Getting to know Bernadette Matthias

This week on Engage we’re catching up with Bernadette Matthias, Director of the BrainWaves Choir. The choir, which is made up people who have survived a stroke and their partners or carers, began as the basis of Bernadette’s research into stroke recovery, and is now one of the Conservatorium of Music’s Community Choirs.

Tell us about your background, including what drew you into speech pathology?

Born and raised in East Maitland, the youngest of seven and part of a fine family that was always central to my life. I enjoyed school very much and ended up with good results across a range of subjects so never knew exactly which way to go! I always loved music and dreamed of singing in musical theatre but figured I needed to “get something behind me”! I loved to write but also was attracted to helping people and so Speech Pathology was introduced to me at the UoN Open Day when I was still in high school and ended up switching it to the top of my preferences at the last minute (Communications moved to second).

Speech Pathology just seemed to be such a diverse course with so many facets and opportunities that I was sure I would find somewhere to fit in. Despite my love of music I quickly dismissed a music degree as I thought I didn’t need it to be a singer, and wasn’t really interested in teaching. (Ironically, I have dedicated more time to teaching singing at the Con than to SP – and wishing I had a Bachelor of Music!!). I moved out of home a few years after Uni  (around 2003 or 4) to live in Cooks Hill and then a few years later, moved just around the corner to Laman St to live with my twin sister.

You’re researching the impact of choral singing on stroke recovery, as well as conducting the Brainwaves Choir. Can you tell us a little about how that opportunity came about?

BrainWaves is a choir for people who have survived a stroke, and their partners or carers. It was started as an initiative of Hunter New England Health’s Community Stroke Team and I was invited to conduct the group because of my mixture of backgrounds in music and Speech. After struggles to get funding to start the choir, it was suggested that a PhD student could perhaps base some research around the group and apply for a scholarship to support this. Thus began my PhD research project into choral singing and stroke recovery. The research was supported by the National Stroke Foundation and my study is based at HMRI.

While the data analysis and thesis preparation continues, the research phase concluded in August 2013. Since then there has been no means by which to continue the choir, however the University’s Conservatorium of Music, with the support of Ms Jennie Thomas, offered to fund the choir for a 12 month trial period and so it is up and running again, as part of the Con’s Community Music Program, rehearsing each Saturday of the school term, and free for stroke survivors to take part.

What’s been the most unexpected aspect of your work so far?

While I was aware of the reported benefits for people with stroke and aphasia (communication impairment, which occurs in 1/3 of all strokes), to witness it first hand was exciting and inspiring. To meet so many people and hear their amazing stories – many quite devastating – and then witness their resolve and passion to move forward and learn more, and try new things, was in some ways unexpected, and continually rewarding.

So many choir members have difficulty speaking and yet they were still willing to try singing and “do their bit” for medical research. So in addition to the individual stories – one man with aphasia singing karaoke with family over the weekend, another lady feeling more confident since the choir and so making a successful job application, another daughter reporting how much her mother’s speech seems to have continued to improve after the choir ceased – one of the most unexpected things was perhaps to turn up on Week One of the Con BrainWaves rehearsals, to a stage of 20 singers. Not there for a research project or for official therapy but just because they wanted to sing.

Do you draw on any people or resources for inspiration?

Leon Moore, original conductor of the Stroke-a-Chord choir from Melbourne was instrumental in helping me to get the repertoire and format together for the BrainWaves project, and so very generous with his ideas and passionate about their cause. Similarly Bronwyn Jones, Speech Pathologist, of Stroke-a-Chord has been always willing to share where they have been and how we might learn from the same.

In terms of my research, the work of Michael Thaut and Aniruddh Patel on neuroplasticity and the damaged brain’s ability to change and restore itself is fascinating and central to my work. This is specifically put into practice at the University of Montreal where Isabelle Peretz and colleagues have made significant discoveries regarding singing and speaking for people with aphasia.

Finally, I am always inspired by the work of my own supervisor Linda Worrall of the University of Queensland as well as US researcher Nina Simmons-Mackie who for many years now have been tirelessly advocating for an approach to aphasia treatment which focuses not only on the impairment but on the person and their place in the world; the way a stroke effects the whole lived experience of the individual stroke survivor and their family.

What are you passionate about?

Sometimes one gets so caught up “doing what you’re doing” that you don’t often stop to think “am I doing what I’m passionate about?” – but I certainly am. In a broad sense I have always been passionate about helping others and the more I learn about groups in the community that have no voice, particularly the elderly and isolated, I am stirred to do something to assist.

The more I learn about stroke, the more I am aware of what a common yet hidden condition it is. Stroke is the second leading cause of death in this country, yet with improvements in medical treatments an increasing number of people are surviving their stroke, often to end up quite isolated and depressed adjusting to an astonishing and sudden change to their life. One stroke occurs approximately every ten minutes, and so many are preventable when we consider the main risk factors. So I have become passionate about spreading the word on stroke awareness and primary prevention but perhaps even more so, I am passionate about recovery.

There was time when we believed stroke recovery had to happen in the first 6 months post incident but while this is a prime time for improvement to occur, it is not the end of the story. An enriched environment in the rehab phase can stimulate crucial brain activity and even years after a stroke, the brain can adapt and change. There are exciting advances in treatment of stroke emerging every day, but it is important for those who missed out on these treatments to know that there are still ways forward; that they have a brain that can rewire and rejuvenate with the right stimulation, and a better quality of life available.

