Figure skaters count on music to hit all the right notes with judges

Figure skating is one of the only sports where music is a performance requisite. It must suit their strengths and carry universal appeal. In an Olympic year, making the right choice and sticking with it is crucial.

'Music has the ability to create those iconic Olympic figure-skating moments' former skater says

Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro of Canada skate their free program in the pairs competition at Skate Canada International in Vancouver in October. (AFP via Getty Images)

What's in a song? In figure skating, it's everything.

Nail your jumps, lifts or spins in unison with musical highs or flawlessly execute a drag on a low, and the routine comes to life for the audience and judges, who in turn, can become emotionally influenced in scoring a program.

"It's your vehicle, it's like having a Porsche versus a Dodge Neon," says Asher Hill, a former ice dancer on Canada's national team.  "Humans have emotions, music makes people feel. Music has the ability to create those iconic Olympic figure-skating moments."

Figure skating is one of the only sports where music is a performance requisite. It must suit their strengths and carry universal appeal. In an Olympic year, making the right choice and sticking with it is crucial.

"The Olympics are a wider, broader audience, you want people to recognize it," says Carol Lane, a long-time coach and choreographer. "You want the judges to fall in love with you and the audience likewise.

"Music can put you over the top. In the end, if you have nine judges bawling their eyes out and pressing the 5-button, you did it right."

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier use the Beatles' Long and Winding Road in their program, which they say defines their journey to Beijing. (AFP via Getty Images)

Different requirements

Choosing music has different requirements for the short and long programs.

"The short will always be a little more of an energetic program, more like an 800-metre sprint," Hill says. "That same energy is harder to sustain for a four-minute program so often you will get slower pieces of music. That's kind of the formula, fast exciting short, slower emotional build long."

Lane commissioned the British duo Govardo to arrange and cover The Beatles' The Long and Winding Road for their free dance. In the lyrics of both programs, she drew a parallel to their path over the past decade together.

"Paul broke his leg (ankle) and missed Sochi, Piper's mom died after Pyeongchang, but they have toughed it out, they both love what they are doing and they are old enough to realize the journey."

WATCH | Gilles, Poirier skate to Long and Winding Road:

Gilles and Poirier win Canadian ice dance title

7 months ago
Duration 7:44
Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier won by a convincing 12.59 points at the National Figure Skating Championships.

Gilles and Poirier have had success with their program leading into these Olympics, winning two gold medals at the Autumn Classic and Skate Canada International events and a silver at the Internationaux de France, before taking their second consecutive national ice dance title in January.

Their counterparts on the pairs side have encountered a winding and often bumpy road of their own en route to these Olympic Games.

Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro employ Hold on Tight by Forest Blakk for the short and Carry You by Ruelle featuring Fleurie in their free skate. 

After an eighth-place finish at the Finlandia Trophy in Espoo, they knew they had to act quickly to alleviate issues in their short program and so for the first time in their partnership, it crossed their minds to scrap it for an older version. Instead, they chose to hold on and elected to fly in choreographer Mark Pillay who adjusted the order of elements. 

They drafted Montreal-based composer Karl Hugo to recut the song they initially sourced from a Grey's Anatomy episode, adding a composition to the middle that went with their coreo sequence. 

WATCH | Moore-Towers, Marinaro skate to Ruelle's Carry You:

Moore-Towers and Marinaro capture Canadian pairs title

7 months ago
Duration 7:56
Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro blew the field away, winning by 26.02 points, at the National Figure Skating Championships.

It's a long way off from the Pink Floyd medley they used in 2019, three years before these Olympics when skaters are more apt to take a risk with their soundtracks.

"We felt like we needed to take those risks in years that were less critical so we could know exactly where our strengths were," Moore-Towers said. "There is quite a lot that goes into picking the music and dependant on the year that you are choosing the music for, how big of a risk you are willing to take will vary. In an Olympic year, you're not really going to take a risk."

The main litmus test for a prospective piece is how it resonates over the arena's speakers. It was in this phase that Keegan Messing sensed something was amiss in his short program. 

Never Tear Us Apart just didn't sound right as he skated to it this past off-season as he trained in his hometown of Anchorage, Alaska. But it didn't spell the end for INXS' 80s hit advocated by Lance Vipond, the man tasked with constructing his short routine.

Keegan found a grittier cover by the late Joe Cocker on YouTube and combined the two.

"There were parts of (Joe Cocker's) voice that filled the empty space in a rink better," said Messing, who only arrived in Beijing Monday morning after testing positive for COVID. "It was kind of fun to bounce back and forth a little bit, it made it a fun program to go out and skate, it has this raw power feel." 

WATCH | Keegan Messing skates to Joe Cocker's Never Tear Us Apart:

Keegan Messing leads at nationals after men's short program

7 months ago
Duration 5:38
Messing posted a score of 84.38 in the short program to lead at the National Figure Skating Championships.

Beijing will be the second Olympics in which skaters can perform to music with lyrics, though ice dance has had the luxury since 1997-98.

Canada's lone women's individual skater is also a brand-new Canadian title holder who wasn't going to wait to achieve clout before giving her input on the auditory component of her program.

"I do like to have a say in what I skate too," Madeline Schizas said "This year the main goal was to pick things that were well received above all else (by judges and officials).  It was to stay in my wheelhouse, stay with what I was comfortable with this year, just because it is an Olympic year and there is not enough time to re-do a program."

Schizas has completed Level 8 Piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music and is also a fervent user of Spotify, which is where she found the music for her short program. My Sweet and Tender Beast by Moldovan composer Evgeni Doga had been saved on her playlist for quite some time with this season in mind.

Still though, she describes a collaborative process with those immediately involved in the routine, from there the song choices go to "an outer ring of people" mostly within Skate Canada for input on how it may be interpreted and evaluated.

"The free skate is always a bigger task," she says. "It's four minutes, you have to pick something that's fairly serious generally speaking, that can keep everyone's attention."

For that she chose selections from Madam Butterfly.

"She's very familiar with classical pieces, that's her comfort zone," Hill said. "Especially during an Olympic year, you want to stick with that."

Hill sequenced her short program, while Vipond structured the free skate. Hill said both selections play into Schizas' forte of being a physically powerful skater who can attack and cover the ice with grace.

What will be different this year are the limited audience sizes because of COVID-19 restrictions. The reaction of the crowd is often key for skaters.

"You see people get to their feet towards the end of the program when the music is really pulling you out of your seat as the skate is going that well," said Alison Purkiss, who coaches Moore-Towers and Marinaro. "It's like watching a great movie or a poignant moment in a drama, music makes all of the difference in those moments, it'll be interesting to see what happens with no crowd at an Olympic games, we have never really experienced that."

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