Less is More: In Conversation with Amber Morris
Community Voices is a series shining a spotlight on Black-owned, small businesses in the Bay Area. We talk about the COVID-19 crisis, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and how living simply and empathetically is our future.
Tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Amber Morris and I am a singer and a voice coach. I first fell in love with music and singing, I'm going to have to say it was as long ago as … maybe I sang before I even talked. My mom was a professional singer. And so I grew up in a very musical household and our family is just kind of a joyful music family. I was doing dance for quite a long time. I started in a professional dance company when I was 11 years old we started doing shows all around the county and that kind of got me over being a shy person and having stage fright, which was a really big deal. And then you couldn't get me off stage!
And then singing was like a whole other level of exhilaration, another level of sharing. My sister and I joined this band in high school as the background singers and then soon after that we kind of got hired by my uncle to be singing background in his band when we could. They would kind of sneak us into clubs and we would get up there and sing background and we got to record some stuff on their album. I was 16 years old, so it was a big deal. That was reggae. I've grown up with all styles of music in my life. My dad listened to a lot of Reggae my mom listened to a lot of Soul, Jazz, you know, we had everything in our household.
My mom, Cyretta
My mom grew up singing in church, but her mother got her Opera lessons starting at the age of five. And so my mom was this very petite woman with a really robust voice and she sang in Church, she sang Jazz in high school.
When we moved here in the 70s, she started meeting all of the musicians in the area and singing with them. She always had her hand on the pulse. Cyretta Ryan.
My mom had like this whole thought process about breathing and that kind of thing. So she did do some of that work and she was working with different bands and stuff. I grew up in a household where it was pretty eclectic. The Rainbow Family is what we called ourselves, because we had every color in the rainbow. So my dad is this like very Irish dude, pale skin until you get him in the sun and then he's “pinkamon”, that's what they called him in Jamaica. Then all the way through me, my sister, and my brother's half African and so he was darker-skinned. So we kind of had all the colors of the rainbow.
Mom in her school Jazz band
Tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming a voice coach?
It really wasn't the path that I thought I was going to be on. My journey was actually kind of a shocker. I had left my job in the financial district and the game plan was that I was going to be gigging a lot and on the side I would teach some lessons and make sure people had good technique, you know that sort of thing. In the midst of that and I'm sure I was under a lot of stress, but I ended up getting a sinus infection and I got acid reflux from the medicine that I was given. It was actually causing post nasal drip that was going down my throat, shooting into my stomach and then right back up the esophagus.
There was getting over the depression and feeling lonely, I had to sub out all my gigs to the point where I didn't have any gigs left and I had no voice. I was writing on a chalkboard to my seven-year-old because I was not allowed to speak and I felt isolated and alone and I got pissed off, which is kind of the thing that gets me out of everything. And I did a lot of research, and in my research I found my way back. Where I wasn't able to do so with the help of doctors and the help of other people who I reached out to. That was very much not the journey I expected to go on. I found myself writing one day and I was kneeled down, and I just found myself writing, “Let me be a vessel to help others.”
Me and my mom
And that was this profound moment where I honestly feel like that activated my path and it literally turned, a weakness into kind of a superpower. I have a very different twist on how voice is taught and then I have just an arsenal of amazing talent to back up my theories. I think it can be heard in my students and I'm just honestly so grateful and blessed. Especially during this pandemic right now. Eighteen years of teaching and setting up my business as I have, has allowed me to transition pretty easily to teaching on Skype, teaching on FaceTime and Zoom
It took me three years to recover. I did my own research and a lot of the research was about the sinuses and basically how so much of the focus is at vocal chord level. And so I kind of had to go back and undo some theories. But I'm constantly working on health stuff through diet and all kinds of different perspectives of looking at things. I think this approach just led me to recover and then I was able to work with other people and kind of test out my theory.
What is your philosophy or approach when it comes to teaching voice?
My Philosophy is about discovering an artist. I look at it like I don't know anyone's potential, but I'm getting everyone that I'm working with ready to do something very real with this instrument if they want.
