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On Teaching: lessons from figure skating

January 20, 2023

Lessons and questions from figure skating

This month I want to go out on a limb and write about something of which I know very little. This is intentional: I want to think about an art form from the perspective of an interested and absorbed—but by no means expert—appreciator of that art. This also carries risks, essentially the risk that some of what I say will be wrong or at least not quite correctly described. There is also the complementary risk that in writing this column I will pull back from saying some of what I want to say for fear that it will be wrong or dilettantish. But being willing to sound dilettantish occasionally is probably a valuable exercise—good for the soul. 

I know very little about the technical nature of figure skating. My way of interacting with it is that I do not know much about art, but I know what I like. And this is, perhaps, somewhat akin to the posture that we as musicians want or expect our listeners to be, though not ourselves or our students.

I have observed figure skating off and on over the years, not steadily, as I have baseball or golf. Most of what I want to write about here comes from my latest interest, which has been ongoing for several years. In the last few months ideas have been buzzing around in the back of my head, engendered by watching, but my thoughts have not been very well organized. These have concerned figure skating as an art, its relationship to other arts (dance and musical performance), and ways in which watching figure skaters do what they do can inform my work as a musician. I am trying to pin some of these ideas now to the point where they can appear in writing. But while what I will present here is not quite stream of consciousness or free association, it is a set of thoughts related to one another rather loosely. Some of these stray thoughts are directly about teaching, as any or all of them may relate indirectly.

In December 2014 I last wrote a column that was about sports—my own golf game. I play golf avidly and seriously, though not at the level of a professional. On the other hand, I am not a skater; in fact, it has been decades since I so much as put on a pair of skates. Those most recent attempts were in connection with school activities of my children; I barely went on the ice. I knew from bitter cold experience that attempting to skate hurts my ankles, badly enough that I simply could not do it. The earliest phase in my life when I had anything to do with the whole world of skating was in my childhood. Occasionally, I was expected to give it a try, usually at a birthday party. I always hurt, feared it, and felt trapped. While the social pressure encouraged me to stick it out, the pain in my ankles said otherwise. This is one set of memories that informs my reluctance to force students to do things with which they are uncomfortable. I wonder whether I am too reluctant in this regard. No one should play in a way that hurts physically, but do I let my desire not to make students feel trapped into doing things that are uncongenial shade over into failing to push them to take risks or try new things? 

As best I remember, the first time that I paid any attention to figure skating was around the 1968 Olympics, which was when Peggy Fleming was active. I had a sort of “better them than me” fascination with it. It seemed to me like it was natural and easy to them—at least in that they were not hobbling off the ice grimacing. At the same time, it seemed unfathomably difficult. But I still doubt that I had any conception of how hard they had to work to make what they did even remotely possible. I remember being more entranced by spins than by jumps. I also have realized, looking into this all now, that Peggy Fleming is literally the only skating name from those days that I even recognize. This may be in part due to her celebrity status and my own sense of nationalism.

It was not until about twenty years later that I really paid attention to figure skating again. My family became interested, and I became interested initially because of the school skating outings mentioned above. For someone who loved music and was deeply involved in it, I was remarkably detached from any interest in dance. I had never gotten anything out of watching any form of dance. I had formed a hypothesis that the need for dance steps to be discrete was somehow at odds with an overall sense that dance should be fluid. I am pretty sure that this is nonsense and that I was trying to sound analytical and knowledgeable when in fact I just had not happened to encounter any dance that I liked. 

But in the early 1990s I happened upon some of the ice dancing of Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean. I found out they were regarded as the greatest ice dancing pair of all time. They were extraordinary groundbreakers and innovators, mostly in areas of choreography and technique that I could not then and cannot now really understand. For me the point was that I loved watching their skating and dancing, and I felt convinced that it was the smooth gliding of the skates that made it possible for me to accept what I was seeing as an integrated and convincing art. Again, I think that this was a mistake on my part; the disparaging of land-based dancing was unfair. It is probably true that the gliding of the steps on skates creates some possibilities that are not there on a wooden floor, but the same is very likely true in reverse. Every art form has its own character. But the result for me was that my getting immersed in watching ice dancing at an extraordinary artistic level opened up for me the world of dancing in general. It took a while for that to grow to where it has been for some years now, that I seek out dance performances almost in preference to anything else when I look to go out as a spectator. But I began to be intrigued and to pay more friendly attention to dance after getting to know Torvill and Dean.

During that same era, I watched the 1992 Olympic performance of the American skater Paul Wylie. His longer program, called the “free skate,” was one of those artistic moments that really hit me; I was deeply entranced and moved by it, and I was not alone. It became a well-known phenomenon, and for some people, it was the best skating event that they have ever seen. Encountering that performance helped consolidate and strengthen my growing interest in dance. But there were several other things of note going on. First of all, one of the pieces of music that Wylie used in the program was a segment of Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony, a longtime favorite of mine.

This raises questions about how our reactions are shaped. Did I respond to that skating program more intensely because of happenstance, since it included a short excerpt from a favorite piece? Or is it possible that the same aesthetic predispositions that cause me to like that piece also caused me to respond well to the skating program? That would make sense if we assume that Paul Wylie and his choreographer were creating a meaningful artistic parallel to that music. In a way this is just saying that they were good at their job, that they knew what they were doing. Nonetheless, it seems likely that someone with an existing love for that piece will respond differently to the artistic whole of the skating program. From the point of view of someone creating that program, this is random. 

