unlike other disabilities, people who stutter take that with them every minute of every day, wherever they go. There’s nothing we can do in life that doesn’t involve communication. Unless you want to be a hermit and then you’re not part of the world. Anything else that you do to interact with people, you must communicate. So it impacts every area of people’s lives. And people don’t realize that they make decisions about what they eat and who they all date and where they’ll live and what job they might have. So I sometimes wonder if some of the people who are amazing musicians who stutter, I always like to investigate. Like, is that part of why you became that? You know? Emily Blunt says that’s sort of why she became an actor.

Mindy Peterson: [00:22:43] Oh, yeah, that’s interesting. And I think she’s on your board, too, right? Yes, she is. I heard, too, that people Well, and I think you mentioned this, if you talk differently, like you use a stage voice or a foreign accent or something like that, stuttering is less. It impacts you less during that time of using that stage. Voice Yeah.

Heather Grossman: [00:23:06] In psychological terms, one of the things we talk about is it’s like a role reversal that being a person who stutters has a certain like a role identity to it. And if a person can sort of adopt a different persona, then they’ll often get a fake fluency. But again, that might not be their authentic self. And it runs very deep. Like I’ve known people, for example, who say that when they get angry, they can’t control their speech. Whatever their stuttering is just overrides their ability to communicate. So they don’t allow themselves to get angry. Avoiding is one of the most harmful things about stuttering is all the things that a person does in order to not be heard. Stuttering is often the most harmful thing about it. I have found it a little sad of people where they almost hide behind it like they’ll be very outgoing with their music and then very shy when it comes to their speaking. I think Carly Simon’s a little bit like that. You know, I don’t think she was a very outgoing person. You know, you didn’t see her a lot ever in interviews speaking well.

Mindy Peterson: [00:24:16] And I think a lot of musicians can be that way. Like Elton John, I think is somebody who in general tends to be more quiet and introverted. But he gets his stage persona on when he’s up in front of a crowd.

Heather Grossman: [00:24:29] And he’s an interesting example of a different disorder. He had many voice disorders. Oh, and you know, I think quite a few surgeries.

Mindy Peterson: [00:24:38] Oh, I didn’t know that.

Heather Grossman: [00:24:39] And voice is a very sort of somewhat of an overlap between the treatment of voice disorders and stuttering disorders. You know, although it is more it’s very functional, but there is an emotionality to learning to to sing and emotional control. And and obviously if your voice quality changes. Is how devastating that can be to a person. Yeah.

Mindy Peterson: [00:25:01] Before we run out of time, I want you to tell us about EHS and the resources that are offered by the American Institute for Stuttering.

Heather Grossman: [00:25:11] We are a non for profit. We started in 1998. Our founder was a speech pathologist named Kathryn Montgomery, who saw the need for more affordable specialized services. There are very few people who specialize in the treatment of stuttering and stuttering. Treatment is very different than what we’re frankly taught to treat when we go to graduate school. It’s amazing to me. I went I taught at the college level for a very long time, and just clinically it’s a different ballgame. Stuttering is very counterintuitive and paradoxical, so the more you try to resist it, the more it pops up in your face and makes you miserable. Other speech problems don’t really tend to work like that, so she started it and was able to get funding so that people could afford really top notch therapy, even though their insurance often doesn’t cover it. That’s another problem is that stuttering therapy is often not covered, so people don’t get the proper work. So in addition to offering affordable therapy for children, we work very closely with parents to help support their children. We work teenagers. But in addition to the therapy component, we also offer a lot of group support activities because we know that one of the best ways to heal any trauma based or trauma, at least a trauma lens we look, we say when we’re treating stuttering is connection and support. So we bring people together. We have a lot of support activities and we bring in writers and we introduce people to other famous people who stutter so they see like not famous people, but even just accomplished, you know, people say, Oh, I can’t be a psychiatrist who stutters like, okay, well, I’ll introduce you to a psychiatrist who stutters.

