Millennium Women and A Cappella

By Morgan Ames

I have been the leader-arranger of an a cappella group (Inner Voices) for over 15 years and a lot has changed. For instance, a cappella singing has come back in fashion in the record business, just as it will go out again. No point worrying about it and I don't think most of us 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 can. But you have to acquire a taste for heartbreak which is to say, hang onto your sense of humor. Most important of all, build your skills. My experience as a music professional all these years is that there is no give relative to craft skills, not for women. Skill breeds respect and without it, professional work is no fun once you're out of your 20s. It's a good thing too. You spend a lot more time in your career not young than young. The lion's share of success and artistic satisfaction comes later, and deepens as you do.

When I hear groups at a vocal faire or whatever, I often wish they would rethink their arrangements. At the moment, vocal percussion is in fashion and some groups think that if someone has a mic in his mouth, the song is arranged. It isn't. Another trap is the wall of sound approach the group or someone in it picks a time feel (often repetitive), falls into a familiar chord style and just keeps going. 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 at the millennium, believe me, craft skills are the secret. They help build confidence and neutralize intimidation - especially from the guys. 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 group impacts your arranging choices, but even styles which appear relatively simple, doo wop for instance, are not. The work of great groups just sounds simple. The myth of the doo wop group hanging out on the front porch in Philly is pretty much just that. 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 it 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 lyrics. I'm not afraid of space. I vary from all-four to one voice to a duet in sixths all in maybe eight bars. It's called dynamics. Four voices have entirely different weight and color than two. One singing loudly versus four singing softly lends surprise and dimension.

Here's a good exercise: think of your favorite vocal or background vocal arrangement of all time (Respect by Aretha Franklin, I Just Want to Stop by Gino Vannelli, Quiet Place by Take 6, O Little Town of Bethlehem on Vince Gill's recent Christmas album). Then do some serious analysis. Why do you love it? Why in detail. Really go there. Arranging is about problem solving, note by 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. Gene Puerling is the Bach of vocal arrangers as far as I'm concerned, and Primarily a Cappella carries both his arrangements and the CDs of his groups, Singers Unlimited and The Hi-Los. Study him and you don't need school.

One more tip: don't ignore those, uh, well, those funky little spots in the arrangement that never quite worked. What separates the pros from the non-pros is the polishing, the finishing up, the unglamourous part.

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 (i.e., solve problems second to second, put out fires caused by the last chord you wrote, etc.) the more you fall in love with the art.


Morgan Ames

Morgan was singing and playing in clubs at 16, wrote a hit at 18, ("Far Side of the Hill") and another later with Dave Grusin (TV's Baretta's Theme). She learned the business from Quincy Jones, for whom she worked for three years. She co-produced the double Grammy winning album "Diane Schuur and the Count Basie Orchestra" and is an established session singer and vocal arranger who has recorded with Kenny Loggins, Wynonna, Vanessa Wiliams, David Foster, has written vocal arrangements for Al Jarreau, Dionne Warwick, Bette Midler, Yanni, David Benoit, has performed with Paul McCartney, Chaka Kahn, Jerry Butler, Doobie Brothers, Patti Austin, has sung in films such as Sister Act I & II, Quest for Camelot, Amistad, League of Their Own. Her songs have been recorded by Roberta Flack, Shirley Horne, Barbara Mandrell, Bob James, Peggy Lee, etc. Morgan currently performs with Inner Voices.

Morgan can be reached at


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