Story by Matt Rea | Photos by John Ulan
As a young woman who lived with a severe stutter, Anna Schwartz turned to music to express herself. ISTAR helped her find fluency beyond the piano
At the piano, Anna Schwartz doesn’t stutter. Sitting by the window in her Winnipeg home, her fingers dance across the keys, filling the air with Tchaikovsky. She’s playing August: Harvest, a piece she learned more than 20 years ago as a teenager auditioning for admission to the Ufa College of Fine Arts in Russia. The music, a mix of abrupt staccato and smooth legato, describes the harvest scene in ways that, for many years, Anna’s words never could: the urgency of peasant farmers, the rattling of carts, the smell of tall rye.
As a child in Ufa, Anna practised piano for six hours a day, working toward her dream of becoming a concert pianist. Where many children resist practising, Anna did so happily: living with a severe stutter, she was more comfortable expressing herself through music than speech. When she spoke, she stumbled over individual words, struggled to get through sentences and strained to add emphasis and inflection to what she was saying.
“I was always the one who people [had to] speak for,” Anna says, seated at the piano stool. Her stutter is now barely noticeable.
“We use our speech to show what we feel, to show what we mean,” she says. “When I stutter, I’m not able to show the emotion behind what I’m saying. I might have a particular message in mind but it comes out very different because I’m not showing the intonation when I’m struggling through the words.”
Things got more complicated when Anna, along with her sister and mother, moved to Canada. The normal challenges of high school were compounded by multiple barriers to communication. Not only did her classmates speak a different language, but Anna’s stutter grew so severe she could barely utter a word.
“It was horrible,” she says. “I couldn’t understand what was going on. That whole first year I basically couldn’t speak at all. It was very hard to make friends.”
Again, music helped her cope. A teacher discovered her talent at the piano and invited her to be the choir accompanist. For Anna, a girl who normally ate lunch alone, choir rehearsals were a welcome diversion.
In 1997, when Anna was 18, a friend who also stuttered told her about the Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. Since 1986, ISTAR has helped close to 3,000 clients improve their speech.
ISTAR was the answer, but it was in Edmonton, and Anna’s family in Winnipeg had very little money. Support from ISTAR’s FAST Fund and from Winnipeg’s Jewish Child and Family Service allowed Anna to fly to Edmonton and attend a four-week intensive clinic.
She began therapy at ISTAR that summer and caught on quickly. The treatment required constant practice and discipline, both of which Anna excelled at because of her music training. She seized any opportunity to work on the fluency methods she learned at ISTAR, such as controlling her breathing or pacing her articulation. “I would go out on the street and just practise, talking to strangers.”
After ISTAR, life changed for Anna. She became more confident in her speech and more capable in social situations. She graduated from high school and university. Inspired by the impact ISTAR and its therapists had on her life, she chose to pursue a career helping others. She is now enrolled in medical school and has six children.
“Before, when I stuttered, it felt like I was in a cage. ISTAR helped me to get out of the cage,” she says. “ISTAR allowed me to dream.”
Anna is still deeply connected to music — all of her children play and there is a music room in their home (above) — but it’s no longer the only way she expresses herself. She connects with others and shows her emotions through speech. That’s something she never dreamed of doing.
ISTAR helps people conquer their speaking difficulties and lead successful lives. The institute has earned a global reputation for its transformative impact as both a research and treatment facility, thanks in part to the generous support of donors including the Alberta Elks Foundation/Elks & Royal Purple Lodges, the Elks & Royal Purple Fund for Children and the Boberg family.
To learn more about how to support ISTAR, contact John Voyer at 780-248-5781 or email@example.com