This Is Your Song: Picking Music
Updated: Feb 3
In Hunting for Music we discussed how to get organized and gather a lot of great music options for your skaters. Now in this blog, I'll take you through my process for narrowing down those options to pick out the perfect skating music. I'll answer who should be involved in that process and give my BIGGEST secret when deciding on a program and ways to make sure you've made the right choice!
Who should be involved in selecting music?
Ok, so first let's start by discussing the great and mysterious Triangle of Power. Of course I'm talking about the ever delicate and ever changing balance of power between SKATER, COACH and PARENT. I'll dive more into the "Triangle of Power" in another blog but for the sake of discussing music selection it boils down to something like this:
SKATER: Has to listen to the music hundreds of times. The program will become part of their identity.
COACH: Has to use their experience to advise and present student in best possible light. A skater's performance is a reflection of the coach's work.
PARENT: Has to pay for everything. They invest substantial resources including money for coaching, choreographers, competitions and costuming.
From my experience, the "balance" in the Triangle of Power can vary greatly from family to family. I've been very fortunate to have had some successes with programs I've created, so when presenting music to a skater or parent I have some credibility at the start. Most often in my "triangle" I talk a lot with the skater to get a sense of what they want, then I present options I think will work until we find something we both agree on and then parents are given the first right of refusal.
Every family is different. I've had skaters who have picked out their own music and nothing else will do for them. In my experience this can go either way. I once had a skater medal at Nationals in intermediate with a song that she chose and I worked into a medley. I've also seen skaters who've picked their own music and the result looked something like when you let a 4 year old put on their own makeup. I've had parents with very strong opinions about what they'd like their child to skate to. I often find that parents pick out things that they would like their child to be ABLE to skate to. Sometimes bigger or more sophisticated pieces than what they are ready for. (think Clair de Lune at preliminary). I'll be the first to admit, I'm picky. As a coach, I have to put my name on the program and stand next to it so I'm going to put in the extra time and work to make sure it's right.
"One thing about skating that I don't think people focus on enough is the music factor. The music is a huge component of figure skating. It can dictate not only the choreography but the emotion. If it's not the right music it can ruin a performance."
- Vera Wang
What should be considered in deciding on a piece of music?
Different kinds of music work for different skaters. As we will discuss in my next blog, The Wrong Note, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is going off of how someone else looks skating to something. The same way I can admire someone in a spandex unitard, it may not be the best look on me. Think about your skater's strengths and weaknesses.
Musical: Give them something to work with. Pick music that has a lot of beats or nuances that they can hit choreographically.
Flexible: Everyone loves a good spiral! Pick music with a lot of crescendos to show their flexibility off.
Hard Worker: If you know the kid will be stamina trained by the end of the year, be more ambitious with faster music or a big ending.
Extroverted: Pick something with a fun character that the skater will get into and perform.
Cute: The cuteness factor is a thing! I like to say my cut off for "cute" ends around 10 years old but you only get to be cute for so long. Pick something to show it off.
Recreational: Be careful how complicated or fast the program is and honestly gauge if you will have enough time to train it.
Shy: I happen to think shy skaters need to find even better, more inventive music. If they have trouble performing, don't use anything showy but still make sure you're picking something that will be memorable.
Tight: Some music is sweeping and beautiful with high highs and low lows but if your skater doesn't have a good variety from the big 3 (spirals, spread eagles, ina bauers) they aren't going to have much to fill the piece with, this isn't their music.
My biggest musical secret:
One of my absolute, north star like guiding principles in selecting music is the familiarity complex. I first learned about this concept in Malcolm Gladwell's New York Times bestselling book "The Tipping Point" In his book Gladwell references research done by The Carnegie Corporation in 1967 as they were the first financial backers of the children's show Sesame Street. In this research they found that children were more relaxed and able to concentrate on material that they had already seen. I think of this like when I put on an old movie that I love when I'm folding laundry. It's hard to get anything done if you're watching some new show or movie because it requires your full attention. A part of your brain gets tied up processing and taking in new information, but an older, more familiar piece allows the listener to relax.
I think a lot about the "viewer experience" of different people when selecting a program. If you're an audience member your job is just to sit and watch the program and absorb. Like going to the movies, this can be really enjoyable and entertaining and with no other distractions it's interesting to take in something new. This is NOT a judge's experience. I repeat, THIS IS NOT A JUDGE'S EXPERIENCE! Judges have to be focused on elements, watching for details, writing notes and evaluating various abilities including musicality all in real time. I'm not saying it can't be done, judges are really remarkable, intelligent people but it's just human nature. I try to pick something that's going to be easier for them to follow.
Gladwell also references the most commonly used word in marketing, NEW. In his research, while consumers say they want something "new" their behaviors often prove otherwise. Gladwell uses examples like Heinz ketchup and even Sesame Street to prove his point. Now I'm not saying you have to keep recycling Carmen year after year but there are ways to find things that are familiar AND new to skate to and to me personally, that's the sweet spot.
PRO TIP: Take what's old and make it new.
In an example I used earlier, a skater came to me with a much lesser known song from a musical she had just performed in. It had been her characters song in the show and she wanted to skate to it. It was good enough, nothing bad about it but it definitely was not a stand alone song that would be competitive at the level we would need it to be. I took about a minute and a half of that song and mixed it with an instrumental version of one of the show's more popular songs and the program was very successful. Covers have also become largely popular for this reason, think Michelle Kwan Fields of Gold. New, but also familiar.
How will you know it's the one?
Try it before you buy it! So you've got a piece of music, maybe even 2 that you're thinking might be your new program. TRY THEM ON to see how they fit. I call them 30 second programs. I take the time with my skaters to put together 30 seconds of choreography to the music and see what they look like skating to it. I've always found that parents are more then happy for us to use that time to make sure everything is right before moving forward with all the effort of crafting an entire program. If you had to wear the same pair of jeans everyday for the next year, you would try them on first!