What do you hope will be achieved by what you are doing?

In the broadest sense, I hope a wide group of people in the community who have survived a stroke might get to enjoy the adventure of singing in a choir and benefit from the vast array of positives it can provide. I hope my research can quantify these benefits – to speech and communication, mood and well-being and socialization, so that singing for stroke survivors might be considered not a novelty but a sound therapeutic option for the recovering stroke survivor, supported by state and federal health funding.

What would be your dream project?

Again, being so engrossed in what I’m doing, I’ve not really had a chance to think beyond this one! But since you’ve asked… perhaps some way of mixing the power of music, singing and stroke recovery with members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population would be a worthwhile and rewarding project.

It is shameful how much lower the standard of health is for indigenous Australians compared with non-indigenous, and in a country which has so much wealth and skill. The incidence of cardiovascular disease and stroke is more than twice as high as non-indigenous Australians and yet many do not utilise speech pathology and other rehab services, so to do something to assist this situation would be very powerful. Perhaps in a culture where music is so integral to life, group singing may provide an alternative treatment to traditional care.

My husband (UON’s Dr Philip Matthias) is at present working with music of the Torres Strait Islands and I have had the privilege of being involved with the same. Using music to bridge the divides of culture and health and so improve both our own learning and the wellbeing of indigenous stroke survivors, would be an exciting and powerful project to get off the ground.

What’s been your proudest achievement to date?

That’s a tough one! Of course I am proud of the achievements that all the BrainWaves singers have made so far. Every time they get up on a stage to sing, I am proud to have something to do with this, but I am also ever mindful that I was just one pair of many hands that made this happen and the singers should own this pride most of all.

I can’t help adding that as a singer myself, one thing came to mind. As a member of Echology (The University of Newcastle’s Chamber Choir) I have enjoyed singing through the recent phase of travel and competitions that have seen us claim numerous awards locally and internationally. This all began (at least for my part) with the TV show Battle of the Choirs. Winning this (when I was mentally preparing for second place!) was astounding – assisted by all the glitter and lights I suppose! We (along with Philip) had moved through a great transition in style and many challenges, so to come through it all and top the nation was a very proud occasion that is still hard to beat.

140708 Echology


What’s your favourite Newcastle neighbourhood and why?

I love Cooks Hill. I lived there for many years and working at the Con, it has been a home both professionally and socially. Despite ever changing, it still manages to keep its staples of eating and shopping in conjunction with a community that remains – most of the time! – small town and friendly. There’s some great places to eat and wander and yet it’s still so small in many ways so it doesn’t mean an epic day out! There’s always a good balance of comfortable and refreshing!

Can you name a local hero?

You may cringe at this but I’m going to say my husband, Philip Matthias! He DID come into my head first and despite fishing around for another answer (!) I kept coming back to him! Again, I joined the UoN Chamber Choir not long before Battle of the Choirs and so witnessed an amazing journey through competition after competition and continuing success. I’ve also as colleague at the Con witnessed some of Philip’s work in other realms of undergrad and postgraduate teaching. He is an immensely talented musician and composer and the things he achieves with Echology – a diverse mix of students and community members – are amazing, helping them to achieve the greatest heights. Ever ‘half-full’, he always manages to maintain his cool and humour despite being extremely busy and always aims for goals bigger than the average person would think were achievable, for himself and for his students. This is the very reason he has climbed so high, bringing great success and acclaim to the University and great pride to Newcastle.

What do you look forward to doing most in Newcastle in summer? 

I think I’ll be writing a thesis actually… so can I say finishing it?!! …I look forward to day light-saving returning and walking slowly along the East End coastline late in the day. I also look forward to some lazy afternoons in the cooler part of the day, and dining out the back of our home with friends and family, with the kids laughing and splashing about in the pool for hours and hours.

And winter?

Sleeping in when there’s a chance! Going to the drive-in before it gets TOO cold… And then it comes back to food again: enjoying long slow dinners at my Dad’s, with the fire blazing and the menu warm and hearty. Accompanied by a decent drop of red of course.

Where and what was the last greatest meal you had in Newcastle?

It would have to be at Delucas on Darby St – my favourite! Warm, marinated olives, salt and pepper squid, mushroom and spinach risotto with chicken. I couldn’t fit it in this time, but if possible, I’d have had the Tiramisu as well! Great atmosphere & lighting, awesome music, exquisite food. And a beautiful owner!

Best place to getaway to?

I don’t get away! Blue Mountains are beautiful in the Winter… Hawkesbury is a goal for the Spring/Summer…and basically anywhere that’s clean and quiet and moves slower than here.

Your #1 Newcastle insiders tip?

The Press. Gorgeous little café and secondhand bookshop at the bottom of Auckland St, on Hunter St. Wonderful books, cosy and creative décor, warm and cheery staff, fantastic real chai tea (hard to find) and salted caramel tarts to die for! Check it out!


If you are interested in finding out more about the BrainWaves stroke survivors choir, contact the Conservatorium of Music on 4921 8900.


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One Response

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  1. David roskell
    Sep 11, 2014 - 03:10 PM

    As a member of the choir since it’s inception it has been an absolute pleasure to be conducted by Bernadette and she deserves everything good that life has to offer


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