Learning the Technique

Knowing what to do and having the technique immediately available are two different things. Having the technique available means you have practised it sufficiently. --- Martin Schwartz, Stop stuttering

The best way to learn the Passive Airflow Technique is to be instructed by a trained person in an intensive group workshop; by a speech therapist qualified to teach the method; or by experienced members within an airflow self-help group. Check out my introductory YouTube video demonstrating the technique which you can watch by clicking HERE.

Tools needed

The airflow from your mouth should be evaluated regularly to ensure that you’re doing it right. The following can be used to evaluate it:

  • The cheapest evaluation tool is a rubber tube, approximately 50 cm long and 1 cm in diameter, of the type which can usually be bought at a hardware shop or similar dealer. Cut the tube to a convenient length so that one open end fits into your ear while the other open end is held against your lips. You will hear the flow of air from your lips clearly enough to evaluate it.

  •  Even better is to use an old cassette recorder with a hand-held microphone – built-in microphones are inadequate. Cheaper microphones are more suitable than expensive ones for picking up the characteristic ‘flutter’ sound (see below) of the airflow. Headphones also come in handy for listening to and evaluating the flow whilst speaking and recording your speech.

  •  Other options are to use the sound recorder of your cell phone, or other digital recorders.

The basics

A basic learning session begins with theoretical discussions of stuttering, stress, the vocal cords, scanning, distraction behaviour, avoidances and airflow; followed by practical learning of the technique and exercises.

 The instructor begins by demonstrating the airflow. Initially she uses it to demonstrate that it sounds quite normal speaking this way. Then she intentionally exaggerates the airflow, demonstrating how it should NOT be done. All this is recorded and played back so that everybody can listen to the correct technique.

Demonstrating the ‘flutter’

Subsequently the focus is on the quality of the airflow. Note that a particular type of passive airflow is required. Beware of merely blowing – the flow should not be pushed nor forced. When the correct type of airflow is produced through the rubber tube or recorded on tape, a characteristic sound called ‘flutter’ can be heard. An airflow that doesn’t produce the flutter effect may not open the vocal cords adequately.

Demonstrating the slowed first syllables

The next step is to demonstrate a few airflowed sentences, also slowing the first syllables (see the previous chapter for more information on slowed syllables). A recorded version of ‘The man hit the dog’ will sound like this: ‘(Flutter) The (brief pause) man hit the dog.’

A sentence starting with a multi-syllabic word will sound like this: ‘(Flutter) Ac-tual-ly, I don’t know.’

Demonstrating the intent to rest

 Subsequently the instructor explains and demonstrates the ‘intent to rest’ (see the previous chapter), which should accompany the passive flow of air through the lips.

 Try it yourself!

Attendees now get the opportunity to try it for themselves. Each sentence is recorded and played back so that they can hear if the flutter is passive enough and if the first syllables have been slowed. A pushed flutter indicates that the attendee was not intent on relaxing. Attendees try out the new technique until the instructor feels that they have mastered the basic concept.

Initially, speaking with airflow may produce a somewhat long airflow. As the airflow speaker improves his technique his flows should shorten.

During these exercises the following concepts are emphasised:

Pre-forming is one of the easiest mistakes made by novices. The airflow preceding each sentence has to be particularly passive, ie it has to ‘drift’ across the lips, virtually ‘evaporating’. When this little current of air flows from the mouth, THE MOUTH MUST BE IN A RELAXED AND NEUTRAL POSITION AND NOT MOVE. If the mouth, lips and tongue are not in relaxed positions and move, it indicates that the sound is being anticipated. Instead of ‘thinking rest’, you are thinking of the (feared!) sound. The result may be contraction of the vocal cords and stuttering. This anticipation is known as pre-forming.

By watching your mouth and lips in a mirror when you practise the technique, you will be able to see if your mouth is relaxed. Moreover you can check in the mirror whether your application of the technique looks natural. (It’s a good idea to have mirrors in those places where you often experience difficulties, for example against the wall behind the telephone. You will be able to watch yourself as you speak and also notice any secondary stuttering behaviour such as facial contortions.)

 Reapplication. In highly stressful situations you may need to apply the technique more than just at the beginning of a sentence. It may also be necessary to use it within a sentence and even within a multi-syllabic word. The attendee must practise applying the technique at the beginning and in the middle of sentences – preferably during a natural pause within the sentence.

Natural transition from flow to sound. The transition from airflow to sound production must be smooth and flowing. Take care not to end the flow just before saying the word, as it gives the vocal cords a chance to contract. The sound must 'grow' naturally from the flow.

