Life can be hectic and unpredictable and our vocal practice can often fall by the wayside.

“Working in the margins” is an idea John learned from a client who is also a bestselling author. He utilizes this concept to stay prolific in his output while maintaining a rigorous performing schedule.

John has adopted the idea and applied it to vocal practice and growth, which he shares in this episode.


Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy


Episode Transcript

Episode 64 – Essential Piano Skills for Teachers and Singers

Hey, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending this time with me. Okay, a little housekeeping. I just want to talk very quickly about my Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy, because as this podcast is being recorded here at the end of 2018 my Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy will be closing it’s doors for enrollment in just a couple of weeks. As from today it will 14 days. If you want to jump in and learn to teach voice online at your pace, you can go to and click on the tab in the menu that says teacher training, and that will take you there for more information. And if you’re within the window you’ll be able to sign up. If not, then you will get on a wait list and I will be re-opening the academy later on in 2019.

The idea is rather than spending my time constantly bringing on new members as well as spending my time doing things to promote the academy year round, I’m just going to open it a couple of times a year which will allow me to focus on creating content for the academy rather than constantly promoting it. So, I’m going to do enrollment here just for a couple of weeks, and then we’ll open again not until later next year, that date to be determined.

Okay, let’s jump to today’s episode. Today I want to talk about something that I learned from a client of mine. I got a chance to work with somebody this past year who’s a pretty big hero of mine, and always a little daunting when you work with someone you’re actually a pretty big fan of. But this person besides being a well-known performer, actually is a pretty well-known author and puts out a book every couple of years, and I asked him, “How do you find the time to write?” And he told me, “I write in the margins.” And that really stuck with me. And I know I’ve mentioned it previously on some blog posts I’ve done, or at least to my E-mail list, and if you’re not on my E-mail list, well you should be if you listen to this show. So while you’re at checking out the teacher training, sign up for my E-mail list, and you’ll get all these… A lot of times the topics for these podcasts I first discuss on my E-mail list, so you kind of see what may be coming down the line.

But this idea of working in the margins really, really hit me, and I may have even mentioned it on a previous podcast. But I just want to delve a little bit deeper into this idea and how you can utilize it for your vocal training, your studying, whatever your musical singing goals are. Here is how I’m utilizing it, and here are the problems that it’s helping offset.

Perhaps you find you’re the same, but unless I feel like I can put together a specific amount of time for my vocal practice or my vocal study, if it’s not at least a half hour then I tend to not schedule it, or dismiss it, or wait until I can find what I think is enough time rather than grabbing time in the margins. Grabbing those minutes here and there that are often just waisted checking social media, or doing any of that rechecking my E-mail when it was already checked a couple of hours ago. You find yourself just filling up those moments here and there with nonsense, at least, I can find myself doing that.

So what I decided to do is to start utilizing the margins, working in the margins. And when I get this spare time, there’s two basic awareness’s and habits you need to have for this. You need to make yourself aware when these moments are happening, rather than just going to the bad habit of giving your brain constant meaningless stimulus such as checking your phone, that little crack pipe we keep in our pocket and checking social media. What you need to do is be aware that this moment is here, and be aware that you’re not going to waste it. And then what you need to do is have a pre-planned list of what it is you are going to work on in the margins. You just … For me it doesn’t help to say, “Oh okay, I have a spare five minutes, or I’ve got 10 minutes, or this student didn’t show up or is running late I can utilize this time. What should I do?” I’m just going to meander around.

All of us, or at least myself … I’m just going to talk about myself rather than saying all of us. Let’s make this easy. Me, if I don’t pre-plan exactly what to work on I will just start to piddle with my voice. I’ll just run some scales that I’ve run a thousand times before, or sing a song that I sing really well because it makes me feel good to sing a song well. And there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but that’s not deliberate practice. That’s not working on a specific goal. And what I am doing now, is in those moments I have a list of things that I specifically want to work on.

Let’s say I get a spare five minutes and I don’t … I have not warmed up that day, I may just do straw work. So on my list I will put if I on my first bit of time … of margin time, I’m just going to work the straw, and then I’m going to work specific things on the straw. For instance, one of the things I’ve been working on lately is after I’ve kind of done some glides and stretched my voice out on the straw, I’m doing sustains and then increasing intensity and decreasing intensity so that I can work on bringing the chords a little more together, resisting the air a little more and then backing off, all the while trying to maintain the pitch without the pitch changing as I get louder or softer. And that’s tricky to do, because as you utilize more muscle at that vocal folds to resist more air, you’re going to tend to jam up the chords a little bit and you can go a little flat. You can go a little under pitch, you can lose a little bit of control. So for me the back pressure from the straw helps stabilize everything and I can work specifically that.