Heather Grossman: [00:27:07] Maybe that will change your idea. And that’s what I mean by the cognitive piece. Like you learn that maybe some of the things you believe are different than what you really thought. We have an office in New York, an office in Santa monica and Atlanta, Georgia. We do in-person therapy, but even now we do mostly virtual therapy. People love it. It’s incredible. In the old days, everybody wanted to come in. Covid started. People started doing it. And then even now that we’re offering in person, a lot of people say, you know what, It’s so much more convenient. So most of our caseload is virtual, okay? We give people, you know, action assignments, things that they can do on their own. We also train speech pathologists who want to gain expertise in stuttering. And we try to really educate the public, you know, things like this. Mindy, you know, frankly, I so appreciate being able to give voice to some of these issues that are more nuanced and stuttering, you know, and I think our organization is very into spreading that education.

Mindy Peterson: [00:28:14] Well, I know that I saw lots of great links on your site. There’s blogs, forums, videos, news, so lots of great resources there. I’ll definitely include a link in the show notes to that. And I know we already talked about a couple staff and or board members Carly Simon, Emily Blunt, just really impressive staff and board that.

Heather Grossman: [00:28:38] What’s that? I don’t know if you know the Austin Pendleton know the actor. He was my cousin Vinny, the lawyer and my cousin Vinny. Oh okay. And he stutters. Okay. And John Stossel, the newsman. Yeah. Is on our board. Yeah. As well.

Mindy Peterson: [00:28:54] Well, and like you said, just even mentioning, say a psychologist like everyday positions that people may feel are intimidating if they have a stutter. I mean, you have so many people on your on your staff and board that you could connect people with. I think that’s really amazing. You also have a lot of ambassadors like Bruce Willis was on your list of ambassadors, so you have a lot of connections over there.

Heather Grossman: [00:29:18] Yeah, our board is amazing. Our our board chairman, Eric Dinallo is a person who stutters. He’s a lawyer, and he’s just so open about stuttering. And he talks about that being sort of the secret sauce of his success, you know. And the research tells us that the correlation of stuttering to quality of life is the more open you are about it, the better off you are.

Mindy Peterson: [00:29:42] Yeah, Well, and it’s like that with any weakness, perceived weakness that we have. Like I know Kevin Hart is really short and he just embraces it and kind of jokes about it and laughs about it and it’s like, yes, I am short, you know? And so I think it’s true with whatever our perceived weakness. Those if we can just be honest and vulnerable and embrace it. People people respect that and it makes them feel like they can be vulnerable about their own perceived weaknesses.

Heather Grossman: [00:30:09] Right. Yeah. No, it’s true. It’s just hard because often people are, oh, I don’t want to say it because stuttering is stigmatized. Sure, being short might not be stigmatized. It just might be kind of funny.

Mindy Peterson: [00:30:21] Yeah, I hear you. Well, I think people can also find therapists on your website. Is that right? Yes.

Heather Grossman: [00:30:30] Anyone? So we work with people, like I said, all over. We have licenses in states all over the United States. It’s part of our governing body that to work with someone, you have to be licensed in both states where you’re working with the person and where they’re receiving the therapy. So sometimes limits the availability. But our staff is very on top of someone needs a therapy, we go and get the license in a lot of cases. So people reach out on our website. We have an information form. We also have there’s a link to financial assistance people need that they can apply for that. We do have donors that make that possible. So we really do want to, you know, because it can be difficult to get access to therapy. You know, everything is very expensive now, obviously. Sure. And we also offer a lot of free resources to people, free workshops and good stuff. It’s a great organization.

Mindy Peterson: [00:31:27] Yeah. It sounds like.

Heather Grossman: [00:31:28] I’m so happy.

Mindy Peterson: [00:31:30] Oh, good. Well, like I said, I’ll have links in the show notes. I do ask all of my guests to close out our conversation with a musical, ending a coda by sharing a song or a story about a moment that music enhanced your life. Is there a song or a story that you can share with us today as we close?

Heather Grossman: [00:31:49] When I saw that, I thought, Wow, that’s a hard one because to me, music is is everything. You know, when I think of any time in my life that had high emotion in any way, it’s like I almost associate it with a song. And if I hear that song, I think of the emotion and I feel that and where I was at the time. So I figured I might as well try to go back to one of the earliest ones that really kind of rocked my world. And that was when I was a young teenager, about 14, and first heard Space Oddity by David Bowie and seeing it on black and white television and just thinking to myself that like at the time, feeling that I wasn’t of this earth and I felt that that music wasn’t of this earth and this man was not of this earth. And somehow it brought me wonderful comfort that it was okay then to not be of this earth. So I think of that song. Space Oddity is sort of a very pivotal moment.

Transcribed by Sonix.ai