Prof Schwartz illustrates the correct usage of airflow with a motion of the hand: a vertical downward movement suggests the airflow; a smooth turning movement in a horizontal direction suggests the ensuing speech.

Home exercises 

The purpose of home exercises is to establish airflow as a habit, so that it becomes second nature. This requires time and energy. Those who are serious about mastering the technique are advised not to take on any new hobbies for some time. Mastering the airflow way of speaking demands daily practice – ideally for at least one hour per day.

Practising the technique should itself become habit. Airflow speakers could set aside a specific time for their daily practices, for example immediately after breakfast, 15 minutes before commencing work at the office, during lunch hour, etc.

Schwartz advises making the daily practices as much a part of your routine as brushing your teeth. On a subconscious level we tend to take brushing our teeth for granted, to the extent that failure to do so in the morning feels ‘strange’. In the same way even the experienced airflow speaker should prepare himself each morning for the day’s speaking requirements by practising for about 5 minutes.

Initially it is not recommended that you attempt to do your daily exercises in one go. Rather spread them over two or even three sessions per day. The concentration demanded can be exhausting. Forcing yourself to persevere regardless of how you feel serves no purpose. Rather stop, and continue when you feel up to it. Quality is more important than quantity – but quantity is also important.

During this stage the ideal would be to keep in touch with a therapist or support group, since it’s very easy to practise incorrectly and acquire bad airflow habits. Doing an exercise wrongly, for example by unconsciously forcing the flow, is simply a waste of time.

The following exercises should be incorporated into a daily exercise programme, and should preferably also be part of a self-help group agenda:

Comparison exercise (two minutes). This exercises the quality (passivity!) of the airflow. The airflow speaker sits comfortably in a chair, holds his microphone almost against his mouth and breathes easily through his lips without speaking. He tries to ‘think rest’ whilst flowing out, to keep his mouth and tongue in a neutral position and to obtain the most passive, relaxed and smooth flow possible. Afterwards he listens to the flutter on the recording. It should sound passive and unforced.

He now repeats the exercise, this time saying a word (any word) during the airflow. Subsequently the two recordings are compared. The flutter in the first recording will probably be more relaxed – no pre-forming was possible. The purpose of this exercise is to get the second recording to sound as passive as the first.

The comparison exercise is an important and very basic exercise and an excellent way to begin the day’s practices.

Reading exercise (twenty minutes, preferably divided into two ten-minute sessions). The reading exercise is a way of reinforcing the airflow habit into one’s subconscious. Take a magazine or newspaper and mark every fourth word in the text with a pencil, so dividing the text into sections of four words each. Now read it aloud and apply the technique at every pencil mark. Record one minute of this exercise for evaluation.

During playback, listen critically: Was the flow passive? Did you slow the first syllables?

Description exercise (twenty minutes, preferably divided into two sessions of ten minutes each). With this exercise, the airflow speaker learns how to combine the application of the technique with the formulation of his thoughts during free conversation. Using the technique, he describes something or somebody aloud. Short sentences are best. He could, for example, turn the sound of the television down and describe what he sees on the screen. He uses the technique at the beginning of every sentence, and also within the sentence if required. Again he records one minute for evaluation. As he gradually masters the reading exercise, the description exercise should increase in importance.

Relaxation exercise (twenty minutes. See the chapter ‘Stress Management’).

Practising the intent to rest

PRACTISE the intent to rest by sitting in a comfortable chair and relaxing your entire body and mind while you allow the air to flow passively from your mouth. Empty your head of all thoughts as the air flows.

Variations to counter monotony

Try to keep the exercises from becoming monotonous. The description exercise can, for example, be interchanged with two other exercises, ie the alphabet and interview exercises:

Alphabet exercise. The airflow speaker generates short sentences, each starting with the next letter of the alphabet, eg ‘Adam was the first man’, ‘Babies cry a lot’, ‘Chrome is a metal’, etc.

During self-help group meetings (see the ‘Maintenance’ chapter), alphabet exercises will have a slightly different format. Person A thinks of a word that begins with an ‘a’ and says it aloud. Person B on his left applies the technique to make a sentence starting with that word, then thinks of a word that begins with a ‘b’. And so they continue, one after the other. This is a valuable exercise for countering avoidance.

Interview exercise. The airflow speaker uses the technique to ask, and then answer his own questions.

‘Nickel and dime’ exercise. Every day has its empty moments: when you bath, wait in the traffic, etc. Such moments are perfect for practising a few perfect airflow sentences. Be critical – be on your guard for pre-forming, etc. Look in the mirror, if needs be, to prevent pre-forming.