Some of the biggest issues that singers come across is troubles with their voices. We need to have longevity. We need to have freedom, and we need to have access to not only range but being able to make it through the emotion of a song and tell a story. So my job is to remove obstacles and help the person find who they are as a singer so that they're not just another cookie cutter singer out there.
How do you help your students find their voice through music?
Through a combination of technique and helping them seek out their own musicianship. The technique is a means to discover what they've archived musically, like what's inside of them and then what we can kind of pull out. But the whole thing is about relationships and trust and in order for me to collaborate with a singer and help them find themselves, there's got to be a great deal of trust with me, and those relationships become very deep.
Over time, some of my students are the most dear people to me in my life. We've had some deep discussions about all kinds of things, including singing, but also about life. And I feel like the more depth that they have and the more they're able to dig in and get real, the better they can become. But it takes time and it takes patience and it takes kind of a philosophy of being non-judgmental so that they can get good.
Their self-esteem is built over years. I've had so many people say, you know, their voice is amazing, my son or daughter has become this amazing singer, but also they've become so strong in terms of who they are as a person, and using their voice. Their self-esteem has really been strengthened and you can see it in who they are when they go out into the world. So whether they become a singer or not, I feel like all of that is still within them.
What challenges have you faced as a small business owner?
Well, this pandemic is one. There's always a little bit of a trepidatious feeling. Not knowing if you're going to make it. Not knowing if you build it, if they'll come. Is it a good fit for me in terms of the clientele? Are they going to pay me? Are they going to show up? Is it going to be somebody that I can be in a room with for an hour? Are they willing to learn? Are they willing to listen? Are they talented but unable to be coached? Are they not talented but able to be coached? And there's a big difference there, because I'm here to teach people, not to judge them. I don't run a contest here. I want everyone to have the experience of feeling joy through music and also connecting on a higher level, and that goes so far beyond just hitting notes. I really want to help people tell stories, and engage an audience, and move people through music.
During the COVID shutdown how have you stayed connected with your students?
I have stayed connected doing voice lessons, so I am very blessed that I can still teach from home. So Zoom lessons, FaceTime, Skype has allowed me to maintain that connection with my students and then texting has been a thing. Sometimes, I'll just out of the blue, get a beautiful text from one of my students.
Your produce both student showcases and your own live music performances. What does each mean to you?
I do have a band, it's called The Well Known Strangers. So we perform all over, although right now we're not, but we have been doing some video work and trying to still reach out to our fan base and create music for them.
In terms of my producing my own student shows. Because I teach a mix of adults and teenagers, I feel like the adults, it's on them to go out and get their gigs or to go out and you know make it to an open mic night, that's on them.
With the teenagers, I'm preparing a situation for them to learn how to walk into a musical setting. And how to behave also, so that they're walking in and acknowledging themselves as young musicians, they know how to talk shop with other musicians, and they know how to deliver a performance. I spend a lot of time in development with them.
When I'm on stage, I'm a singer. When my students are on stage, I'm their voice coach. So I'm listening to things and kind of tracking the work that we've done. My whole thing is to be really encouraging and help people get over stage anxiety, and make it through, and succeed. That's the whole thing. I really want to see them succeed.
Tell us about the music you’ve been writing during this time, what it means to you and why you write it?
The music that I'm writing at this time is a little on the dark side, I'm not going to lie. I've been writing some very angry songs because I feel like I'm processing what's going on in the world right now and channeling my feelings through music is kind of the only way I know how to do it.
I'm not one to go out and tell people how to live their lives. I don't want to fight with people and I don't feel like I should have to in order to just exist. But at the same time, I feel like I have a responsibility as someone with a voice and somebody with the ability to create music or to create art, that I need to find a way to share this with the world. And I want to encourage my students to do that too. Because the younger generation, they're going to take this ball and run with it. And I love that, and I want to light them on fire. So if they see me doing it and they hear me doing it. We're all working together to express ourselves. So my music right now is political. Although I am also trying to write for the band that I'm in which is a country soul project. But the great thing about these guys is we're all in the same place, and we all have a similar mindset. So these songs that I'm writing are welcome in that space. Which is really cool.
