A question I’m constantly asked is: “How do you pick your music?” Whether it’s a nasal Long Island accent or one from down south, it’s a common question and it’s hard to actually explain the importance of music in my life in the 10 seconds that someone stays interested in the question they’ve asked.
For me, the Olympic dream started with music. I remember very clearly listening to a disk of classical music in the car with my mom and hearing one phrase in a piece that instantly made me think of landing a flawless jump, under the bright lights of the Olympic Winter Games. It was Chopin. The phrase was one that gives me goosebumps to this day and that I can hear in my head without the music actually playing. That musical moment was kismet for my brain reacting to my career. While I didn’t end up using the Chopin piece in either of my Olympic appearances to date, I understood the dreamy imagery that a piece of music can create in a little boy’s head while he’s sitting in his mom’s car getting driven home from the rink.
Music selection has always been, like every other aspect of my life, mine and mine alone. I don’t take requests like a wedding singer; I don’t settle for something I half-like; and I don’t believe a person can give a performance that touches the audience without understanding and loving their music. While I have listened to suggestions from my coaches and choreographers over the years, and sometimes looking back, should have taken their suggestions, I believe in searching for that goosebump piece and making it work.
For my free skate at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, I skated a piece I’d entitled “Fallen Angel” that was made up of music from six different tracks and composers. The one that I’d selected and later created a free skate around was a melodic two-minute cello piece performed by Yo-Yo Ma and originally created for the Italian film “La Califfa.” The music was heaven, but only two minutes long and for a free program you need four minutes and 40 seconds of music, and aside from being boring and repeating this piece on a loop, I needed to find music that would match the piece as well as match the character that I’d created in my head – the fallen angel. While it’s not an easy venture, music farming is enlightening and so rewarding when you find just the right piece for a step sequence or spin on the last CD you begrudgingly listen to at midnight before going to bed.
Music and sound create memories just the same as all the other senses. You choose music that will make an impression, won’t offend anyone too badly, and that will leave a memory for yourself and everyone watching you. People may not remember the exact cello piece that I used in Vancouver, or the fact that I skated to “The Swan” by Saint-Saens – not “Swan Lake” by Tchaikovsky in 2006, but the memory is that I skated to something beautiful. I don’t remember what elements Katarina Witt performed in 1988 when she won the Olympic Games using Bizet’s “Carmen,” but I remember her death scene at the end and the classic church bells that signified her final pose and, ultimately, her glory.
I choose music based on feeling. I choose music based on imagination. Most importantly, I choose music that fits my life and the story I want to tell. For every skater the process is different, but the result is the same. The story you tell may be more important than the jumps you land when you look at your bio 30 years from now. The moment you create is what you’re remembered for, and the music is the soundtrack of that moment. When people ask me how I choose my music, I’ve learned one phrase that sums up everything I believe about music and figure skating to be true and I use it often: “I choose music that gives me goosebumps.”