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What do Stuttering Therapy, Shinichi Suzuki, and Classical Violin Have in Common?

Updated: Feb 23

"Tomorrow's battle is won during today's practice." – Japanese Proverbs


There is an interesting dialogue that has been happening among speech therapists for a while. It goes like this—the critical path to functional fluency is:


A) Learning and practicing fluency strategies


B) Addressing the underlying emotional factors associated with stuttering


In my experience these are both critical, like yin and yang, or two sides of the same coin.


Today, we will focus on one of half of this equation. Let’s talk about practice.


“Practice” was a dirty word to me when I was a kid. It was one more chore I would try to avoid, like finishing my math homework, cleaning my room, walking the dog, or doing the dishes.


Each day after school I was expected to practice my violin for an hour. My mother would set the oven timer and I would play through scales or études, running back and forth periodically to that intrepid timer to see how much longer I had left to play.


That hour felt interminable.


And it felt unfair! I was stuck inside practicing while the other kids in our neighborhood were outside running around. Why did I have to do all of this extra work?


I learned to play the violin via the Suzuki method, which is based on the idea that anyone can play an instrument if they are exposed and immersed from a young age. It is very much like how we learn language.


The Suzuki method was created by the Japanese musician and teacher, Shinichi Suzuki, who had a lot to say about the benefits of practice. One of his most famous “practice” quotes?


“Practice only on the days you eat.” – Shinichi Suzuki


Another one that I love?


“Knowledge is not skill. Knowledge plus ten thousand times is skill.” – Shinichi Suzuki


What in the world does this all have to do with stuttering therapy?


A LOT.


I am often reminding clients how important it is to practice their fluency strategies on a daily basis, not just the day of therapy. I compare this to showing up to a violin lesson without having practiced the week before.


I can see the exasperation in their eyes. I recognize it from my own childhood—the unfairness of being told to practice and put in extra work while friends did not have to do the same.


But practice works. It trains your muscle memory through repetition. The more you practice a skill, the more ingrained it becomes in your muscle memory and the less you need to rely on conscious thought to perform that skill.


In stuttering therapy, we also begin with practice and repetition of various fluency and modification strategies, working our way up to more complex and rapid execution.


Take the common fluency shaping strategy of “stretches” for an example. This strategy involves placing a slight intentional stretch on the initial sound of a word to assist with initiating and maintaining voicing through a phrase.


If written, it would look something like “yellow” = “yyyyyellow.” And in a phrase it would like, “Yyyyyellow flowers are pretty.” Note that only the first word in this phrase is given the stretch.


But just learning what a stretch is or how to do stretches is not going to change your fluency overnight. Nor will it be a tool that you can implement in spontaneous speech without first practicing it in simpler forms.


Think of this as practicing first scales, and then études, and eventually full-length tunes and ultimately, concertos!


Listening to a practiced clinician demonstrate stretches will also help develop this skill, just as listening to language helps us learn via immersion.


But what about the fact that practicing is boring and tedious?


Oh yeah. That tricky thing about hating practice and having it feel never-ending… and here I am as an adult speech therapist saying “Practice, practice, practice!”


Well, here’s the thing. Practice must be daily and consistent to result in change.


Practice also requires innovation and interest. I recommend mixing up activities to find new and exciting ways of making fluency strategies fun.


Some of my favorite ways to practice speech?


Finding tongue twisters, riddles, trivia, crossword puzzles, or magazine articles to read out-loud. One of my clients writes poems and raps for practice. Different sources of material every day seem to help drive the boredom monster away.


And this doesn’t have to be for an hour a day (ergo me and my violin). 10 minutes a day of structured practice can result in noticeable improvement, which is also a motivator in and of itself.


Remember, practicing done in a vacuum without addressing underlying feelings and emotions is like riding a bike without tires. You need both the equipment and the motivated rider in order to have a successful journey.


But that will be a post for another day.


And in the meantime, don’t forget to practice.

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