Ice Network

Creating the program: Castelli, Tran choose music

U.S. pair starts process by traveling to Montreal to meet with Marcotte
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Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran will be skating to classic rock music for their free skate next season. -Jay Adeff

This article is the first in a series that will follow U.S. pairs team Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran as they create their competitive programs for the 2015-16 season.

What is a figure skating program?

It's a competitive athletic effort, lasting only a few minutes, filled with every difficult physical feat a skater can do. It's a brief artistic performance, interpreting music with choreography to delight and impress an audience. It's the summary, the pinnacle of a year of training and preparation, a do-or-die moment that can change the life of a young athlete forever. In this series, we'll go inside a program, from the first moments of its creation to the first time it's performed in public, and on into the fall skating season.

Although they bring ample experience and some of the highest achievements in skating to their partnership, Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran are still a new pairs team. With her previous partner, Simon Shnapir, Castelli is a two-time U.S. champion, the 2013 Four Continents bronze medalist and a 2014 Olympic team bronze medalist. Tran, who competed for Japan with previous partner Narumi Takahashi, is the 2012 world bronze medalist; Takahashi and Tran also medaled three times at Grand Prix events.

Castelli and Tran teamed up less than a year ago, in June 2014. They finished sixth at the 2015 U.S. Championships. They train in Montreal with Bruno Marcotte and in Boston with Bobby Martin.

Part 1 - Music

Almost every program, short or free skate, begins with the search for music. Skaters are always looking for music, filing away pieces that they think they might want to skate to in the future. Sometimes they bring music to a choreographer, and sometimes the choreographer chooses something he or she thinks will work for the skater. The music forms the foundation of a competitive program for a whole season, so it has to please the judges; skaters will be hearing it every day for a whole year as they train, so it has to please them as well.

In February, Castelli and Tran met with their choreographer, Julie Marcotte, in Montreal to listen to music. Marcotte wanted them to keep their "Summertime" short program for the 2015-16 season, so they were looking for music for a new free skate.

"We sat in the locker room with Julie," Castelli said. "She had her iPad out. I had my phone, Mervin had his phone. We spent a whole day listening to 30-second snippets."

Castelli and Tran wanted to skate to classic rock music, inspired partly by 2015 world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, with whom they train in Montreal. Duhamel and Radford's free skate this past season was to a medley of pieces by the English rock band Muse.

"We really loved how Eric and Meagan's program ran this year," Castelli said. "It was so much fun listening to their music every day and watching the progress of their program. The way Julie composed their program is amazing."

Tran says he is a big fan of classic rock, and he and Castelli thought this type of music might form the basis for the kind of program they wanted next season.

"We really wanted to do more of a modern piece and connect with the crowd, get them involved," Castelli said.

"Something rock opera-esque, like 'Bohemian Rhapsody,'" Tran sdded. "It's rock, it's orchestrated with skating. Sometimes with rock, it's hard to do that for four-and-a-half minutes."

"We were tossing out any melodies we could think of that people would like," Castelli remembered. "Queen, The Killers, Aerosmith, Elton John, Billy Joel."

Almost as a joke, someone mentioned Journey. The American rock band from the 1970s and '80s has had a resurgence after being repeatedly performed in choral arrangements on the TV show Glee, which had a major hit in its first season with an arrangement of the 1981 hit "Don't Stop Believin'."

"I was thinking, 'What's a popular song that gets people excited?'" Castelli said. "Glee put lots of pieces together you never thought would blend."

After a lot of listening, Marcotte and the skaters decided to try a medley of Journey songs: "Don't Stop Believin'" in instrumental and vocal versions, "Open Arms" and "Any Way You Want It."

"I felt that one of the priorities was they would enjoy training the long," Marcotte said. "The other thing was, you will rarely find two people who are equally as good in skating skills. They are both so strong, and their feel for the ice and the rhythm is so similar, so I wanted to make sure the music would showcase that similarity. I really felt like 'Don't Stop Believin' was a really great representation of what they are and why they kept skating. So it was more the words and, of course, the energy of the music that nailed that concept down."

The next step was to whittle the three pieces down to 4:30. As usual, Marcotte turned to Hugo Chouinard to cut the music. And as usual, creating the cut was not easy. Tran called the editing process "hell."

"We were hoping to only use Journey, but a lot of the pieces fade out at the end and don't have an actual ending," he said. "We wanted to end with a bang. We looked at other performances, like from the musical Rock of Ages. Some cuts were uncomfortable, like an uncomfortable pair of jeans. It was trying to match a puzzle: [You] keep on putting pieces in and hoping they fit. We almost gave up on it a few times. There was always something off."

"It was too many rapid changes," Castelli said. "We couldn't find the right pacing of the program."

The music editing phase was so difficult that the whole concept was nearly scrapped.

"It was not really functioning as we were hoping," Marcotte said. "The first morning I was on the ice with them, it just melted, it just flowed -- everything was so perfect, [and] it felt so right. Hugo kept telling me, 'Julie, it will not be possible.' And all I kept thinking of was those faces of joy. So that night I stayed up until 4 a.m., trying to find out ways and tricks, and somehow, finally, it happened and Hugo could make it work."

The program will follow the usual pattern of a free skate, starting with strong music, shifting to a slower section in the middle, and finishing louder and faster.

"You want to start off with a few good tricks, and after that you need a slight breather -- you can't be 100 percent for the whole program -- and then you need to finish on a strong note," Tran said.

Once they finally had the music, Marcotte was able to focus entirely on choreographing for the team.

"Julie likes to accentuate the nuances of the music," Tran said. "It's easy to hit the big clash, but we have this one arm movement that happens on a super subtle piano note. If I were listening on my headphones, I wouldn't even have picked up on it."

"That's going to be our job for the season: to help the audience pick up on these music cues," Castelli added. "We're going to try and bring more of that as we perform more and more, to keep our program fresh."

"If we fall behind, we're going to be in big trouble," Tran said.

Next in Part 2: Working with the choreographer