Interpretation Shows Finesse

The FEI freestyle score sheet combines Music Choice and Interpretation, giving them a combined coefficient of 4. The USDF, however, separates the two into Music and Interpretation—each with a coefficient of 3.

What’s the Difference?
The Music category encompasses the music’s suitability for the horse, the cohesiveness of the various selections and the seamlessness of the composition [see I’m Sexy and I Know It]. Interpretation exemplifies the strong connection between music and movement. While Music selection and editing are everything that happens before the show, Interpretation is everything that happens at the show.

Interpretation is judged on two principles: music expresses the gaits and phrasing. Looking at the freestyle of Edward Gal and Totilas, we see a clear example of both. The musical accompaniment “suggests” the gaits even though the footfalls of the horse do not always match the beat of the music. The true brilliance of Gal’s riding, though, is correlating the changes of movement with the concurrent changes of music, or in other words, phrasing.

Most riders actually will match the beat of the music to the steps of the horse, which has an even greater impact than “suggesting” the gait. However, different footing than home, more electricity in the air affecting the horse or having your own show nerves makes performing to the beat of the music more challenging in competition than at home. The rider who can stay with the beat in those circumstances really shines. We see this happening with greater frequency, however improvements still need to be made in phrasing.

Phrasing and Dynamics
Both these terms are grouped together and listed on the USDF score sheet. Dynamics is easier to explain, so we will start there. Most music has both loud and soft sections or dynamics. See how easy this is? You should avoid music that just drones on and on. Instead select trot and canter music with even a modest amount of dynamics.

A louder or more robust section—such as a forte, crescendo or even the chorus of a song (as opposed to the verse)—gives you the opportunity to express bolder movements like extensions or tempis. Many times in FEI level freestyles, softer music is employed for pirouettes, though for other levels, softer music may also be expressed in lateral movement.

Phrasing is more akin to the written word. Combining words together creates sentences that combine together to make paragraphs that combine together to make some sort of composition. Music structure is very similar, with musical “sentences” and “paragraphs” providing a way to show Interpretation.

If you clap your hands to Jingle Bells, you will discover that the music seems to repeat every eight claps or where you would tend to take a breath if you were singing (two bars of music in 4/4 time). We can show musical correlation with this.

Let’s assume Jingle Bells is a canter and that the lyrics are preceded by a brief musical introduction. First, we use the introduction to come through the short side (KAF on left lead) then as the lyrics, “Dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh,” begin, we start an eight-stride half-pass to the left. On the next eight beats of the song, “O’er the fields we go, laughing all the way,” we do a flying change and half-pass right. That connects the movement to the music and exhibits phrasing.

“Bells on bobtail ring… a sleighing song tonight” might give us just the time we need to finish at M, go through the short side and prepare for the HXF diagonal. As the chorus starts, so does the extension. Now both phrasing and dynamics have been put to good use. Suppose “Bells on bobtail ring…” does not give us enough time. Why go to H? Instead, turn onto the quarter-line. Was there too much time? Then, we wait a little longer on the rail before turning for the extension. As we learned in Choreography Part 1, transitions do not need to be at the letters.

Six-Point Phrasing
Judges attending the new USDF program Continuing Education in Freestyle for Dressage Judges [see Improve Freestyle Judging] are being instructed to look for six clear places of phrasing: the initial halt and salute, the first phrase change, trot lengthenings, canter lengthenings, gait transitions, and the final halt/salute.

As mentioned in Choreography Part 2, we listen to the music’s first phrase, identify its dynamics and determine what the first element will be. For instance, in our Jingle Bell version above, the calmer verse comes first. If your music starts with the verse, begin on centerline with the short musical introduction, then on the first phrase change do a circle or leg-yield (First Level), shoulder-in or travers (Second Level), half-pass (Third Level and above) or maybe even a pirouette (Fourth Level and above).

If your music starts with the chorus, than proceed down centerline during the music introduction, turn at C and prepare for the lengthening at M or H. On the first phrase change, lengthen. This structure hits two points of interpretation at the same time—changing on the first phrase as well as lengthening on a new phrase.

To make this work precisely, you may need to work backwards. For the lengthening, position the horse at M or H facing the corner. Begin your music, continue through the short side, turn onto the centerline and pay attention to the first phrase change. That change marks the location of the halt. Test it. Halt at your mark, begin the music and start the pattern. If you do not make it to M or H or you overshoot it, make adjustments.

Once you establish the halt location, you can do the same for the entry. At the halt mark, face A. When the entry music begins, move toward A, continue out of the arena turning right or left and listen for the last chord of the entry music. That is your spot outside the arena. Test it, making adjustments if necessary.

Edward Gal masterfully performs an expressive freestyle on Totilas at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Photo by Susan J. Stickle.
Edward Gal masterfully performs an expressive freestyle on Totilas at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Photo by Susan J. Stickle.

Other key points of Interpretation are the transitions into and out of the walk. First, choreograph your walks so that each covers about 22-25 meters though only 20 continuous meters of each is required.  This will give you some play if you need to improvise during the show.

Let’s say that you aim to make the walk transition at A, but the walk music either has already started or you must wait for it to change. Do not feel compelled to transition at A!

If the music changes earlier, transition with it providing you have completed the previous movement. To get back to your pattern and timing, turn onto the quarter-line instead of going all the way to the corner. In other words, you are shortening the pattern so you can transition to your next gait with the music as well. How much you shorten it will depend on how far behind the music you are.

If the music changes past A, make the transition with it anyway and open up the walk pattern.  Unless we are circumnavigating the globe, which we are not, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. If straight lines were your plan, either use a curve or stay on the rail longer before crossing the arena.

The final centerline leaves a lasting impression, yet we sometimes see riders wait and wait to salute. This indicates that they are far ahead of their music. When they are far behind their music, the final centerline often is rushed or the salute happens well past the music’s end. You can avoid this.

First make sure your last centerline movement is adjustable so that it ends no later than I and no earlier than X. Now some flexible room exists. For example, if you plan an extension to finish at I but you are ahead of the music, you can go to G.  You might not be completely on time, but you won’t be waiting as long either. If you are behind your music, halt at X. The final chord of the music should either be the halt, or more impressively, the salute.

Showing these four points of phrasing—initial halt and salute, first phrase change, gait transitions, final salute—can easily be accomplished in a show providing you were meticulous during your planning stages.

Dance First! No Music First!
Interpretation can be aided by the way the music is edited. Upper level riders prefer to choreograph first and pass along the responsibility of editing to a professional. National level riders have chosen several paths whether it be editing first, attempting to edit a soundtrack that accompanies their dance or hiring someone to take on the soundtrack phase. We will tackle this in the next article, Achieving Finesse.

Terry Ciotti Gallo established Klassic Kur in 1989. Since that time, her freestyles have appeared in the Olympics, World Equestrian Games and Pan American Games, and they hold two World Cup titles. She currently serves on both the USDF Freestyle Committee and Judges Committee.

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