The Singer’s Library: : Matters of the Heart

The Singer’s Library: : Matters of the Heart

Voice teachers often use questions to help students self-assess their singing, such as “Is your jaw released?” or “How well did you engage the appoggio?” But some questions may draw a blank stare, like “Are you open enough in the crown chakra for your high notes?” or “Are you using the firmer earth element where the air element should be?”
Author Agatha Carubia addresses these very questions in her new book that outlines the foundation of her Heart-Based Singing method. Connecting singing techniques to philosophies discovered by practicing yoga, the book spells out the principles she uses in her voice studio, in workshops, and in a Heart-Based Singing teacher training program.

Can you give a brief overview of the Heart-Based Singing method?
The Heart-Based Singing method utilizes the energetic structure of the chakra system as an energetic overlay for your singing. Each level of your physical body is associated with a certain element in the yoga I learned. For instance, the root chakra, at your perineum, is connected to the earth. So, each breath you take is as if Mother Earth is pulling a breath in from underneath you, through your mouth (think hypodermic needle, pulling in the serum). It achieves the same breath as I was taught to use in Bel Canto. My diaphragm falls, my ribs open, I feel the length of my air column along the front of my spine.

I joke with my singers that Mother Earth is so big that she will still be inhaling by the time their lesson is over! So, they connect to her pull, and the inhalation happens and is felt even throughout the exhalation. In this way, your breathing is always released, wide, and achieving the environment for the appoggio—the “lean.”

The second chakra has the element of water. It moves forward and becomes the river of energy in which we find the legato and our musical line. And so on. It is actually fun.

In the preface to the book you call yourself “a classical vocal-technique teacher with a yogic bent.” To practice Heart-Based Singing, is it necessary to practice yoga as well?
You do not have to be a yogi to practice Heart-Based Singing. However, opening your ribs on a regular basis, massaging your inner organs by twists, and gaining flexibility of your spine is great for singers. When hatha yoga is done effectively, each movement in the flow is on the breath and fueled by the breath. I am a believer in this, and not just for singers.

How does the “yogic bent” play out in the studio? Do you do actual yoga exercises in lessons (I envision yoga mats next to the piano!) or is it more of a focus on the principles that both yoga and singing share?
I have experimented with many yoga postures (asanas) while singing and teaching singing. I have come to a place where I use only the postures that help me teach on a day-to-day basis. So, yes, there is always a yoga mat in my studio!

When I cannot unlock the knot at a singer’s diaphragm right under the heart by any other means, the most helpful thing is to get them into a cobra pose (Bhujangasana) on the floor. It pulls open the whole area of the epigastrium and makes space there. I have the singers sing in that pose until they understand where they were holding. When a singer experiences freedom, it is not hard for them to remember the sensations. And they always have that pose to go back to on their own.

You write about how yoga helped you develop an awareness of the energy centers in your body, which tie into the areas of awareness we use as singers. Is it difficult for singers who don’t practice yoga to develop an awareness of these energy centers?
It is not difficult for singers to develop awareness of the energy in their bodies once they are told about it. At first, when working with energy, it can feel as though you are “making believe” or really stretching the imagination. But then it becomes the most natural thing in the world.

Heart-Based Singing accomplishes this connection. It is the connection to this awareness. You know, the bottom line is that as soon as you center yourself and stop your wild engagement with all of life’s distractions—talking, talking, talking—you begin to feel your subtle body more readily. Your life gets into balance, then your singing gets into balance.

You describe yourself as a teacher of classical vocal technique who believes that classical technique is the best background for all styles of singing. Do the Heart-Based Singing techniques apply equally well to other styles of singing?
This is the beauty of Heart-Based Singing and why I know it will help everyone, especially new voice teachers . . . When I moved from New York to Santa Barbara, I wanted to teach voice for a living. One day a woman called me who had been referred to me for lessons. She was a country singer. I told her that I never had taught a country singer and that I really was not sure what I would do with her. She insisted that if I studied opera, that I could give her a lesson and that she really needed one. So I agreed.