And then I will specifically work the crescendo decrescendo on different pitches. Some in my chest voice, some in my transition, some in my head voice. Then if I get another few minutes I also have exercises where I will take the straw, hit the pitch on the straw and then remove the straw and go to the particular vowel that I’m working on. So let’s say I’m working on being able to really sit into and sing an Oo vowel louder. Now an Oo vowel has particular issues. An Oo vowel will tend to want to go a little a heady, and it’s a particular tricky vowel to press into without grabbing. What singers do is they tend to go way too far in the Oo, and they take the word you and make it yeau so they can grab onto some of those higher frequencies and belt the sound a little harder. And what I try to do is keep the integrity of the Oo vowel so that I’m still singing Oo when I take the straw away and I lay into it, and so I have a specific list of vowels.

I also have sustains that I want to work on, sections of songs that I want to work on. Not songs that I sing well, but here is a particularly difficult line and I will have those songs ready to go. So when I get the five, 10 minutes, even just a couple of minutes, I can sit and just work on that.

So what I want you to do is go through your list of goals that you have for your singing, and if you don’t have a list make one. Just sit down and start brainstorming. “I would like to fix in my voice”, and just start writing. Write whatever comes to the top of your head, whether it’s smoothing out your break, increasing your range, improving your tone, getting vibrato, any of these things and then you can specifically research and break down on how best to work on them. If you’re a voice teacher, have a list of things that you want to understand better, that you want to have better control over. If you want to understand more about how to teach, let’s say, contemporary singing, have a list of materials that you’re going to read, or videos that you’re going to review in these down moments.

Don’t just go onto You Tube and start searching. Do your searching beforehand, because you will get pulled away. These algorithms and these websites, they are programmed to make you get lost in them, and to make you just start hopping around into minutiae. And there algorithms will go, “Well if you’re interested in that, perhaps you’re interested in this.”, and they start throwing different things in front of you. And chances are their artificial intelligence is good enough to lead you astray. So do your research beforehand. Have your materials ready to go beforehand so that when the opportunity arises you can go specifically to what it is that you need to work on. And I would update your little list, your vocal to-do list every day.

I use a system called Evernote, and I do recommend it. There’s a free version. I abuse it enough that I do the paid version, it’s not that expensive, but get a free version of Evernote. And Evernote is a great place where if you find a good article it give you a little thing to just clip it right to your Evernote online. You can put bookmarks in there, you can put to-do lists, and notes and all kinds of things. It’s a wonderful tool for organizing. So if you go to the show notes, since this is episode 63, I’ll put a link to Evernote there and I’ll also put a link to my Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy.

And when you’re listening to a podcast just go to my site, get the episode number and to my site, and you can find it and I will have … I’ve got transcriptions for almost every episode. At least the last 40 episodes are all fully transcribed, not by me, so there may be a misspelled word here or there. I don’t have time to read through them all, but I use professional transcription services, and you can … So that will always be there in the show notes as well as any links that I point out. So I do advise you go there. And if you find this system helpful please let me know. E-mail me at [email protected], I do love to hear from you listeners. And over the holidays if you want to get in touch for voice lessons or working with me, again, it’s just and you can find the information there.

Hey, I know this is a shorter episode, but I just wanted to get this out there and give you something to work on here at the end of the year, and maybe set some New Year’s goals with utilizing this concept of working in the margins. Don’t let these little minutes go by, especially during your day when you’re energized and you’re focused. Don’t think you can just save all of your voice training till later at night and just waste time during the day. You’re better off grabbing these five, 10, 15-minute chunks throughout the day then trying to save up an hour for late in the day when you’re tired and you’re unfocused. We only have so much energy, tends to dissipate at certain times of the day. You will know your body better than anyone else, and you’ll know when times are best for you and when times are not good for you. I know by the time my day is done I’m done, and no useful practice is going to occur.

So if I’m going to goof around on social media, I may wait until then when everything’s done and I’ve closed everything up. But when I’m going through my day, and I’m focused, and I’m ready to go, those minutes are actually worth much more than the minutes at the end of the day. So I do want to utilize those prime minutes, and let me know how you do utilizing this idea of working in the margins.

Hey, thank you so much for listening. Again, just go to my website [email protected] … just, not the [email protected], to find out more about me and how you work with me. And until next time, to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye-bye.