Freestylers anxious to get started on a program, will sometimes select a piece of music that does not do justice to their dog nor the amount of time and energy they will come to spend on the program. I think it is better to continue to search for a good piece of music, rather than settle for a lesser quality (not to be confused with "sound-quality") piece.
If a handler is anxious to start freestyling, I think it is a better use of time to begin training some of the basic "non-standard" moves while the search for music continues. (While I’m not an advocate of choreographing this way (learning moves and then fitting them into a piece of music, but instead, listening to the piece and inventing moves specific to it) there is no harm in teaching and practicing the basic moves.)
These moves may include:
Backing (dog and handler side-by-side (either side), as well as face-to-face with the dog backing away from the handler)
Spins (sometimes called "twirls") on the right, left, in front of, or around the handler
Sidestepping (dog next to, or facing the handler)
And right sided heeling.
These are useful skills that are likely to be included in a freestyle program, in one size, shape, direction, or another. It takes most dogs a few months at minimum to become proficient at lateral and backing moves, so I find this to be time well spent.
Even if a handler takes the time to look for a really good piece of music, how will a he/she know when it’s been found? Below are many elements that I feel contribute to good "performance" program music. You may think of others as well.
(I say "performance" program because I’m referring to a freestyle number with which you will be most successful in a competition, or a public demonstration. "Personal" satisfaction often comes from selecting music with sentimental value, but it is an element that may likely not be appreciated by an audience unless you share the story behind it.)
Elements of good freestyle music:
The selection is a single piece of music, or includes a splice that still maintains the continuity or "feel" of the program versus a piece that has one or more jarring breaks in the music.
The music "airs" well over the sound-system… is not a selection that is so soft, subtle or "muddied" that it is difficult to hear.
There is some element of the music that is readily interpretable, for costuming and choreography purposes.
It elicits a reaction from the handler beyond, "yeah, I guess that would work…"
It includes some variances, for example…high points and low points in the music…a section where there may be an a cappella voice/melody or a sole drumbeat, for example or other interesting "sections" of music. This is in comparison to a monotonous piece with a repetitious melody. Musical variance, to me, is a very important element.
Lastly, the music should "fit" the team…both in its beat or rhythm, and in its "flavor".
Let’s examine these elements one at a time.
After a decade of figure skating, I have some strong opinions on cutting (splicing) music, but they are just that, "my opinions", and you may have your own. Mostly, I’m not a big fan of splicing. Most spectators (listeners) find the break disruptive. Splicing also breaks the flow of a program and I feel, to a degree, the concentration of everyone involved, including judges and the performers.
Frequently, I see performers, especially novices, attempt to use multiple musical selections in a single program. This happens for a number of reasons that I can see, and most have to do with the fact that they were seriously lacking in one of the above-mentioned elements.
For example, performers may decide to use one piece of music, but find that it IS rather monotonous. They feel therefore, the need to splice in a more upbeat selection. Sometimes you will find these programs repeat the splice so that they end the program with the same piece they started with…sort of a musical "sandwich"…monotonous-upbeat-monotonous. The same is true if a handler selects music that is very generic (themeless) and feels the need to introduce a second piece that provides some element with a theme or motif. In these cases, I would recommend a continued search until a better piece was found.
And lastly, the handler may want to splice several pieces together because he/she really likes them and wants to make use of all of them. I encourage performers to try not to succumb to this pressure. If this is the case, it would be better to create several programs…perhaps one for competition, one for 4-H or pet fair/demo’s, and one for a breed specialty awards banquet!
If freestylers feel compelled to splice together 2 pieces, there are some things that make a splice better. First, handlers can invest in having professional, or a computer whiz friend do the splicing. These people can monitor the music "visually" (digitally) and can practically cut the music at specific notes.
I recommend selecting pieces that relate to each other. For example, if a change of pace is desired… it’s good to choose pieces that have something in common…. Those that are from the same artist or from the same soundtrack, or album, or they’re in the same key, or they utilize the same featured instrument or the same vocalist. This will help soften the affront to the spectators ear.
In order to help the performer maintain concentration through the splice, try to have the first piece fade out over a few beats, allow a moment for everyone to collect themselves, and then, if appropriate, fade in to the next piece (from soft to loud). Sometimes this isn’t appropriate, say for example, if the second piece starts with a cymbal crash. That piece should start at full volume (no fade). If this is the case, make certain there was a pause beforehand so that you can strike a new pose and cue your dog to get ready for the "explosiveness" (and whatever move you have planned) of the next note.
Ok, next topic…selecting a piece that airs well. This concept became apparent to me at a pet-fair in the main hall of an Expo Center. I had been toying with a piece of music by Madonna called "True Blue". While I was there to demo a different program I happened to hear True Blue played over the sound system. It was so muddy and washed-out, that the lyrics (an important part of what I was going to interpret in this piece) where indecipherable. It changed my mind about using this music.
If a handler is narrowing down the music selections, playing the pieces in the car or outdoors where there is some background noise may help with the decision. Some ballads and classical pieces will not play well over a sound system. Music should broadcast strongly enough that it will help the handler keep his/her place in the program and "carry" the team, should they become nervous in front of the crowd.
Next: choosing music that will have some kind of a theme to interpret. This is mainly a consideration for competition. For demos, it is less important. Here are some examples that will require very creative interpretation… a new-age piece of electronic jazz…or Kenny G. on the saxophone. To me these pieces have less obvious themes to interpret, which may cause a beginner more difficulty.
