Ray and Otis


Ray Lamontagne              

Ray LaMontagne

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Ray LaMontagne. In case you haven’t heard of him, he’s a folk/soul singer from Maine who’s gotten big lately because of his amazing voice.  He’s also got  something I can’t resist – a great story. It has three parts:

I: Young Ray has a hardscrabble childhood, never plays music at all. He gets a dead-end job in a shoe factory.

II: In his early twenties, Ray wakes up one day, hears a song on the radio, and has an epiphany that he should become a singer-songwriter.

III: He goes out and actually does it. With zero experience, in one of the all-time musical Cinderella stories, he trains himself to sing, play guitar, write songs, and becomes a big star.  Leno, Letterman, Rolling Stone, awards, etc.

So here’s what LaMontagne sounds like:

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And here’s the interesting part. Apparently he did most of his practicing by himself, in his apartment. He didn’t have much money, so he just got a bunch of old record and practiced by imitating them. The old records he bought were those of Otis Redding and Ray Charles, among others. He trained this way for several years, then started performing at coffee houses (several more years). LaMontange says he was terrible at the start, then got better. “I’m a really fast learner,” he told Roster magazine.

Now listen to Otis Redding:

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Isn’t that incredibly similar? The same raspy soulfulness, the same rhythms and phrasings and long vowels, the soaring yet earthy voice that, as Rolling Stone put it, “sounds like church.” 

So what does this mean? First of all, I don’t think it means that Ray LaMontagne is ripping off Otis Redding. His voice is his own—he built it, over his 10,000 hours, through deep practice.  (And it sure doesn’t sound like any Mainer that I ever met.)

What it does mean, I think, is that when LaMontagne was building that skill circuit – because that’s what any voice is, a circuit that controls the vocal cords—he used an powerful, underrated method for deep practice. He mimicked. Redding’s voice was his beacon – and LaMontagne used it exactly like a good tennis player uses Roger Federer’s backhand, or a good writer uses a Dickens paragraph. You spend time in it, and you can learn how it works, why it works. It tells you where to go, and you use it as a tool to pull yourself forward, to construct your own circuit.  

This reminds me of what I think of as the Olympics Effect. Whenever I watch the Olympics on TV, then go and do some of those same sports myself, I’m better. Sometimes a lot better – after watching Michael Phelps win all those medals, I think I actually did the crawl stroke properly for the first time in my life. Something powerful happens when we mimic someone, and its mostly unconscious. We’re built to copy.

For the Little League team I coach, I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be smarter, instead of spending time fielding grounders, to find a big-screen TV and watch major-league players doing their thing in slow-motion – and the coaches wouldn’t have to say a word. We could call it the LaMontagne Method. 

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4 Responses to “Ray and Otis”

  1. K. Castner says:

    I always admired the players that had, what sports commentators called, “efficiency of motion”. It’s kind of rare, even in the pros, but I think of that when reading your thoery.
    This is a great website. It is a thought-provoking exploration through interactive media. And it has raised one question for me that almost keeps me awake at night:
    Who’s going to mow your lawn while you’re in Cleveland?

    A Neighbor

  2. newson smiths children says:

    I think it’s amazing totally awesome .The best videos i’ve ever seen.
    From Oscar.
    PS good fire place! Also are you sure you don’t play golf because those moves rocked me out!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! They seriously skilled me out dood!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Chris Brown says:

    I read your NYT articles a couple of years ago and have forwarded it to numerous parents and aspiring young athletes. I find the arguments very compelling. I can’t wait to get a copy of your new book. I have also downloaded various articles from Anders Ericsson. Can you give me some deeper insights or point me to any of your or his current research on Deliberate Practice.
    Chris Brown
    Ann Arbor, MI

  4. Don Taylor says:

    Okay, here I have to say, if you Youtube the recently deceased King of Pop’s earliest video pre Jackson 5 you will clearly hear him trying to sing like Otis Redding and see him trying to dance just like James Brown….He went on to have a pretty fair career. Score two for the Otis Redding school of music.

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