She came in and blew my mind. She was thirsty for scales, arpeggios, vowel progressions, and my ear. She used what seemed to be the same kind of singing technique that I was basically taught at Juilliard. I was able to give this singer the balance she needed to get her back into her body. That was a huge gift to me. This gave me the conviction that classical vocal technique was for everyone. It is a foundational technique as ballet is for modern and other forms of dance.

I have never turned away anyone who has come to me fearing that I could not help them. I always found a way through Heart-Based Singing.

One student of mine has achieved great fame. When Katy Hudson—who we all know as Katy Perry—came to me, she was having some difficulties in the middle of her voice. I taught her how to open her ribs, find the spaciousness in her throat, and to allow the air to flow without locking up. I would vocalize her fully, and we learned “Caro mio ben” to work on her upper passaggio. I gave her the same breathing as I gave to a contemporary of hers in the studio—my son, Evan Hughes, a bass-baritone who is having a beautiful career in opera.

On the Heart-Based Singing website (, you offer workshops and private lessons, both in person and over Skype. Do you feel this instruction is necessary to really understand the HBS method and to put it into practice or is the book sufficient for most singers?
The book was meant to reach beyond my private teaching. I believe it will open up another way of looking at your voice. If you are well established in your singing and free, it should enhance your experience and give it perspective. Hopefully, it will make singing easier and more fun. If you are struggling, my hope is that the book helps you. That is why I was sure to include “signs of improper approach and ways of alleviating these problems.”

That being said, I am poised to extend my workshops to where there is demand. I frequent New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Portland. I am happy to help anyone who is interested in what I am offering. Skype is a good tool since traveling is very expensive. Currently and for the last 10 years, the workshops have been in Santa Barbara and on the Big Island of Hawaii. They are very informal and fun, although we work intensely.

I am [also] excited about the mentoring program I have established for young teachers. Teaching them to recognize the quality of energy in the body gives teachers a new way of diagnosing and understanding where any imbalance is happening.

Do some of the concepts discussed in the book—like chakras, the third eye, universal energy, etc.—ever meet with resistance as being too esoteric or intangible for “serious” vocal study?
Not when they work! I think a huge portion of our population is now interested in one form of yoga or another. Our awareness is growing. These ideas are almost commonplace, at least in California.

Do you feel the HBS method is a logical “next step” for singers, offering perspectives that connect to previous vocal study, or do you feel the book provides new information that is significantly outside the mainstream of vocal instruction?
I actually feel that it is both. HBS is a very logical and fun new look at singing. However, it does not interfere with or confuse an already established technique. It enhances a good technique and corrects common misunderstandings in faulty techniques. And it is for everyone.

Book Review

Vocal pedagogy books that advocate a specific methodology have a tendency to display certain tiresome characteristics. Lengthy accounts of individual success stories that tout a program’s efficacy, for instance, can feel like program-length commercials in book form. Equally bothersome is an author who spends more time denigrating other methods as inferior instead of demonstrating why their method should be preferred.

Refreshingly, these tactics are absent in Heart-Based Singing published by StellaRose Publishing. Instead of the hard sell, author Agatha Carubia fills the pages of her book with inspiring thoughts and techniques she has developed to help make singing a more enjoyable, full-body experience.

The “heart of the matter” of her technique is to identify personal sensations, vibrations, and awarenesses and to use them as reference points for singing. She does this by incorporating the chakra system from Eastern yogic philosophy into classical singing.

Carubia calls the technique a hybrid of everything she has learned in her life as a soprano, a musician, and a yogi. The chapters, then, cover the pertinent vocal topics (including posture, breathing, connecting breath to sound, and resonance) while interweaving information about energy centers in the body. Considering the popularity of yoga among singers, as well as among the population at large, the principles and terminology she uses may already be familiar to many.

Though the Juilliard-trained author demonstrates a solid understanding of vocal function, she often chooses nontechnical language in order to discourage the overly analytical thinking and micromanagement that can limit freedom in singing.

While the book is not intended to be comprehensive in its discussion of pedagogy, it is a beneficial companion to vocal study that provides unique perspectives and valuable ideas.

As the title implies, Heart-Based Singing encourages a spirit of discovery and exploration. Carubia’s techniques have the potential to empower singers to uncover deeper connections between body and voice that would serve to increase balance, effortlessness, and authentic expression.
Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /