Op Ed Commentary: Morgan Ames on Millennium Women and A Cappella

Morgan Ames apprenticed with Quincy Jones; sang/contracted singers for Queen Latifah for opening of 2010 Super Bowl; sang backgrounds on 2011 Oscar telecast and with Celine Dion for 9/11 telethon, conducted singers onstage for Paul McCartney at a Green Peace concert at the Hollywood Bowl (“Hey Jude”); has written songs with Johnny Mandel, Bob James, Dori Caymmi; co-wrote “Baretta’s Theme” (“Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow”) with Dave Grusin (now a popular ringtone); has had songs recorded by Roberta Flack, Peggy Lee, Djavan; co-produced Diane Schuur and the Count Basie Orchestra which was #1 for 33 weeks and garnered two Grammys;  has performed with Chaka Kahn, Mariah Carey, John Williams and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra; sung in “King Kong,” “Spider-Man,” “Matrix Reloaded” and “Revolutions,” “Sister Act” I and II, etc.; has sung and/or written vocal arrangements on recordings with David Foster, David Benoit, Amy Grant, Vince Gill, etc.  Here, Morgan’s comments about vocalists and vocal arrangers include insights broad enough to reach across the full breadth of creative activities.

By Morgan Ames

I have been the leader/arranger of an a cappella group (Inner Voices) for over 20 years and the music environment never sits still.  For instance, clever vocal work with choreography is currently in fashion, thanks to TV’s Glee.  Smirk-free a cappella is heard regularly on TV talent shows and schools everywhere.  Group singing will go out of favor again, you watch.  No point worrying about it and I don’t think most vocal arrangers do.  When you love voices suspended by their own weight, all alone, a cappella, you just do.

The path of women vocal arrangers follows the path of evolution for women generally.  If you think you can do it, you do it.  But good vocal arranging is an art that comes slowly.  You have to acquire a taste for heartbreak, which is to say, hang onto your sense of humor.  Most important, build up your craft skills.  My experience as a music professional all these years is that in certain areas of music there is no mercy relative to craft skills, not for women.

Skill breeds respect and without it, professional work is sparse and not much fun once you’re out of your 20s — your early 30s if you’re really cute.  It’s a good thing too.  You spend a lot more time in your career older than younger. The lion’s share of artistic satisfaction comes later.  It deepens as you do.  When I hear groups at a vocal faire or whatever, I often wish they would rethink their arrangements, or think them at all.  Vocal percussion is omnipresent and some groups think that if someone has a microphone in his mouth, the song is arranged.  It isn’t.  Another trap is the wall-of-sound approach.  Someone in the group picks a time feel, often repetitive (thank you, acid jazz), falls into a familiar chord pattern and just keeps cycling.  Someone else scats like a balloon losing air.  Then: end big and stop.  But there is an ocean of difference between finishing an arrangement and stopping because it’s long enough.  A stop happens and a finish is earned.

If you’re a woman musician out there now, believe me, craft skills are the secret.  They build your confidence and neutralize intimidation – especially from the guys.  Music schools and classes are everywhere.  If you’re a singer, and the majority of vocal arrangers are, you already have a good start.  Of course, the music style of your particular group impacts your arranging choices, but even styles which appear relatively simple, doo wop or folk, for instance, are not.  The work of great groups just sounds simple.  The era of doo woppers hanging out on the front porch in Philly is pretty much played out.  On the other hand, if you don’t know what you’re doing, arrangements can get ridiculously over-complicated, driving everyone in the group crazy, and sucking energy out of the song.

I never start writing an arrangement until I see it in my head.  I kind of meditate on the song, in silence.  For me it’s important to cast a song like a movie among the brilliant singers in my group.  I get a feel pretty quickly about who should stand out, whose persona fits the lyric.  I’m not afraid of space.  I vary from block chords to one voice to a duet in sixths all in maybe eight bars. It’s called dynamics.  Four voices have an entirely different weight and color than two.  One singing loudly versus four singing softly or vice versa gives surprise and dimension.

Here’s a good exercise: pick a classic vocal or background vocal arrangement  (some killers: Bobby McFerrin’s new Vocabularies, Mervyn Warren’s Hallelujah from Soulful Messiah, Respect by Aretha Franklin, I Just Want to Stop by Gino Vannelli,  O Brother Where Art Thou with music put together by T-Bone Burnett).  Then do some serious analysis.  Why do you love it?  Why in detail.  Really go there.  Arranging is about problem solving, note after note.  I grew up doing this obsessively, and still do it.  I have listened to the first Take 6 album hundreds of times and still learn from it.  If you’re drawn to southern sounds, T Bone Burnett knows everything about bluegrass and other mountain vocal styles.  The late Gene Puerling is still the Bach of vocal arrangers.

One more tip if you want to be really good: don’t ignore that, uh, well, that funky little spot in the arrangement that never quite worked.  Come on, figure it out and do it right.  What separates the pros from the non-pros is the polishing, the finishing up, the unglamorous part.

Vocal arranging is harrowing if you do it right, but you get to love the process eventually because of what it gives back to you. You may find, like me, that the more you arrange, put out fires caused by the last chord you wrote, etc., the more you fall in love with the art.  Welcome to the subtlest, silkiest club in music.


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