So it's really been about a tool for my self expression. There's a song that I'm contemplating putting out. It's kind of heavy and I wrote it in 2016-2017. I pulled it up maybe a week ago and it's just so relevant. I feel like I had a crystal ball and I was telling you what was going to happen.
It's a song called Reality and it kind of starts through a dream sequence and the beginning of it has got this jazz horn thing, almost as if that's in the dream, and I'm talking to my mom in the dream and the beginning is...
“Summertime, and the livin’ ain’t easy in my skin.”
What do you see for the live music scene going forward?
Wow. I don't think it's going to be good. I think we're going to be out here for a while, creating content. I think that out of this will come a creative solution, because people aren't going to stop, but it could be quite a while. My husband's a professional musician and all of his gigs have been canceled. He has not been able to work since March.
For anybody who's used to performing, he used to do stadium shows, so hearing a crowd of 40,000 people cheer that's like amazing, even a crowd of 250 people, it's like amazing. But to not have that musical project, that outlet you know, he's a performer, he loves to get on stage and play.
Sometimes we play music together at home. We actually have been writing a couple songs together. We have a cute, happy song we wrote recently, because I wanted to switch it up! But right now we're diving into Logic Pro so that we can record at home and just stay in our little two people bubble with Elvis (the dog).
You've been doing some research on your family history, what have you discovered about your own family?
My sister and I have been avid ancestry people and I was able to find a cousin or she found me, a fourth cousin who ended up having like a lot of the same information including pictures of my grandmother and my mom, when my mom was five years old, so that was a big surprise.
My Mom and her mother, Clara
I recently had a zoom meeting with a bunch of the Gates family ladies. That was amazing, some of us have never met. They’re in Oklahoma, so many of them are also very much on the ancestry thing. They have books of information. I was able to see pictures from the early 1900's to 15-20 years ago when all of the family went back and had a reunion in Oklahoma and were asked to be the lead act at some kind of reunion. It was all of the Gates ladies and in this choir of the Gates ladies, there were I want to say 20 of them including cousins and great aunts. So this has been a musical family from way back and my grandmother started my mom. Back in the day they used to have musicians over from the clubs afterwards and the party would go on and the music would go on and that's just been a part of our life.
My maternal great grandparents, Roxie and Waymon
When I was growing up in downtown Fairfax, we had River City down the street. We had the Sleeping Lady. I think there were five places where live music was going on and this kind of goes back to the live music thing. You know Perry's has been there my whole entire life from the time we moved here in 1971, and now it's closing.
This is how I grew up. My parents kept that tradition going. There were national touring acts coming through Fairfax in the 70s and 80s. One time my mom woke us up in the middle of the night and said, “Kids, get up! Taj Mahal's playing our piano!” He was in the house, in our living room playing the piano on Bolinas Road in Fairfax.
What are you most proud of as a teacher?
I'm most proud of the depth of relationships that I've built with my students and that they have felt that they were capable of succeeding, and that so many of them have gone on to seek a career out as a singer. Many of them are out there making a living, living their life as a professional musician, someone who's getting paid and is contributing. On a high level, I think that would be it.
What would you like to see from the Bay Area and across the nation in terms of supporting Black-owned businesses and the Black Lives Matter Movement?
I feel like this might be a tough one for me to answer because of the bubble. So let me just say if I could think about how Nationwide, you know, Black-owned businesses could be supported, I would say first of all we have to come to the table and acknowledge people are human beings, and treat them like human beings. And acknowledge that every time we create a division between races we are not honoring human beings. Right now I feel like it's very critical to isolate it and say we need to support Black-owned businesses. We need to support Black people in America and not see them as something different.
You know, I'm half-Black and I'm half-white. My parents stayed married my whole entire life, so I never had to choose a side. I was also really blessed that my mom's parents loved my white dad, and my dad's mom, loved my black mom, and there was love. It was real.
