Building a 'Tip Top' Musical Freestyle

Freestyle designer Karen Robinson explains how she selected the music for U.S. dressage team Olympian Leslie Morse and her stallion Tip Top.

The key to emerging from a freestyle project with a program that really shines is to strike a balance between the horse’s character and expression, and the rider’s tastes. Also weighing into the equation, of course, are potential audience and judge appeal, although, when you find music that really suits the horse, it almost always meets with spectator approval.

?Practical Horseman. All Rights Reserved.

Leslie Morse and I have been working toward achieving the freestyle that Tip Top has been performing in Europe during this summer of 2006 since I first designed his Intermediaire I freestyle in 2004. The music and choreography have undergone several changes, each one an improvement on the previous version.

When I began to look for music to suggest to Leslie for Tip Top, my first thought was that I wanted his freestyle to be very different in mood from her other Grand Prix stallion Kingston’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” music. Aside from not wanting to typecast Leslie with similar sets of music, I thought it was crucial to emphasize how different Tip Top is from Kingston, a huge presence in the arena, exuding power and drama.

Tip Top is a smaller but charismatic stallion with great elasticity in his gaits. I didn’t have to suggest many ideas before Leslie and I agreed on the sexy and swingy sound of “Fever” for his trot. The walk music, a song called “Thinking of Baby,” has a very similar tone and a strong walk rhythm that brings out the quality and regularity of his walk. The canter music we used to complement our theme was “Dragnet.”

In the summer of 2004, I received a call from Leslie in Germany. Could I take the music, which was arranged for an Intermediaire I freestyle, and turn it into a Grand Prix freestyle by adding passage music and keeping the pattern similar to the Intermediaire pattern? “Could you do it in two days?” was the other part of her question. Leslie and I work often on very tight deadlines, so I wasn’t that shocked at the request.

Choosing passage music to suit the rest of the program wasn’t difficult. A couple of years earlier, I had come across a rare recording of the famous song “Alley Cat” by the Danish piano player Bent Fabric. This version featured clarinetist Acker Bilk, and the addition of that instrument made it an excellent fit with the rest of the music. I didn’t have video of Tip Top in passage, so I had to guess a little at whether the rhythm structure would enhance his expression. Fortunately, I guessed right: Alley Cat is still the passage music for his freestyle.

Leslie, who designs her own choreography with only a bit of feedback from me, decided this past winter that she would revise her pattern. Additionally, she had received the comment from a judge whose opinion we both value that if Tip Top was a bit tense, the “Dragnet” music didn’t help his canter. So I was back on the hunt for new canter music.

I found the perfect song in the unlikeliest of places. I had recently bought the newest album by Ronan Hardiman, composer of the music for “Lord of the Dance.” This new CD for a show called “Celtic Tiger” is quite varied, and some of the tracks venture away from Celtic themes. The track, called “Capone,” was not in the right tempo for Tip Top’s canter (in fact, it was further away than I usually consider adjustable with editing), but the swingy and cheeky mood of the music and the many transitions made it a perfect candidate. Leslie loved it, and a quick experiment with my editing software confirmed what I had hoped–that I could make it work for Tip Top’s canter tempo.

A really great Grand Prix freestyle will have a musical transition not only at the beginning of every movement, but also at the end. Certain styles of music lend themselves more easily to the editing that produces such finely tuned transitions. Tip Top’s music is ideal in this aspect, and I am able to give Leslie clear transitions at which to time every movement. I have recently made a few small adjustments to the music so that the transitions correspond exactly to when Leslie begins the two tempis on a half circle, piaffe or extended trot, for example.

The fine tuning process will probably continue to take place periodically, as small improvements in the horse’s performance will slightly alter the amount of time it takes him to execute each movement.

It is a source of great pride and gratification for me to work with Leslie and Tip Top. Every time I watch them perform their freestyle, whether live or on video, I still get goosebumps.

Karen Robinson of Applause Dressage gives freestyle clinics and seminars all over North America. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Read the related article “Designing the Dance” about how to create and finish your next musical freestyle in the October 2006 issue of Dressage Today magazine.

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