More obvious pieces to interpret will be musical pieces that are linked to stories or events…like musical, or movie scores "Star Wars", Disney movies….pieces that are linked to specific era’s, like the Roaring "20’s, ‘40’s jazz, ‘50’s and ‘60’s rock and roll, or crooners, ‘70’s disco, etc…. pieces that relate to types of dance, like Latin dances, Country Western dances, specific dances like "The Twist" or "The Hustle", and music from specific geographical areas: German Polka’s, the Caribbean, etc….
These selections provide a handler with lots of valuable information to interpret. They can provide costume and choreography ideas, including: footwork, arm positions and how to lay out the program on the floor, even ideas for showmanship (how to "connect" with the audience).
Next, the handler’s reaction… If freestylers hear this sentiment once, they hear it a dozen times. The performer should pick something he really likes, because he’ll be singing it in his sleep by performance time. (In other words, listening to it a lot! Big grin!) Choose music that you connect with, or "speaks" to you in some way.
We’re on the home stretch!
Choosing musical pieces with some variances…high and low points. This includes such things as sections that build (crescendo) or soften, sections where all the melody falls away leaving only the beat for a few measures, or moments when instruments or voices are added one at a time. There may also be unique sounds that suggest specific moves to the performer. This is, in my mind, one of the most important elements in selecting freestyle music.
Even if a piece is found with what is believed to be the perfect beat (which we’ll get to in a minute) if it is the same, repetitive beat, melody, harmony and orchestration for 3 minutes, it will not be a fun and enjoyable performance for the team or the audience. During a long piece of monotonous music, the psychic energy (I’m not trying to be silly here, but everyone knows that there is an energy to a crowd) will drain away, negatively affecting both human and canine performers.
On occasion, a very skilled team can carry off a piece of music that does not have many, or any, highs and lows. These are pieces that are VERY upbeat and being performed by teams that are equally as lively.
Selecting a piece based on how it fits the team….
At this point, I realize that it might be valuable to define a few historical points for the very new freestylers who may be reading this. Very briefly, there are presently two "schools of thought" of "styles" of freestyle being performed in the U.S. today. One of these "styles" was started in Canada by a group called Musical Canine Sports International (or MCSI). I am a student of MCSI "style" of freestyle,and it’s this perspective I’ve been using in this article, and which will become even more apparent in this last section.
Very, very generally, MCSI freestylers move to the music, whether that means walking to the beat or in the absence of a beat (like classical music) to the "phrases" of the music. This philosophy accommodates both those who feel they ARE musically inclined as well as those who feel they are not.
For example, many handlers are drawn to freestyle because of their love of music. They enjoy listening to it and singing and dancing in their living rooms. For these people, moving to the music is a must. They are able, and more importantly, WANT to move to the music. In fact, many of these freestylers express a distinct discomfort if it is suggested that they do anything other than step to the beat.
But there are other dog-trainers who insist that they are not musically inclined and are in NO way dancers. They may be drawn to freestyle because of performances they have seen or a desire for a new canine activity. For these handlers, people who feel that they may not be as "graceful" as others, worries can be eliminated by choosing a beat, which is close to their normal heeling pace. In this way, even the "non-dancer" can move about the freestyle ring presenting a smooth and artistic picture to both judges and audience.
Many freestylers have obedience backgrounds and know that dogs look good and stay focused when the handler moves faster as opposed to slower. For a beginner, I recommend a piece with a strong or discernable beat that is as fast as the beginner can manage (taking into account any health limitations of either dog or handler). Pieces that have slower or nonexistent beats may be better saved for a time when the team has advanced in technique and skill.
It is possible to purchase inexpensive (approx. $20 U.S.) tiny, handheld metronomes at music stores. By experimenting with different speeds, a handler can narrow down a range of beats (per minute) that work well for him/her.
During music selection the handler can have the metronome "tick" off his optimal beat at the same time the music is playing. This will tell the handler if indeed this music would be in his "range". (This is especially helpful in situations like lending libraries or listening to radio music in the car. If handlers take their metronome with them, they do not have to actually "walk" it to know if it would be a good match or not.)
All of this is not to say, however, that the handler must move to every single beat in the music. There are excellent freestyle selections in which a handler could step to every OTHER beat of a very fast rhythm. There are selections, which might be thought to be just a smidge too slow, but if the handler could lengthen his stride by a few inches (in order to cause the dog to "drive" a bit more) would work fine.
It’s also valuable to consider any physical limitations at this point. If a dog or handler has physical conditions that will limit their speed, a more "stationary" program can be designed. Now, I’m not saying this would be the ideal competition program, but freestyle appeals to many handlers exactly because they or their dogs can no longer jump and run quickly.
Stationery programs can include more non-standard moves in one spot, and more lateral moves. Some teams are more comfortable performing lateral moves at a bit slower pace. In these cases, after lateral moves are taught, a handler can "time" these sidesteps with the metronome to find a pace best for them, and help in music selection.
Lastly… choosing music that fits the team in its "flavor". This is a highly subjective element, but one that warrants discussion. Beginners should give a little thought to "who" they are, and even perhaps, how they are, or care to be perceived. There are no "shoulds" here, but music does convey all the human emotions… humor, grief, joy, power, anger, and kindness. Some dogs and handlers are bouncy, some are sleek and serious, some are powerful, and some are cute. A good freestyle selection will reflect the nature of the team.
Now, is it realistic that a performer will find all of these elements in one piece? Most likely not. Rather, by having an awareness of what comprises a good piece of music, freestylers can weigh their options as they choose music. Most often it comes down to choices, and which elements are most important to the team. Best of luck.
Lake Oswego, Oregon
Caroline had been a contributing author to the MCSI newsletter. Prior to her involvement with musical freestyle, Caroline was a competitive figure skater and equestrianne.