As snare drums create a patriotic-sounding crescendo inside The Skating Club of Boston, Ross Miner launches into a two-jump combination. Then, the orchestral piece composed by Michael W. Smith for the album “Glory” takes a somber, discordant turn and Miner curls into a spin. His coach and choreographer Mark Mitchell watches the long program closely, making sure Miner’s moves synch perfectly with the music. Mitchell shouts, “Change your face here. A little bit lighter. Stretch that out.”
The musical changes in tone and tempo combined with the choreography offer an artistic interpretation of the Boston Marathon bombings, the confusion that followed, and the city’s resiliency. The program is called “Boston Strong.”
When Miner stops rehearsing, CDs switch and songs for other skaters play in the background. There are cuts of Carlos Santana’s “Black Magic Woman,” then a fast-paced tango.
The music-filled scene features skaters of all levels fine-tuning short and long programs for this week’s US Figure Skating Championships. The main events — championship level ladies, men, pairs, and dance — will be hosted by TD Garden starting Thursday. The top skaters will compete for spots on the US Olympic team and trips to February’s Sochi Games in Russia.
During every short and long program, the skaters’ music selection will play a major role, either successfully engaging the Garden crowd and pleasing the judges or falling flat.
“The right music for the right skater is so important,” said Mitchell, who selects the soundtracks for Miner, silver medalist at the 2013 US Championships, and other skaters under his tutelage. “You have to showcase their talent, showcase what they’re good at. At the same time, you have to broaden them and make them better each year. It’s a tricky thing. It’s important, too, that the skater really love the music and feel it.”
Bobby Martin, who also coaches at The Skating Club of Boston in Brighton, likens skating music selection to song selection in “American Idol.” “If there’s a country music artist, you’re not going to have them sing [a rock anthem from] Pat Benatar for the finale,” said Martin. Translation to figure skating: Classical, elegant music often works best for balletic, graceful skaters, while edgy, dramatic music typically fits better with powerful, athletic performers.
But there’s more to music selection with short (two minutes, 50 seconds) and long programs (four minutes plus) designed to entertain and incorporate required elements. In Olympic years, with big, international audiences and international judging panels in mind, skaters, coaches, and choreographers select music with wide appeal, something fans and judges in Boston can relate to as easily as fans and judges in Sochi.
Above all, the skaters must connect to their music and the characters they take on because of the music, whether it is a princess or James Bond. They must also like the music enough to listen to it day after day, though Miner confessed that skaters tire of hearing the same songs at practice.
“By the end of every season, I’m like, ‘Wow, I would be OK if I didn’t have to hear this again, ever again in my life,’ ” said Miner. “Then, sometimes you’ll catch yourself singing it in your head after you’re done skating for the day and you’re like, ‘Get out, get out. I told you I’ve had enough.’ ”
After working with Mitchell for more than a decade, Miner trusts his coach’s music choices. The only time Miner can remember rejecting a song was when Mitchell once suggested “International Love” by rapper Pitbull for a show program.
For Miner’s short program this season, Mitchell picked an orchestrated version of “The Way We Were” by Barbra Streisand. Originally, Mitchell saw the blond-haired Miner as a stand-in for the Robert Redford character in the movie, but the choreography actually reflects Miner’s personal journey through figure skating.
Listening to the album “Glory” after the Boston Marathon bombings, Mitchell heard the music’s patriotic, upbeat opening followed by two distinct crashes and thought of what happened on Boylston Street. The music and the idea of interpreting the events of Patriots’ Day and the days that followed seemed like a perfect fit.
“Mark told me about [the “Boston Strong” idea] and I was a little reluctant because I didn’t want to be taking advantage of a negative situation,” said Miner, a top contender for an Olympic berth in men’s singles. “Then, I heard the music and I thought, ‘Wow, I can really connect to this.’ I live in Watertown, less than a mile from the shootout. I could hear the flash bangs going off.
“The music wasn’t about the negative. It was about the civic pride and being Bostonian and staying together as a city. I thought that was something that I could really perform to. That’s why we went with that music.”
