The Scale of My Stuttering

Glenn McClure

Composer Glenn McClure: Reaching for New Heights in Music and Life

Glenn McClure caught our attention in an article from the Rochester City paper. In 2016, Glenn traveled to Antarctica to study changes in the ice — and to use the data he collected in a new musical project, the latest in McClure's history of combining math, music, and nature.  A self-identified “severe stutterer," Glenn is a professor at Paul Smiths College in the Adirondacks, in New York state.

What do you do?
I am a composer and teacher. My musical interests focus on civic issues including racial equality and environmental justice. I compose mostly vocal music, including choral works and operas. I have taught Music, History, and the Humanities at the Eastman School of Music, the State University of New York (SUNY) at Geneseo, and currently at Paul Smiths College in the Adirondacks.

What are your hobbies and interests?
I worked as a chef long enough to realize that I love cooking in a way that didn’t have to be my job. I cook for my family and for many philanthropic events each year.  I enjoy good friends, good food, good music, and good family.

How have you been successful in your career?
Success is often in the eyes of the beholder. In terms of traditional career measures, I have written music for the European Space Agency Choir in Darmstadt, Germany and served as an Artist and Writers Fellow for the National Science Foundation in Antarctica. I received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts/Opera Division and served as a National Teaching Artist Fellow for the Kennedy Center Office of Disability/VSA. I received the Chancellors Award for Adjunct Teaching which is the highest award given by SUNY.

Do you remember when you first began to stutter, and did you seek treatment?
I have stuttered since my first attempts at speech. There was a once-a-week speech therapy service in my small, rural public school but that didn’t help. At the age of 11, I participated in an intensive, six-week, residential clinic at SUNY Geneseo that taught me a control of the disability that I still use every time I speak. When I hold the controls at the highest level, my speech is better than normal disfluency but it is also exhausting. I use the controls at this high level for my college lecturing and other professional duties, then dial it back to 60-70 percent when I am with family and friends. This control has allowed me to hold a very public job.

What was your experience with stuttering as a child?
My disability is labeled “severe.” The only time I could open my mouth without stuttering was when I sang. Music became very important to me as a child. It was the only time I felt powerful and beautiful. It was the only time I could share my thoughts and feelings with others.

Glenn McClureMy mother was a primary school teacher in the small K-12 school district I attended. During my kindergarten evaluation, the school district recommended that I be placed in the special education tract because, at that point, it was assumed that severe stuttering indicated cognitive delays and other learning disabilities. Administrative norms of the time made it nearly impossible for a student to move from a special education tract to the mainstream tract. As an experienced educator, my mother knew that I had no developmental delays and she fought my special education placement for several years. Many of her colleagues at other grade levels joined the administrative fight. She was proven correct 11 years later when I graduated one year early as the valedictorian. I was lucky to have a mother who understood my disability and to have numerous teachers in my district as advocates. So many other children don’t have such luxuries and young stutterers have been channeled in educational pathways that belie their often hidden abilities.

Has your stuttering gotten worse or better since you were younger?
It hasn’t changed. As soon as I “turn off” the controls, I stutter at the same level I did as a child.

How did it affect you growing up?
I always sought opportunities to sing, to act, to speak publicly even before I learned the controls. Singing was the easiest way to be like the other kids. Acting also diffused the stuttering as long as I stayed in character. My teachers would never let me retreat from speaking when they knew I had something to say. For them, even when they placed me in situations where I would stutter publicly, I am deeply grateful.

How does stuttering affect you as a professor?
I begin every class with an introduction that includes an explanation of my disability and a demonstration of my natural speech without the controls. I do this to ensure that my students will not be distracted on the days when, due to fatigue or sickness, I may not be able to hold the controls to the highest level. I have found that this builds trust with my students. It breaks through some of the barriers between teacher and student inherent in the college classroom. It tends to encourage more open and honest conversation, more trusted risk-taking in small/large group discussion, and a willingness to apply the big ideas of Humanities authors to their lives in concrete ways.

