CiCi Adams’ first recalls stuttering when she was eight years old; it’s a potent memory as the speech impediment changed her life. But she has another powerful recollection; temporarily losing that stutter two years later.
One day, the 10-year-old Adams and her friends were messing around, as kids do, making up rhymes and beat boxing. Then Adams jumped in and started rapping some bars that she had made up.
“I rapped every word perfectly, fluently,” she says. “Everybody in the class went, ‘Oh!’ And I just felt so good. I was just like, ‘Okay, I am amazing. I am so cool’.”
Adams didn’t know how she had rapped without her stutter, but she wanted to do it again and again. And so she did. “I just turned into the girl who rapped and sang often,” she explains.
Music became a central part of Adams’ life; supporting her and picking her up when she was down.
Now aged 24 and a writer for People Magazine, music is still by her side. She still has the stutter when she talks, but she can still lose it when she sings or raps.
“Music has always helped me to cope because there have been times where I would get down about the way I speak,” she says. “But I always knew that if I turned on my favourite song, I could sing every word fine. That gave me hope that if I could sing every word fine, then I could speak fluently too.”
Adams is in good company. Many successful singers including Ed Sheeran, Carly Simon, Kendrick Lamar and country music legend Mel Tillis stuttered.
Sheeran, a self-confessed “awkward, gawky, stuttering child”, credits Eminem, Dr Dre and Limp Bizkit with curing his stutter, after traditional speech therapy failed.
“My dad bought me the Marshall Mathers EP (by Eminem) when I was nine years old. I learnt every word of it back to front by the age of ten. He raps very fast, and very melodically and percussively. It helped me get rid of the stutter.”
Ed Sheeran full speech “American Stuttering Institute Gala” 2015
About ten per cent of people stutter, according to the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Iowa; and music is increasingly proving a useful tool to manage the disorder.
One such example is Musharaf, a student at a secondary school in West Yorkshire with a severe stutter who appeared in the television documentary series Educating Yorkshire. With the guidance of a teacher, Musharaf (aka Mushy) tries to read words on a page. But he can’t – his stutter keeps tripping him up.
Then the teacher suggests he listen to music while he tries to read the words. When Mushy pops in some earbuds with some music playing, he reads the words on the page with little hesitation. At points, it almost sounds like he’s singing the words on the page along with the rhythm of the music.
Educating Yorkshire – Mushy Finds His Voice
Why does music have this effect stutterers? What is it about the collection of tones, rhythms, melodies and harmonies that allows people with broken speech to sing without hesitation?
To answer that, we have to consider a couple of different factors. The first is called “easy onset of speech” (aka “easy voice” or “smooth speech”). When you sing, your voice becomes smoother, easier. Speech therapists draw on this fact to create a strategy to help people with stutters; the person with the stutter is encouraged to speak words at a much slower (i.e. smoother) pace, almost like singing with no melody.
Secondly, consider how the brain functions: we use the right side of the brain to listen to and produce music, and rely on the left side for language. So when you sing, you’re using mostly the right side of your brain and sidestepping the stutter by singing words rather than speaking them.
CiCi discovered this herself by throwing down some raps on that special day as a 10-year-old. And now, music is ingrained in her life so deeply.
“I listen to music all the time,” she says. “I probably listen to it 24 hours a day. …It’s always there as a reminder that I can speak as fluently as I want to, and that I can sing too if I want to.”
Although she is not a trained singer, she knows it is the key to unlocking her fluent voice. Singing offers more power than just an emotional response – it offers the power to overcome a stutter.
“So basically [music has] turned into a comfort,” she says. “I feel better knowing that music exists.”