For her long program, Gracie Gold, silver medalist at the 2013 US Championships, will skate to music from “Sleeping Beauty” by Russian composer Tchaikovsky. She admitted the selection of the Tchaikovsky piece was done with Sochi in mind because it’s “traditional” and “Russian.”
The music selection for her short program proved more problematic. While she enjoyed skating to the modern-sounding, jazz-influenced “Three Preludes” by Gershwin, her coach Frank Carroll “worried it would be too modern for a lot of the judges.” In Boston, Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor will accompany Gold’s short program. She felt “an instant connection” with the music and said she loves training to it every day because “it’s so calm and beautiful.” Gold might bring the “Three Preludes” back in between Olympic cycles, but she believes that Tchaikovsky and Grieg are more appropriate for nationals and potentially the Sochi Games.
“For the Olympics, you want something that’s really memorable and really epic,” said Gold, who trains in El Segundo, Calif. “You want the kind of music and kind of program that people pull up on YouTube years and years later and, as they watch the skater, they remember that Olympic moment.”
With pairs and dance, music selection can be twice as tricky with individual tastes and a couple’s style to negotiate. Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, who also train at The Skating Club of Boston, have wildly divergent music preferences. When they took a very active role in selecting songs, it could be a long, tiresome process. Now, their Montreal-based choreographer Julie Marcotte takes the lead in the pair’s music selection, making the process more a sales job than a standoff.
“I’ve basically made them buy into the concept that having a choreographer who’s really passionate about what they’re doing gives them the freedom to choose based on how the two of them are developing and skating,” said the pair’s coach, Martin. “It kind of frees everybody up. They have no reason or right to fight or have their own personal opinions.”
This season, Marcotte chose a Carlos Santana combination for Castelli and Shnapir’s short program — “Black Magic Woman” and “Smooth” — and music from the James Bond “Skyfall” soundtrack for their free skate. There wasn’t much of a sales job needed. Castelli and Shnapir, who were the 2013 US pairs champions, are a strong, powerful couple that skate with an intensity that lends itself more to the stylings of Santana and the roles of James Bond and a Bond girl.
“This year is all about doing what you do well and capitalizing it,” said Castelli, who’s from Cranston, R.I. “What we do well is very in-your-face programs, big tricks, highlights on the music. I’m not a ballerina and neither is Simon. We’re not prancing through a forest. We’re going on a mission with James Bond.”
Shnapir, who’s from Sudbury, added: “Once we get comfortable and do enough run throughs, you start to take on the character. I try to add little touches. I’ll fix my cufflinks and adjust my tie, Bond-isms. I really get into character and the mood of the program.”
The in-your-face intensity of Castelli and Shnapir is a marked contrast to another local pair, Alex Shaughnessy and Jimmy Morgan. Watching Shaughnessy and Morgan practice in Brighton under the guidance of Martin, it’s clear they share a strong on-ice chemistry that can be highlighted by their music choice. “We know we’re very good with lovey-dovey kinds of stories,” said Morgan, who grew up in Windham, N.H. They noted that a strong platonic relationship helps them skate romantic programs.
Yet, for their first time competing at senior nationals this week, the pair is going slightly outside their comfort zone with a short program choreographed to Angel Gregorio Villoldo’s tango “El Choclo.” They are swapping lovey-dovey for intensity, at least for one routine. Shaughnessy and Morgan will skate their long program to softer, romantic music from the French film “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”
“We’re mixing it up,” said Shaughnessy. “It’s nice to have two different ends of the spectrum going on. You get to be romantic and loving and gentle in one program and firm and aggressive and big eye contact in the other. It’s nice to not have the same persona in every program.”
In the weeks before the US Championships, Mitchell kept adjusting program music, hoping that performances will come together perfectly for this week. If he noticed that a skater needed more time with a particular element, he slowed the music slightly. If a skater was ahead of the music in places, he nipped and tucked sections. Early on, Mitchell actually had the final measures of Miner’s long program reorchestrated to build to a bigger, more dramatic ending.
“Strategically you have to plan for the Olympic year, if you’re dealing with a skater at that level,” said Mitchell. “In the Olympic year, you need something that’s strong and powerful and going to bring the crowd to its feet.”
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.