Jumping to music in figure skating

Japanese translation: link.

One of the six bullets that guarantee a positive GOE evaluation of jumps in figure skating is ‘matching the music’. But what does that mean — ‘matching the music’? How can a skater jump to the music, and how music can accentuate and amplify his or her jump, and even conceal some of its weaknesses? This is a number of questions that this post aims to respond to, if not answer definitely. What I will try to explain and illustrate here is the means by which music does exactly that, on condition that jumps are placed in the program with an understanding of how music works, with respect to its phrasal and harmonic structure, form, and so on.

Jumps on climactic points

Jumps are without doubt the most dynamic and explosive elements in figure skating, so positioning them around climactic musical points — the points at which music is at its peak in terms of energy and dynamics, too — would always sound and look very natural. This placement is particularly attractive when a skater has ‘big’ jumps (which s/he normally puts at the beginning) that could respond adequately to a loud and powerful sound. What typically happens in this case is a building of musical energy and tension, then a brief pause, and finally a loud ‘explosion’ that corresponds to the jumping pass itself.

Where there is a brief pause between the building tension and the climax, a skater needs to listen to the musical material very carefully in order to match this pause with a preparation of his/her jump, and then either take off or land the jump itself precisely on the beat; otherwise the effect will be lost.

That Yuzuru Hanyu has this sense of musicality and is able to respond to any musical challenge is not a secret. His first quadruple toeloop from the 2014-15 ‘Phantom of the opera’ is a good testament to this musicality: the match is indeed perfect.

One of the high points of Boyang Jin’s programs is understandably his quadruple lutz, which his choreographer Lori Nichol always tries to emphasize and amplify with music. This particular case, however, lays bare the dangers of missing the point: Boyang’s take-off and landing are slightly ‘off the beat’, which results in a slight, but clearly perceivable, asynchrony between music and jump.

Jumps as ‘choreographic amplifiers’ occur often in Daniil Gleikhengauz’s programs. A 3-3 combination is used in this position In Alexandra Trusova’s 2018-19 SP

and Alyona Kostornaya’s FP from the same year:

Something of a similar kind happens in the final climactic section of Kaori Sakamoto’s FP as well, only here this section is more extensive both musically and choreographically: it starts with a choreo sequence (spirals) which is then followed by the last jumping pass of the entire program (3Lo). This jump accentuates the highest point of the musical and choreographic development.

II. Jumps on melodic peaks

In the last two examples above a climactic point in music coincides with its melodic peak, so both examples fit equally well into this category, too. However, melodic highpoints do not necessarily occur in louder sections, so it makes sense to consider the structure of a melodic line and its relation to jumps separately.

One clear example of how this particular aspect can work independently from the idea of a dynamic growth is Mikhail Kolyada’s quadruple lutz from his 2017-18 SP. Mozart’s music is hardly ‘climactic’ here, but if you pay attention to the melodic structure, it will become clear that the take-off is well balanced with the melodic peak and the jump itself, with its landing, follows the downward trajectory of the melody. In other words, going up and down choreographically is synchronized with the melodic ups and downs in the music.

Another example where melodic peak sounds very soft and gentle comes yet again from Kaori Sakamoto’s 2018-19 FP: the landing of her double axel is perfectly synchronized with the highest note of the musical phrase. There is yet a long way to go until the climactic section of the entire piece will be reached.

Landing on a high note is something that pair skaters like to do, too. One excellent example is Pang-Tong’s throw from their now legendary Olympic FP that brought them the silver medal.

This kind of musicality shines through many of Shoma Uno’s programs. In the first Turandot version of 2015-16, the second quadruple toeloop nicely emphasized one of Nessun dorma’s melodic peaks.

Undoubtedly, one of the most beautiful examples of this kind is Shoma’s triple axel from the 2016-17 Ladies in lavender: the spinning motion in the air is articulated by an ascending melodic motion, and the landing — by its ultimate highpoint. This beauty has not gone unnoticed.

III. Jumps on the beat

This is what first comes to mind when one thinks about matching jumps with music. The idea is simple and consists in a rhythmic coordination of jumping passes with the underlying musical rhythm and meter. More often it is the landing that gets its rhythmic emphasis, but some skaters prefer to match ‘strong beats’ with their take-offs (which is simpler, but still very attractive).

Alina Zagitova’s controversial Olympic ‘Don Quixote’ stirred a fair amount of critique for looking unbalanced and seemingly more ‘technical’ than ‘artistic’, but what one cannot dismiss easily in this program is the way jumps are matched to the underlying rhythmic structure.

The first example was in reality an unexpected force majeure: because Alina did not jump her signature 3Lz-3Lo combo at the beginning, she had to put the second jump after her second 3Lz in the middle of the jumping marathon. In terms of musico-choreographic correlation, this worked out really well.

Yuzuru Hanyu, whose musicality I have already mentioned at the beginning, never ever jumps without some musical justification — his jumps are never void of musical content. In his 2018-19 ‘Otoñal’ the first two jumping passes begin neatly ‘on the beat’.

A strong beat is not necessarily a loud ‘bang’, it can be a very soft and delicate piece of phrase. In Adelina Sotnikova’s Olympic FP one of her combinations is done in such a way that both jumps are landed on the strong beat, although there is nothing particularly loud here in the music.

Pair skaters often use the same kind of rhythmic coordination in their jumping passes and throws. In Boikova-Kozlovsky’s powerful ‘Nutcracker’ one of the two throws nailed it.