These exercises can be combined with positive self-motivation by saying airflowed sentences such as the following by means of the technique: ‘I’m improving my technique’, ‘The technique is improving my speech’, ‘When I use the technique I speak much better’. (Try to start each sentence with a new sound so that you can practise all the sounds.)

‘Nickel and dime’ exercises don’t always have to be done aloud. You can merely let the air escape and move your mouth, tongue, etc AS IF you are saying the words. Don’t forget the ‘intent to rest’. A businessman due to deliver a speech within minutes can benefit from these exercises by using that time to sit with his hand in front of his mouth, quietly practising the sentences (and technique!) he is about to say. To others it will look as if he is just thinking. Prepare for all new situations by first doing similar concealed nickel and dime exercises.

Mass exercise. These exercises eliminate word fear – feared words or sounds. Make a list of your most problematic words and practise them all the time, using the technique. Use a dictionary if the b-sound, for example, poses great problems. Turn to the pages listing the words beginning with ‘b’ and read one new page every day. Ensure that you make full use of the technique with every word, and include the ‘intent to rest’ component.

Special reading exercise to counter preforming. The aim of this special exercise is to prevent pre-forming. Read only the first four words on every page of a magazine/book. Don’t look at the words too long before reading them (pre-forming is only possible if you anticipate the words that have to be said). Inhale slightly, let some air flow out as you ‘think rest’, quickly glance at the words and start your reading by slowing down the first syllable. Then turn to the next page.

The power of conditioning and association
Try doing the exercises in different rooms. In this way one learns to apply the technique in different places. Association and conditioning play an important role in speech therapy. If you do your exercises in the same place for six months, your speech may ultimately be quite good when speaking in that particular room, but not elsewhere.

Airflow speakers can use this association factor to their advantage. A child who experiences particular problems with class reading, could practise after school in the classroom. His subconscious will gradually begin to associate the room with the airflow technique, making it much easier to apply the technique successfully when he eventually has to read aloud in class. The same applies to students, lecturers, preachers, office workers and others who usually have to do their talking in a specific room or hall. Follow the rule of trying to exercise in the place where most of your problems occur.

Don't run before you can walk!

The above exercises will help you to acquire a thorough and basic understanding of the Passive Airflow Technique in a relaxed and controlled environment such as your room. The next step would be to apply the technique in actual conversations with others. This application is discussed in the next chapter.

Remember: you can’t run before you know how to crawl! Don’t try to use the airflow technique in the presence of others if you can’t use it alone in your own room – in actual stress situations your conditioned stuttering reflexes will simply take over and you will stutter ... and become discouraged. If there is the slightest imperfection in technique, any stress will exaggerate it, which may lead to stuttering.

A question you may ask yourself is: will you have to apply the technique all the time for the rest of your life? As was mentioned in the previous chapter, using the technique depends on the amount of stress experienced in a particular situation. Consequently one will use all the components of the technique in highly stressful situations, whereas it won’t be necessary to do so in relaxed situations.

However, this rule does not apply to airflow beginners. They should focus on making the technique a well-established habit, and to do that will require that they always try to make full use of the technique for at least the first six months, even if they do not need it.

I personally find that if I make frequent use of the technique when I don’t need it, I’m that much better at using it when I do need it. This is the case even after many years of airflowing.

To conclude: Remember that fluency is not necessarily an indication that the technique is being applied correctly! Fluency could be due to low base-level tension. Someone practising at home may be fluent because of low base-level tension rather than a good technique. You need an external measure to determine whether you are using the technique properly – the cassette recorder or rubber tube will always indicate whether you are using the technique correctly or not.



Mesut said...

Thanks for the information Peter! The passive airflow technique is the only technique that speaks to me. I have tried many things like valsalva control etc... all with short success. I am definitely sure that this technique will work, that's why i practice it alot

Mayank said...

I had read about this technique back 3-4 years back but did not continued with it. Perhaps I was practicing it in the wrong manner. This article of yours have given me a hint of correct technique. Hoping that this will help me solve my speech problem.

Alecs said...

Hello friends,

Has the airflow technique worked for you on the long therm ?

I am learning now the technique and it works good so fare. I am concern about the stress situations and if on the long therm it works. I've used different techniques that helped, for the moment (1-2 months) and then I came back to normal even i was still using the specific technique. I guess the brain learns our moves :)

Peter Louw said...

Alecs, I have used the technique for nearly 35 years. It works, but it has to be combined with stress management. If stress is too high, it won't be enough.