The length of the piece of music is also important, because the rules of every skating competition set a maximum program time. So a skater can try to find a piece of music that is already close to that maximum length – or find a longer piece of music, or a combination of different pieces, that can be edited to that length and still sound coherent. Because I’m really picky about music, I edit my program music myself, with the Mac program Cacophony. Other skaters may use a professional music editor or musician to do the cutting. Editing a piece of music to the required length can be a whole other job in itself – especially if the music has a continuous beat or motif that has to be maintained to make the edited piece sound consistent.
Another consideration is how much the skater likes the music. You will have to listen to it many, many, many times when you are practicing. If you don’t like the music initially, you may not ever learn to like it – and it’s very hard to perform a program convincingly if you are skating to music that you don’t “get”. And some pieces of music, no matter how good they sound on an MP3 player or computer, sound horrible on a speaker in an ice rink. For example, violins playing high shrill notes can be almost unbearable to listen to in a rink. And sometimes music with heavy bass notes sounds like nothing but bass rumblings on a rink’s speaker system. So even a great piece of music might not be usable if it doesn’t sound good in the rink.
Skating fans like to complain about pieces of music that are horribly overused in skating, such as excerpts from Carmen, , and selections from Les Miserables. While I too would be very happy never to hear any of these pieces in an ice rink ever again, there’s a reason that they’re used so much – they work. Developing a program is much easier and faster with familiar music that has already been used successfully.
Choreography for skating programs has evolved dramatically in the last decade or so, even at my level of competition. This is mostly because the judging system changed after the judging scandal at the 2002 Winter Olympics. The current judging system specifies required elements in a program, like certain types of jumps and spins. Each element is awarded points based on how difficult it is and how well it’s performed. Points are also awarded based on criteria such as skating skill, transitions between elements, the quality of the choreography, and the skater’s ability to interpret the music.
This method of judging is fairer than previous systems, because the judging criteria are more explicit. From the perspective of choreographing a program, however, it causes a number of problems. For one, there are elements that have to be in your program, even if they don’t fit the music or the idea of the program. So you and your coach have to figure out how to include those elements in the program without them looking too out of place.
There’s also the decision on whether to put in elements that aren’t required and which will get you more points – but which you might not always perform successfully. So there’s strategy involved in determining the content of the program. And then you have to take into account the levels which will be assigned to the elements when they’re performed; higher levels award more points for more complicated moves. This is less of a concern at my level of competition, where pretty much everything in a program is rated at Level 1 – but for elite competition, it can be a lot of work to design a program with enough detail and difficulty to get Level 4 ratings for all the elements.