So I never knew anything other than that. So I feel like that's why I'm processing this on a little bit of a different level too. I'm also coming to terms with what I am, you know, and I feel like sometimes I have a foot in both worlds. But I always see myself as being a human being and not wanting to have somebody put me in a box. You know when I was a kid my parents used to fork my hair out to here, call me little Angela Davis. Nowadays, I'm like, yes, Little Angela Davis. Thank you.
I also consider myself so lucky. I mean here I am in this bubble here in Marin. Outside of this bubble, it's heavy.
There are a lot of angry people out there, and they don't see themselves as being monsters. They see themselves as being right, that you could exterminate a human life, and still call yourself a Christian?
My great grandmother found her favorite uncle tarred and feathered in Alabama. And that was like, oop, too bad. So my grandmother was born in 1913. She was over a hundred when she died. She was one of the first black principals in LA and then she became the superintendent of schools for LA and then she went on to work at USC. She was like a Trailblazer.
Mom with her parents Clara and Cyrus, aunt and uncle, and paternal great grandmother, Mamie
The Black Lives Matter Movement is at the forefront of social issues in every country and especially in the United States. What does this movement mean to you?
Right now, this movement means change. People of all colors are standing up together with Black people so that they're not singled out to try to stand up for themselves when they've been beaten down for so long. Finally, there are people to help support that and lift others up and that's the beautiful side of the ugliness. So, we're seeing the depth of pain. We're seeing the darkness like we've never seen it. And then we're also seeing the light shine on the awareness.
This is probably the best thing that's come out of the pandemic is that people are home and they're present and they're not caught up in the day-to-day just to survive. They're able to see what's going on and actually be part of the community and activate. I think that's the beautiful part of this is, you get to see people from all walks of life, from all countries supporting this and it's beautiful. I also really love what NASCAR and Formula One are doing right now. They’ve made a big deal out of We stand with the Black Lives Matter Movement and they've gone out on a limb, like this is what we're doing, so that's been very cool.
Why isn't Colin Kaepernick getting signed? Show us NFL, that you're serious. Don't let this man be targeted the way he was by the commander-in-chief and then left out to rot. And he's the voice of this movement, you know, I mean it's shocking.
Who inspires you and why?
Ultimately, my inspiration has really been my grandmother. She just had a very open mind and she was also a bit of a feminist. She was nurturing and kind and talented in a lot of different areas, but she shared herself with everyone. One of the things that I see in this time is with all that's going on to like trim it down right now and say What really matters? What are we really here to do? And she always was present with that. She could always see that.
She could play some pool. She was kind of like, a grandma on one side, because she was a pastry chef and then she would put all her good stuff in the oven and go play the piano, and play it well. She could just get up and play pool with the best of them, so she would win and she just grew up with this kind of “thing” about her. She’s a huge inspiration to me.
At AQUIS we go by the philosophy of “Less is More”, what does this term mean to you personally?
Less is More to me personally means, quality over quantity, which is something that we're all trying to grapple with and I think that it's hard to take time to do something in a quality way. People just want to consume.
I don't want to be consumed.
I want to have a quality thing so that when you see someone that I've worked with, you can hear the quality. Singing isn't just measured by hitting notes on pitch, there's more depth to it. This is how I kind of bring that into being… people come in to take a lesson from me, they want to learn how to sing high, they want to sing low, they want to figure out how to sing their middle range. They want to learn how to have more power or sing more, you know in their falsetto. And the entire time, we're building something bigger than that, right? So, it starts there and then it becomes so much more, because they start digging deeper and deeper.
I'm trying to have a quality experience with my clients. I try to give them what I can without it just being me regurgitating something. I have to listen to them, and they have to listen to me. So that's part of the quality exchange, is that we're not just hitting notes and getting you out of here and bringing the next person in. Every experience is unique. And every person is treated uniquely. Because every voice is different.
To find out more about Amber Morris visit https://www.ambermorrisvoicecoaching.com
You can also find her on Instagram @ambermorrisvoicecoaching