What has it inspired you to research/write about?
I never wanted to be the stutterer who plays music. I just wanted to be a musician. Similarly, I never wanted to be the stutterer who is a good teacher. I just wanted to be a good teacher. Now, in middle age, after having played and composed music from Carnegie Hall to Antarctica, I have come to reflect more on the relationship between my disability and my music. My fellowship with Kennedy Center supported this exploration.

Before I learned the control that I now use, music provided the only relief from the physical and emotional distress of stuttering. Music circumnavigates this disability in the human brain and has a measurable effect.  Stuttering silenced me, music gave me a voice. I have come to realize that this has driven much of my musical and scholarly work.

That is why my undergraduate thesis project focused on the music and stories of the forgotten elderly population in the former coal fields of Central Pennsylvania.

That is why my master’s research focused on new strategies to use student artwork to increase the effectiveness in health education in an orphanage on the coast of Ghana, West Africa.

That is why I seek the hidden voices in the silence of the ice. Sonifying (translating numerical data sets into melodies and harmonies) Antarctic data gives a new musical voice to the effects of climate change. I continue to enjoy peeling back the layers of understanding of how my stuttering molds and shapes my work. I am thankful for all the people that help me along this unfolding journey.

What are the biggest challenges stuttering has presented?
The daily fatigue of holding on to the controls.

What is your greatest accomplishment with regard to stuttering?
Every time I get through a speaking situation is an achievement, especially those high-profile situations where stress and pressure push back on the controls. If achievement is defined by holding the controls against various pressures and distractions, I guess the times when I have given public addresses and TEDx talks or negotiated in Italian or Spanish count among those times. If achievement means turning off the controls to reach out to children that struggle with any number of challenges, then I can count those times. If achievement means controlling my speech so I can share my love and devotion to my wife and children, especially when it’s difficult, then we can count those times. If achievement means composing music out of the desire to communicate those things that I couldn’t because of stuttering or those things that go beyond words, let’s count those times too.

Based upon your experiences, what would you like to tell children who stutter?
Saying that we can all overcome our disabilities and rise above the challenges is a cliché that doesn’t always offer much comfort. This trope, while well intentioned, all too easily glosses over the daily grind unique to every individual. It assumes that we overcome our disabilities as rugged individuals with some mystical inner strength innate to those with disabilities. It also ignores that fact that, disability or not, we succeed as part of the communities that nurture, support, and challenge us. I suggest that we place this aspirational story within the reality of our support communities. Find people that believe in you. Surround your inner drive to succeed with those people that cheer you on. Look for those people that will speak truth to you and those willing to walk with you on some part of your journey when the road is easy and when it is difficult.

Based upon your experiences, what would you tell parents of children who stutter?
My mother and her fellow educators demonstrated how adult leaders need to thoughtfully and, when necessary, forcefully advocate for stutterers who face the institutional misconceptions that limit their opportunities. There is nothing easy about this. Research-based understanding of stuttering has advanced since my elementary school days, but parents and teachers must be willing to find the point where accepted theories shift from helping most children in the aggregate to impeding an individual child whose experience may not align with the majority data. With all the pressures facing parents and educators alike, the heroic attention necessary to defend one child against the best-intentioned institutions can be more exhausting than a stuttering disability. I stand humbled in the memory of those who helped me.

What else should we know?
Every time I speak, half of my brain is thinking about the words I am saying, reading the response of those who are listening, and making the necessary adjustments to move my ideas forward. The other half of my brain is devoted to the continuous control of every muscle that makes those words. There are always two parallel thought paths in my head that remain dependent upon each other.  People who find themselves as separate from the mainstream, whether it be due to disability, race, gender, economic status, etc., carries two parallel paths in the minds and hearts. We go about the business of advancing our projects and ideas while at the same time monitoring/controlling the mechanics, the assumptions, and the barriers inherent to our particular challenge.  This is different from the occasional moments taken by every thoughtful human for self-examination. This is the minute-by-minute monitoring of every move that places one foot in front of the other, or in the case of a stutterer, one word in front of the other. We share this habit of living. We also relish those sweet times when something beautiful, like a piece of music, takes it away, even for a moment.

From the Summer 2018 Newsletter