Opera and figure skating share a lot of similarities. Sure, coordinating muscle groups so as to turn air into audible tone for the pleasure of some 1,000+ people is very different from carving up and leaping off ice with the help of a blade (and sometimes without its help!). However, both are artistic sports. They seek to marry a technical aspect and some artistic element, creating the Majestic – something as beautiful as it is powerful.
I really enjoy watching figure skating for this very reason. I find that so many of my favorite skaters are able to do exactly what I try to do in singing opera – perform technical elements with aplomb all while telling a superimposed story. In the best cases, I almost forget they are skating. These skaters seem to glide on a frictionless surface, like air, mesmerizing us with amazing contortions and feats of athleticism. Yesterday, I was watching one of my favorite skaters, Yuna Kim, in her four Olympic appearances (two short and two long programs), and I noticed something I hadn’t really thought about much – her programs are punctuated, even four years apart, by the same sets of moves. Yuna Kim is perhaps the greatest competitor of all time in the history of women’s figure skating (not as decorated as beloved Michelle Kwan, though!). I think a study of her routines can provide valuable insight into how singers can think of their own approach to learning to sing.
Now moves are obviously chosen with a scoring system in mind which privileges certain difficult elements. The ISU, the International Skating Union, assigns values to each type of element and lays out a compulsory set of those elements that each program must have (for instance, a female skater must perform a double axel in her programs, a footwork sequence, and spin combinations that involve change of position). Even so, a lot is left up to the skater such as where the elements are performed in the program (more points for performing jumps later) or even which jumps to do. That said, Yuna Kim perfected the triple lutz-triple toe loop combination and used it as her opening jump in all performances in the 2010 and 2014 Olympics.
You can see this at time marks 1:10, 7:30, 16:15, and 22:30 in the video above (which you might have to watch on Youtube directly). Four different performances – the same opening jump combination. In each case, she then follows this combination with a triple flip jump (time marks 1:33, 7:50, 16:43, 22:51). Watching through these performances, one can also see how she makes great use of getting more points out of her double axels by using an Ina Bauer or a spread eagle position entrance. Her spiral sequences always feature one arabesque penchée, followed by a catch-foot at first behind and then out in front. To belabor the point once more, all of these programs end with a similar spin combination – some version of camel spin -> sit spin -> change-foot -> Y-spin (3:23, 11:00, 18:20, 26:00).
Are we to call Yuna Kim’s performances generic? Each time she performs, one could say, “We’ve seen all these moves before!” In truth, what she does she makes seem easy. Therein lies my point – she is able to make it look easy because instead of trying to do everything, she devoted her time and practice to perfecting the things she did well. What’s more, Yuna is simply a case study. If one were to follow any skater of note, you would find this sort of thing all over. If you took the time to watch the full video here (it’s ok if you didn’t), you would see how in the later 2014 performances she adds new positions to spins or more difficult entrances to jumps. The technique seems ever more solid.
The 2014 Olympics in Sochi was such a high-pressure time for her as she was defending her 2010 gold medal; everyone was expecting her to do well; everyone needed her to win. I won’t get into too much debate (she deserved the second gold medal, end of story), but my point in bringing attention to these repeated elements is to show how perfecting a technique of a few things not only allows you to be a master of those few things but also allows you to not really have to think about them. In that high-pressure situation in 2014, I can only imagine how using a set of moves you’ve been performing for maybe six years would help to quell the butterflies. She was probably able to take a lot of fear out of the situation because by that point, I would speculate that Yuna was nailing those elements 99.9% of the time. Considered one of the greatest artists in the history of the sport, her skating is often punctuated by wonderful choreography and obvious thought behind the movement of her body. She and her team were able to craft unique programs by solidifying the technical elements that she needed. In removing the fear of nailing a technical element, she was able to focus on the story, giving us an artistic gem of a performance every. single. time.
As young singers, we are often admonished to always be working on coloratura as well as long lines, leaps as well as scales, singing softly as well as loudly. Of course, there are parts of technique that are foundational. Any singer worth their salt needs familiarity if not facility with each vocal technique (technique here meaning element, not a body of knowledge). However, so often one will see singers trying out a million different things in service of “building a complete technique.” The famed singers of recorded history – and I don’t just mean Leontyne Price and Richard Tucker, but also Renée Fleming and Jonas Kaufmann – sang/sing the music that allowed them to be artists because that music capitalized on what their voices did best.
There is a lie we tell ourselves. If something is easy for us, it must not be hard. In fact, whole careers are made off of people doing things that are easy for them but hard for others. It is in perfecting and capitalizing upon the things that are easy for us that we are seen as special. To be sure, this idea extends beyond singing. But forget about being seen by others as special – who cares? Why not capitalize and become more of who and what makes you, you? Existentialist Soren Kierkegaard said, “Face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are.” I believe it is through close examination of ourselves that we find the starting point, the germ, as it were. There, we find phrases like, “I am this,” and, “I am not this.” It requires a lot of introspection, and even though classical arts rely on instruction from a teacher, no one can tell you what is right. From cultivation of whatever lies at the starting point, one finds the glory of themselves. Why waste time chasing after someone else’s?
Kim’s skating is more than the sum of the moves. You probably will forget all of them once you finish reading this, but what you will remember is how you felt watching her (and you really should watch the whole thing). She became herself on that ice. The jumps and spins became more than technical elements; they became story-tellers. We hear this idea regurgitated so often, and it’s true, but not in the way people often mean it. It’s not about using the technique to tell a story; it really is about finding music that contains elements that your voice is predisposed to and perfecting those elements to the point that you don’t need to think about them except in the most difficult of passages. There will always be things that will be hard, but I think what we singers can learn from our figure skating friends is that it doesn’t all have to be so hard. If we spent less time trying to be unique through randomly difficult technical elements that may not be our personal forte, maybe, just maybe, we could show people a more truthful and honest thing – ourselves. The technique doesn’t make you special; you make you special.