Beyond 'Carmen': Finding the right piece of music

Skaters talk about how they choose program music that suits them best

Everywhere he goes, Adam Rippon listens for music he could use for a skating program.
Everywhere he goes, Adam Rippon listens for music he could use for a skating program. (Tom Briglia)


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By Sarah S. Brannen, special to
(04/23/2012) - As soon as the last competition of the season is over, skaters start the search for music to skate to for the next season. In fact, most skaters listen to music all the time, trying to find the perfect piece to show off their strengths, inspire their skating and bring audiences and judges into their programs.

When the 2012-13 season gets under way in a few months, skaters will perform their new competitive programs, and fans will get to hear which music they have chosen to interpret. Several skaters recently took the time to share an inside look at how they find their program music.

"To be honest, you're always listening," former British ice dancer John Kerr said. "When you go to the movies, when you go to a concert, your first thought is, 'Do I like it?' and your second is, 'Do I want to skate to it?' It's best to have some options. You have to get it past your coach, past your partner, past your judges, and that can be problematic."

"I think the search for music is never-ending," U.S. silver medalist Adam Rippon said. "A lot of times pieces will just fall into your lap. I'm always looking for music, and I'm always listening to music. Just from skating, whenever I hear a piece, I immediately wonder if I can skate to it. I can't even go to the movies without listening to the music."

Skaters often save pieces they think might work for the future, sometimes for years.

"In the past, I've had music I've always wanted to use, and I was just waiting for the right time," Jonathan Cassar said. "And other times things have just popped out at me, in a movie or in an opera or background music in a restaurant! And I think, 'This might be a really good program -- I should investigate it.' I feel like the more I try to find something, the harder it is. I don't investigate and search all the time; that's almost counter-productive for me."

"When you hear a piece of music and it's the right one, you know it's the right one," said Paul Parkinson, who competes for Italy. "I can see myself skating to it, so that makes it so much more comfortable."

Ashley Wagner also says she listens to music all the time, looking for something different.

"Throughout the entire season I'm looking for pieces of music that strike me as interesting and new," Wagner said. "I think that skating has some pieces of music that might need to be laid to rest, and it's always good to get something new in the sport.

"Last year I said to Phillip [Mills] that I wanted something that no one has touched. He had actually used the Pollock number but had never choreographed it for a singles skate. I loved it and knew that that was what I wanted to do."

Wagner and Rippon both competed at the World Team Trophy in Japan, so their seasons have only just ended. Neither has really started the decision-making process on music yet.

"It's still really early, and I'm still training my programs," Rippon said last week. "Sometimes I feel like I'm cheating on my programs if I look for music for next year. I'm trying to stay in the moment. I've been looking for pieces, and I'm finding a direction that I'm liking, but it's way too early."

Sometimes skaters bring music to their coaches and choreographers. In other cases, a choreographer will pick out a piece he or she feels is perfect for the skater. It's often a long, time-consuming process, involving plenty of opinions other than the skater's own personal taste.

"[Last season] I went to Pasquale [Camerlengo] and Shae-Lynn [Bourne] with no idea of what I wanted to do," Rippon said. "I wanted them to have me as a blank canvas. This upcoming season I still have a lot of music I have set aside to talk to Yuka [Sato] and Jason [Dungjen] about.

"Throughout the year there are pieces I keep, thinking maybe one day I'll skate to them. But then you play the music on the ice and you're like, 'What was I thinking?' "

Wagner says that she and her choreographer, Mills, have an even collaboration.

"Phillip definitely keeps his eye out for me," she said. "He gets a feel for what I'm looking for, and he'll bring in some options, and I'll bring some things, so there's lots of room."

Parkinson says the process varies depending on the choreographer.

"Some suggest music, some don't suggest anything at all," Parkinson said. "You can suggest the genre or style, and they can pick something for you. I'll pick six to eight things I like and then go over them with my coaches, and then together we'll send the top three or four to the choreographer. Ultimately, you're the one who's skating to it, so you should be the one who enjoys it."

Most skaters agree that short programs call for very different kinds of music than free skates.

"The short program is where I have the most freedom of style," Wagner said. "You can do a lot with it. In a long program, you need a lot of variation, ups and downs. For the long program, I like to tell a story -- it makes it more entertaining for me to skate every day."

"I always find picking long program music harder than short," Parkinson said. "Everything I listen to sounds great for a short. I don't really look for a specific genre; I try to find something that's known but not overused, not something that everybody skates to, which makes it tough, because I get really picky."

Free skate music, in particular, needs to have several different moods and tempos, all squeezed into just a few minutes. That's one of the reasons movie music so often works; it has a lot of emotional highs and lows, with fast shifts between them.

"There are so many different directions that music can take you in a program," Cassar said. "There are times where it's a great piece of music, but it just never works out. I want so badly to skate to something, but it never evolves.

"Skating is very difficult, because the music has to be two minutes, 50 seconds or four minutes, 40 seconds, and that's not much time."

Parkinson is in the midst of choosing music for his free skate.

"I've been going through many possible different options," he said. "I've been trying to incorporate a classical piece with a modern twist, a slow orchestral part and then maybe a techno part to get the crowd going. You either don't find enough music, or you find too much music to fit in."

"I usually use the long program as an opportunity to improve certain aspects of my skating," Wagner said. "Last year I thought I needed to be more graceful, so I was thinking of something more classical, but I didn't want it to be soft. I had been looking all year until I saw the movie Black Swan."

All the skaters said the choreographic process begins with the music.

"The last program I did with David Wilson, I wanted to know what he did that made his programs so unique," Rippon said. "He thinks the most important thing is the music and the edits. I try to listen to music the way he taught me to.

"He'll listen to the whole piece, and then take notes on every single thing that he liked. Even a single cymbal, something so simple. And then you narrow it down, from 20 minutes down to seven minutes. You pick and choose what will work best with the elements. It makes it look like we're making the music happen rather than the other way around."

"I think Sinead and I were always very independent," Kerr said. "We had strong ideas about what we wanted to create. I don't know if it was pride or something, but we wanted it to be our idea. We were open to listening to new music, but we weren't always as open when people brought ideas to us.

"It's funny because I'm coaching a bit now. When I come up with ideas, I'm thinking, 'Do I save that for myself or use it for a student?' "

Ultimately, skaters have to make a choice between skating to familiar music that the audience knows or finding something original and new. Michelle Kwan, for several years of her senior career, always made a point of skating to music that hadn't been used before. It can be hard to pull off.

Cassar, known for his artistry, says that the type of music skaters choose depends somewhat on where they are in their careers.

"If you're in the beginning of your career, you might want something new, to get people's attention, or something familiar," Cassar said. "There's not a lot of pressure on me; it's a little bit bittersweet, because I've never been on top. I've always been able to skate to the music I want; I never had to fulfill other people's expectations. I never had to skate to music that someone's telling me I should skate to.

"Sometimes there's pressure to create something special, and people are trying so hard to be something that other people want."

"I like to change it up so that I always improve myself," Rippon said. "Everybody complains when people skate to Carmen or Swan Lake. It's an added bonus if no one ever skated to it before, but people are really drawn to warhorses. If the skater really likes it, if they enjoy it, it's contagious.

Everybody's heard Swan Lake a million times, but I loved Ashley's program. If you're passionate about, it you can sell anything."