Breaking Bad… Habits

What are your bad habits? You know you’ve got them and you’ve either struggled with or learned to ignore them (if you don’t think you have any, you don’t have a friend good enough to tell you the truth).

They say it’s always good to be transparent about one’s own struggles. So I thought you’d find it helpful if I confessed what a qualified voice and speech coach can struggle with. It was highlighted to me again on a recent holiday to South Africa where I met up with a friend of 25 years, who had obviously hitherto been exposed to no Irish people in the flesh. Or at least none that she could feel confident about insulting! Sorry, teasing.

The problem arose when Lynda* gave birth to her second son and called him Thomas. I may have to use some mis-spellings here to transform what was spoken into the written word. As one does on these occasions, I visited with a gift and I called him ‘Thomas’. Not Tomas, Th-omas. “Thh-omas?”, she exclaimed, “Thh-omas?” And then she metaphorically rolled around the floor laughing grasping her already flat stomach to her. Her husband chuckled politely or sympathetically, I’ll never know.

I struggled over the rest of my time living in South Africa to call him Tomas and then we emigrated, escaping the woman who could string together a sentence entirely composed of all my mispronunciations which included, according to her, the French capital ‘Paw-ris’ and nut ‘Aw-mond’.  Let it be known that up to that point, I had only ever been complimented on my beautiful Irish accident, I mean accent, and had qualified as a Speech and Drama Teacher to boot.

Sadly, this ‘speech impediment’ travelled with me as I start working with young people full-time, some of which were called ‘Tomas’. There was even a ‘Teo’, fortunately, with no mother in sight and the good manners to softly say, “It’s Theo, Miss”! There was even a real boy called Tomas whose name was actually spelt that way. I was sure saying his name helped me to pronounce all other Thomases names correctly.

It didn’t. When I met up with my friend again after 8 years, I reverted to Thh-omas full force. We were even out to dinner one evening and I talked about that Asian country, Thh-ailand! I was horrified with myself. Lynda was delighted with the power she wielded over my speech. I had to get to the bottom of this. Why was it happening?

As it happens, the problem was simple. I recalled that my father, who had moved from the West of Ireland to the South-East when he was 13. Perhaps he was teased about his accent but I don’t think he liked to local accent either. And so when he met and married my mother much later, he must have been determined to raise children who could speak ‘properly’. Every infringement of good pronunciation was corrected. I particularly remember the word ‘butter’ as the local accent would render it ‘buther’. We were sent for elocution lessons. And we grew up on Thomas Street. That was it! In my head it was always Th-omas Street, because dropping the ‘h’ in ‘th’ was reflective of the local accent (I find it amusing when I go on to the Facebook page for my home town there are post referring to ‘de town’ because that how many locals actually speak!)

Now that I know what the problem is one would hope that I have turned to solving it. I have. I call my friend’s son, Tom, like all his friends do. I wish I had started sooner.

On a more serious note, I do find that because I recognise the source and the association, I have no problem calling the names Thomas or Theo. I realise that dropping the ‘h’ in ‘Th’ is not always wrong and not always right. I actually visualise Thomas without the ‘h’ now because that works and I’m a strongly visual learner.

The work I do is all about breaking bad habits. Patsy Rodenburg** once said, “There’s no such thing as a bad voice, just a voice with blocks in it.” The beauty of what we do as voice and speech coaches is to quickly recognise the blocks and then spend wonderful hours coaching the student/client through a series of positive techniques that help the person holistically. As time passes the techniques becomes embedded, the bad habits, or blocks, disappear without the student even remembering how they ‘did that thing’. It’s magical and so rewarding. If you need help in this area, please get in touch for a no-obligations interview.

*Lynda Clegg is a change management consultant in South Africa and a dear friend. She has given me permission to use her name and was off-duty when conducting this friendship. Otherwise I might have changed sooner!

** Patsy Rodenburg, OBE is a British voice coach, author, and theatre director. She is the Head of Voice at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. The quote is from a workshop I attended in South Africa.

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