Paul Wylie came into that 1992 Olympic event as a very good skater—he would not have been there otherwise. But his career had not led the skating world to view him as an all-time great or as a favorite to do extremely well in the Olympics. He was not expected to win his event, since he had never won a major national or international competition. It was a bit of a surprise that he was one of the three skaters who represented the United States at the Olympics. That whole story is widely believed to have had an influence on the judges. Though he won a silver medal, many believed that he should have won a gold medal. No one is suggesting any sort of malfeasance on the part of the judges, just that what people see and how they react to it can be influenced by expectation.  

Over the last few years, I have watched figure skating regularly. I have seen substantial parts of most of the international skating events that have taken place in the last few years: International Skating Union Grand Prix events, various national championships, and the winter Olympics from earlier this year. All of these competitions follow a similar pattern: each skater performs a short program of around two minutes, and a longer program of about four minutes. These are not on the same day, as that would be much too grueling. 

These skating performances are executed to music, and the timings of the programs are defined quite precisely, so when a skater is performing to an existing piece they almost always end up cutting and rearranging that piece. (Once in a while a skater commissions a piece for the purpose.) In watching competitive skating, one has to get used to hearing a pastiche of pieces of music, often familiar ones. Sometimes this comes across as a quotation of the piece, and I believe that is how I reacted to the Saint-Saëns in Paul Wylie’s program. Sometimes it feels more like a disfigurement of the piece. I have reacted that way to excerpts from the Moonlight Sonata in which the (originally) beautifully paced segues are betrayed. This is probably just a fact of life for this kind of work. It would be impossibly restrictive for a skater only to use complete pieces, or even coherent sections of pieces, that happened to be the right length. I would guess that most of the gaps and juxtapositions that have bothered me would not bother someone who did not know the piece, and I am in that posture with much of what I have heard.

The most fascinating skating issue that I have tried to analyze is this old conundrum: is figure skating a performance art or an athletic pursuit? There is a straightforward answer to that question when it is posed as a simple question: both. But the tensions and interactions between the two aspects are fascinating. Each competitive skating routine has narrowly defined elements that it can or should contain. The most striking and difficult of these are jumps, but they also notably include spins as well as various other sorts of choreography.

The ins and outs of how these requirements are defined and shaped have changed over the years. In short, each performer or competitor has to execute several jumps and is judged in part on those jumps. The judging is based on how difficult the jumps are and how well they are done. There is enough leeway in the exact choice of what to do that it is possible for two skaters in the same competition to choose layouts that are meaningfully different in level of difficulty. It is then entirely possible for a somewhat less difficult jump, done more successfully, to win a skater more points than a more difficult jump done less successfully. This is something that goes into each skater’s planning. These are specific, difficult, athletic moves. At the same time, the overall scoring of each program also depends on the judges’ reaction to the artistry of what the skaters are doing. There are attempts made to contain these aesthetic/artistic reactions within objective bounds. These are widely acknowledged to be only somewhat successful. There is more than just a possibility that some skaters win or lose the athletic competition based on whether certain judges liked or did not like what they were doing as a matter of artistic performance. 

Is this okay for an athletic event? In golf, no one is judging the grace and artistic beauty of the competitors’ swings, at least not in a way that influences competitive results. And that is a good point, since reacting aesthetically to a golf swing is intrinsically possible. Most people who like to watch golf do so all the time, but that cannot affect the results of the game. That certainly does not mean that the way this plays out in figure skating is wrong. 

What about looking at it the other way round? If a dance performance is an artistic expression—or if someone reacts to it primarily that way, as I do—what effect does the presence of the athletic/competitive side have on the artistry? It constrains it. It is impossible that every skater would spontaneously include the same number of jumps and other elements in each performance if they were concerned only with effective performance. So, the artistic possibilities are by definition reduced, but maybe only from a larger infinity to a smaller one.

There is also the matter of emphasis. The great American skater Nathan Chen has done a lot of winning at the highest level. He is renowned for executing difficult elements well. He and his coach have said that they zero in on doing what it takes to win the competition. This leads to an emphasis on difficult and thus points-heavy elements. My own reaction to his competitive programs over the last few years has been that they are impressive from an athletic point of view and fun to watch, but clearly not the most expressive or artistically important programs that I have seen. Those belong for the most part to Yuzuru Hanyu and Jason Brown. Jason Brown is someone who cannot do the most difficult jumps—that is not where his skill lies. And this has meant that he has not won often in big events. He is often second, third, or worse, but his performances are riveting, compelling, and beautiful.

Yuzuru Hanyu is widely regarded as the greatest figure skater of all time, largely based on the expressive power of his performance. He has a number of wins similar to that of Nathan Chen. Although his technical prowess is extraordinary, it is not quite as prodigious as Chen’s, and he has rarely if ever beaten Chen head-to-head in a major event. 

Late last spring I attended a figure skating exhibition, a live show in which the skating was all for performance without judges. Among the performers was Nathan Chen. I was delighted to see that the two pieces that he offered were both wonderful artistically, significantly more expressive and compelling than anything that I had seen from him in competition. He accomplished some difficult jumps, and they were thrilling. But they did not drive and determine the whole content and feeling of the event.

I will leave this for now. All of this has something to tell us about the various relationships between technique, virtuosity, and expression in music. I do not feel like trying to pin down in words exactly what that might be; it is more fluid than that. I want to continue to let it swirl around in the back of my mind. I may return to the subject in some way in the future.

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