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Singer Silenced by Stroke Regains Voice after Six Years

Tuesday 8 November, 2016

Singer Silenced by Stroke Regains Voice after Six Years Thanks to Special Choir

A gifted singer who was locked in silence for six years after suffering a stroke has found her voice again with the help of a special choir.

In her younger days Margaret Ryan graced the stage with the likes of Cleo Laine and Shirley Bassey and performed at the world famous Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London. However, a stroke 12 years ago robbed her of her treasured voice.


Above: Margaret Ryan performs on stage.

The stroke left Margaret, from Tauranga, unable to speak and for six years she endured the frustration of being unable to communicate properly with the outside world.

“When I first had aphasia (the language impairment caused by stroke) I couldn’t walk or talk,” says Margaret. “I couldn’t speak to anybody, it was terrible. I couldn’t communicate or make people understand. And I spent those first six years feeling that I couldn’t do anything about it.”

That was until six years ago when Margaret learned of the launch of The Brainwave Singers. The special choir uses singing to improve speech and communication in aphasia sufferers and to delay neurological conditions like Parkinson’s.

“I was feeling lost at first but I went every week and got better and better, learning how to communicate again,” says the former business owner and recording artist.


Above: Margaret Ryan practises with Robin Matthews for The Brainwave Singers.

Margaret’s is just one of many uplifting stories of a choir which celebrates its sixth anniversary this week.

“It’s physiotherapy of the voice; singing as therapy,” says the choir’s founder, Bay of Plenty District Health Board (BOPDHB) Speech and Language Therapist Robin Matthews.

“We know that singing makes us feel good, now science is discovering how singing can help people suffering from Parkinson's to Aphasia (stroke).”

Robin is currently working on a PHD on the effect of choral singing therapy on Parkinson’s.

“Singing uses different parts of the brain,’ he says. “To sing, you have to remember the tune and words, then fill your lungs with air, produce a voice and then coordinate your voice and breathing whilst singing the melody. For people with Parkinson’s, the coordination required helps produce a better, louder voice.

“For people who have had a stroke; research shows they can regain the ability to talk by learning to sing words they are unable to speak. If the brain’s language centres are damaged, neural plasticity – ‘rewiring’ the brain – may train the part of the brain responsible for singing to take over the speech functions.”

To celebrate the six-year anniversary a special song, ‘Never Say Never Again’, has been gifted by English singer/songwriter Charlie Stubbings to the choir. After hearing a recording of the choir singing his song for the first time, Charlie was moved to write to Robin.

“That song reaches a whole new level when you consider and understand the people who are singing it, it gains a powerful new meaning, a true message of hope and perseverance,” wrote Charlie. “It's the most moving thing I've heard in years.”

The Brainwave Singers, which is one of only four such choirs in the country, now has over 50 members but Robin is always looking for new people to join.

“You don’t have to be able to sing, that’s not the point,” he says. “Anyone who has a neurological condition such as Parkinson’s, stroke or brain injury can join. The group is hugely supportive of one another and therapeutically the experience is very uplifting.”

The choir’s story of hope and perseverance could not have become reality without the support of the BOPDHB says Robin.

“The BOPDHB’s part in all this cannot be overstated. Without its outstanding support and understanding of the project, what it has achieved would not have been possible.

“I know from discussions with Speech and Language Therapy and Music Therapy colleagues around the country that they do not enjoy the same level of support or the outward looking community approach in assisting the management of people with a neurological condition from their respective DHBs. The BOPDHB is way out in front.”

A video of the Brainwave Singers is available at (the singing begins at 4mins): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_4PxMh5mDo8

A video of an interview with Margaret Ryan is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4RMBLX3YSs

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