IV. Timbral emphases

This is a rather rare guest in figure skating, but when it does occur, it always sounds very effective. The trick is to emphasize a jump not dynamically, melodically, or rhythmically, but simply by juxtaposing it with an unusual musical ‘color’ (timbre) — for instance, with drums, as here

or with an unusual guitar sound, as in Takahiko Kozuka’s program. In this case there is no need to synchronize the jump rhythmically with music — it will gain its distinctive ‘voice’ from the unusual juxtaposition anyway.

Voice, too, is a timbre that can be used to accentuate the jump. A very interesting and truly unforgettable example of this kind occurs in Jun Hwan Cha’s idiosyncratic ‘Romeo and Juliet’: on ‘JULIETTTTT!’.

One of Shoma Uno’s jumps deserves a separate category, I think, as it fits so many simultaneously. The beauty of his first triple axel from ‘Loco’ (particularly in the GPF 2016 version) lies very much in the sound and color provided by music: in the ‘glissandi’ spiraling down before the take-off and then the ‘bang’ on the landing. But it is also synchronized rhythmically (clearly, the landing is ‘on the beat’) and in addition marks the end of the entire section of this program, thus fulfilling all requirements for the next category as well.

V. Jumps as structural (‘cadential’) markers

Jumps are very effective when it comes to articulating the musical structure, more specifically the phrase endings (‘cadences’). Curiously, the word ‘cadence’ itself stems from the Latin ‘caedo, -ere’ whose basic meaning is ‘to fall’ — metaphorically speaking, cadences make the phrase ‘fall down’ and end. Of course, falling down on jumps is very much undesirable, but the analogy must be clear: landing a jump is in some way similar to ‘landing’ a musical phrase, that is, bringing it to the end.

There are many examples that show how choreographers (either consciously or just following their musical instincts) showed this respect to the way music is structured. Take, for instance, Mao Asada’s and Rika Kihira’s use of their triple axels, both landed precisely on the final cadence of their respective musical phrases:

In Evgenia Medvedeva’s ‘Extremely loud and incredibly close’ (2016-17) one of the jumps marked the end of the extremely loud section.

Men use this trick no less often. In Chopin’s ‘Ballade no. 1’ Yuzuru Hanyu’s quadruple salchow coincides with the strong beat, melodic peak, and the cadential arrival: three in one.

In Patrick Chan’s sublimely beautiful ‘Elegy’ triple axel — the least favorite of the skater’s jumps — clearly marks the end of the musical phrase. He did it really well this time.

In Carolina Kostner’s painful ‘Ne me quitte pas’ a similar effect is reached by juxtaposing the musical ending with the first 3-3 combination.

Boykova and Kozlovsky did both jumping passes on phrase endings, moreover the phrases themselves are practically identical.

Finally, the Chinese pair Wenjing Sui-Kong Han (together with their choreographer Lori Nichol) made their first element (sbs 3T) coincide very neatly with a soft ending of the entire musical phrase.

VI. Jumps and textual motifs

The opportunity to use lyrics to accompany a program arose just a few years ago, so it is little surprise that the opportunity to link specific elements like jumps to the motifs in the text is still rarely explored. Nevertheless, there are some interesting examples here as well.

In Yuzuru Hanyu’s 2016-17 SP (‘Let’s go crazy’) the signature triple axel is accompanied by the following words:

Are we gonna let the elevator

Bring us down?

It is precisely on ‘bring us down’ that Yuzuru lands — or ‘brings down’ — his jump. Its relation to this textual motif is clear.

In Shoma Uno’s ‘Loco’ — an extremely bold and innovative program in many respects — this relation is pushed even further. Two jumping passes seem to respond to the textual motifs of flight and … jumping when they appear on verbs like ‘saltare’ (I will jump) and ‘vola’ (fly):

Loco! Loco! Loco!

Como un acrobata demente saltare… 

Vola conmigo ya! Veni, vola, veni!

At the beginning of Kaori Sakamoto’s 2018-19 SP, too, the motifs of flight and wings take centre stage. Even though the 3-3 combination occurs slightly later, on ‘dreaming’, there is clearly some connection between the jumping pass and the entire textual phrase.

From my first moment you gave me wings,

Let me fly, let me sleep in my dreams

VII. Silent jumping

My overview started with jumps on climactic points, in which the powerful energy of the element itself was made to correspond to the musical energy and its kinetic power. Viewed under this light, ‘silent’ jumps might seem a bit of a waste of energy. Yet this combination proves effective when used accordingly. In some way it is similar to a circus trick: the tension builds up, reaches its climax, when finally in the ensuing silence the acrobat performs his dangerous trick.

A very effective example of this kind is Yuzur Hanyu’s quadruple toeloop from his record-breaking free skate at the 2017 Worlds.

Shoma Uno’s recent ‘Moonlight sonata’ often uses silence in a very meaningful way. His first 3A acts as a transition from the slow first movement of the sonata to the fast finale, maintaining the energy choreographically when the music dies away:

In a similar way, Daisuke Takahashi’s opening 3F-3T combination at the 2010 Olympics absorbed all energy and tension from the preceding phrase, turning it into the kinetic explosion of the jumping pass itself.

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Examples could be multiplied ad infinitum, but it should be sufficiently clear at this point just how many interesting opportunities music may provide for articulating jumps, for making them a meaningful part of the choreographic whole. One GOE bullet is a useful way to earn more points, but music has much more to offer: beautiful jumps fitted into the musical structure allow to build a convincing narrative that the audience would be eager to follow. They help create stories that we like to listen. They create memorable programs that jump right into our hearts.

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