That's music to my ears
Leading the University of Newcastle Chamber Choir to a win in the keenly watched Battle of the Choirs national television series in 2008 had unexpected but welcome consequences for the choral group's director, Dr Philip Matthias.
Not only did it bring the choir well deserved acclaim, the win proved to be the catalyst for interesting research developments that the Senior Lecturer and founder of the University's Church Music Studies is now pursuing.
As an organist, composer and choral director, Matthias has performed in some of the world's most revered places of worship, including Westminster Abbey and St Paul's Cathedral in London and Notre Dame in Paris.
But one of his passions is developing a repertoire of liturgical music that is uniquely Australian. The surge of interest in choir singing that accompanied the Battle of the Choirs series has ignited Matthias' interest in seeing that dream come to fruition.
"Our choir has been part of this movement around the country that has seen lots of young people take up choral singing," he says.
"They are performing a lot of Australian music and developing a sound that we can really now identify as an Australian sound.
"I want to tap into that with liturgical music because most of our church music comes from America or England or other parts of Europe.
"I would love to see an Australian identity come through, including Indigenous music, by setting up a long-term project that links musicians, theologians and authors and creates the first all-Australian congregational songbook."
Matthias is behind a proposal to the Faculty of Education and Arts' Humanities Research Institute for program funding towards the formation of a centre for Australian choral and vocal research to promote study into choir music, both sacred and secular.
"What I want to do is build a cohort of postgraduate students embracing singers, conductors, arrangers, composers, music technologists and other artists who can collaborate on large-scale research projects with each other and with researchers from health and science disciplines including physiology and psychology," he says.
"A feature of the centre would be that it would promote research that crosses disciplines outside of music."
A research project underway, coincidentally also a spin-off of the Battle of the Choirs win, demonstrates just this style of interdisciplinary research, merging the fields of health and music.
It involves the formation of a choir for stroke survivors, an idea that was suggested to Matthias by the Hunter New England Health community stroke team in the wake of the chamber choir's successful run on the popular television show.
"Because speech and music are processed on different sides of the brain we are looking at how music may act as a form of speech therapy and perhaps help to rewire parts of the brain that have stopped working," Matthias explains.
The project has been adopted as a PhD study by Conservatorium music teacher and qualified speech therapist Bernadette Lennan, who will direct the choir and measure any changes in its members' speech function over a 12-week period.
While other studies have proved that choirs can be beneficial to the mental wellbeing of participants, this groundbreaking pilot project will explore whether choir singing can produce physical benefits as well, in this case by improving communication.
"What we hope to be able to do ultimately is secure enough funding to support this research with brain imaging technology that can more conclusively track any health benefits the stroke survivors derive from participating in the choir," Matthias says.