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June 2019
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2003-11-18 Stephen Shellard

When a disease or "condition" is not life-threatening, funding is thin on the ground. I am one of many who has lost a loved one to cancer, and I sincerely hope that all the money being poured into vital cancer research soon begins to produce results.


There are however conditions which are not killers, but which can damage a person's quality of life, self-esteem, education and employment potential. Stammering is one such condition.


During my childhood I remember a neighbour's child who had been given a cruel onomatopoeic nickname by his parents because of his pronounced stutter, as well as several local characters with speech impediments who were the topic of unkind anecdotes. We all laughed at Michael Palin's character in "A Fish called Wanda", or Ronnie Barker in "Open all hours". When I was studying in Dublin, one of my party-pieces was "The Stutterin" Lovers' which always brought the house down, until I was approached after a concert by a stammerer. I removed the piece permanently from my repertoire. At a masterclass given by the English soprano Emma Kirkby, I watched in admiration as a young Dublin counter-tenor Stephen Shellard, transfixed his audience with his honeyed tone and moving interpretation.


He then attempted to announce his second piece, but had to abandon the announcement because of his pronounced stammer. I learned on that day that stammering does not affect singing, only speech. My ignorance of certain conditions puts me to shame. 


There are 45 million stammerers worldwide, half a million in the UK alone, and yet nobody really knows what causes it. Everyone stammers differently and the condition is more common in men. Some wires somewhere get crossed, and this results in an interference in the fluency and forward flow of speech. Stammering does not arrive at birth, but the condition develops throughout childhood.


For the stammerer there is a feeling of being out of control and an ensuing repetition of sounds, syllables, words or pauses. It is more than just a speech problem, it is a communication problem. A stammerer usually has "feared words", and speaking on the phone, in public, under pressure or to people in authority can prove near impossible. There are misconceptions surrounding stammering, such as accidents in childhood, or even that the sufferer is "stupid".


School was not a particularly happy place for Stephen Shellard, and may have been happier had he been able to speak more fluently. Stephen was a gregarious and outgoing little boy and a very quick learner, but for a stammerer one of the most infuriating and unhelpful things is to have your sentences finished for you, or to have your fluency praised. Teachers tended to pass Stephen over.

His parents tried all avenues of speech therapy, hypnotherapy and psychoanalysis to no avail. Singing and bassoon-playing became Stephen's escape. Stephen's stammer never held him back socially, and through constant goal-setting he has established himself as Ireland's leading counter-tenor. He was the youngest ever lay-vicar choral at St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. Now a lay clerk in Worcester Cathedral, Stephen also conducts and tours his own chamber choir. As a soloist he has performed under the baton of conductors such as Sir David Willcocks at the 3 Choirs Festival, at Wigmore Hall and with Musica Contexta in London, having also recorded on the Chandos label.


Music was a vital escape route for Stephen, but recently, a new ground-breaking programme has been helping stammerers like Stephen worldwide. As yet there is no cure for stammering but the McGuire Technique can control stammering. The McGuire Programme is run by stammerers who understand the feeling of speech being out of control.


The diaphragm, cords and articulators must be retrained so that the technique becomes automatic. The deep intercostal/diaphragmatic breathing is similar to an opera singer's breathing, but the course is more about confronting fears which have become magnified through the years. The students end up literally speaking in public, on a street soap-box! There is also a follow up service provided, and support groups everywhere, including Sligo. We are aware of such public "stammerers" as Gareth Gates and Proinnsias de Rossa, and yet, little research has been done into stammering, but David McGuire is helping to change all that as well as further increasing awareness.


If you are a stammerer, you are not alone and ought to get in contact -