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Why 'Idol' contestant's stutter goes away when he sings

Even as millions tune in to the next round of auditions on “American Idol,” they aren’t likely to forget Lazaro Arbos, one of last week’s stand-out contestants whose voice visibly stunned the judges.

Arbos stuttered while introducing himself and the song he was set to sing, but once he broke into “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” the stammering was gone. The performance won him four “yes” votes from the panel and a spot in the next round in Hollywood. 

But it also left many people wondering why a person may stutter while speaking but not while singing. 

Speech pathologists say there is not yet a scientifically proven answer to that question, but there are likely a number of physiologic, genetic, environmental and social variables that play a role.

One plausible explanation, said Krzysztof Izdebski, chairman of the Pacific Voice and Speech Foundation in San Francisco, is that singing relies mostly on memory.

“When you speak, on the other hand, it’s more of a voluntary activity. There’s planning, thinking, reaction, et cetera. Singing requires different mechanisms,” he said. People who stutter may be unable to coordinate all the movements and processes involved in speech, he explained.

“The more automatic the speech is, the less someone is likely to stutter,” added Karin Wexler, an adjunct associate professor of speech and language pathology at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York.  “The same goes for reciting a poem.  There’s no real communication involved.”

After the stirring performance, “Idol” judges Keith Urban and Randy Jackson told Arbos that he should just “sing all the time.” But according to the Stuttering Project at the University of Iowa, while people who stutter may be able to sing stutter-free, singing will “rarely produce long-term fluency.”

Wexler also explained that speaking requires the voice box to work a lot more because there is repeated starting and stopping, unlike singing, which is a more continuous flow. 

“Getting the voice started can be a problem for someone who stutters,” she said. 

The enigmatic phenomenon could also be due to the differences in brain activity elicited by singing and speaking. Each is associated with a different part of the brain, and perhaps the musical signals get routed differently, according to Izdebski.

And it’s not just stammering that gets lost when some people break into song. Accents tend to disappear as well.

“Singing is never spontaneous.  People learn a song and will sing it as they heard it,” said Izdebski. 

In fact, speaking with a different accent actually seems to help some stutterers.

“If they are speaking in a different way from their ordinary way of speaking, they may become more fluent,” said Wexler.   

It’s too early to tell whether Arbos will win it all, but the Stuttering Foundation of America already considers him an American idol.

Said the foundation in a press release, “For his courage to speak and perform on one of the most-watched shows on television in America, Lazaro Arbos is already a winner to the stuttering community.” 

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Singer silences his stutter with song on 'American Idol'