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5 June 2010

Maestro to Skating’s Elite

LINDA LIN speaks to Hugo Chouinard, the creative genius who designs music for a virtual who’s who of skaters including Vancouver Olympic medalists Yu-Na Kim, Joannie Rochette, and Qing Pang and Jian Tong.


Knowledgeable in music, skating, and technology, former ice dancer Hugo Chouinard (no relation to former Canadian Ladies’ champion, Josée Chouinard) and his Studios Unisons create bespoke musical designs (“mixes”) for figure skaters. Canada-based, Studio Unisons have created competitive and gala program music for a wide variety of skaters, including Jamie Salé and David Pelletier, Shizuka Arakawa, Sasha Cohen, and Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder. Hugo has collaborated with coaches and choreographers, including Brian Orser, Kurt Browning, David Wilson, Yuka Sato, Sandra Bezic, and Shae-Lynn Bourne.

Choreographer and former World champion ice dancer, Shae-Lynn Bourne, describes Hugo as, “A master of music – everything he does is effortless. I use him for myself (for exhibition programs) – he’s the first I call. Because he has a knowledge of skating, he can visualize when he hears a piece of music. Everything he’s touched turns to gold. I couldn’t imagine using anyone else.”

David Wilson concurs, “I’ve been choreographing since ’91. I remember the days when we had to push pause and play and I was pretty good at it! But there was only so much you could do; there weren’t a lot of options. I have worked with other people who are great in the editing business, but Hugo understands the nature.

of the beast. He has a great musical sense and my work is better because of him.”

Hugo describes his job as creating “a canvas from where movement can emerge. Trying to inspire choreographers, coaches and skaters with my creations challenges me a lot. It really has to be team work with the choreographer and their ideas are essential to me.”

According to Hugo, the process begins with “the selection of music and the structure of the program. Sometimes I’ll be asked to find musical pieces for a particular theme, or for suggestions to complement a piece that a client already has selected. In other cases, I have to find instrumental versions, or specific orchestrations for a piece. If I can’t find one, I can have it re-recorded by one of my collaborators, an experienced musician. All is possible!”

Searching for the Right Music

Among Shae-Lynn and Hugo’s many collaborations is Joannie Rochette’s Olympic bronze medal-winning short program, set to the tango ‘La Cumparsita.’

Says Shae-Lynn, “We wanted to show a character and that she’s a woman.” After settling on a tango theme, she relates, “It was struggle to find the right piece – Hugo found so much, there was almost too much to choose from. It took us months. If you could see my play list of tango choices that year it was ridiculous! Because it was a short program, it needs to flow because they need the right timing for their jumps. I didn’t want it to be so fast and intricate that you can’t keep up.”

Then, describes Shae-Lynn, “It’s working with the coach, it’s working with Hugo and the choreographer to find the right mix. I personally like to know from the skater and the coach, if there is a particular order of elements that they are most comfortable with. Sometimes they are pretty definite about some elements, and sometimes you get more points if you put the elements after 2 minutes.”

Hugo agrees that, “Direct collaboration with the choreographers, in my opinion, produces the best results, because the musical design is created to support the planned choreography and will exactly fit the movements they envision in the program. It’s this combination of movement and music that evokes emotions in the judges and spectators. Generally, the choreographers describe their ideas about the program’s structure and I look for a musical solution to help realize their vision.”

For Joannie’s, ‘La Cumparsita,’ the challenge was finding the right piece of music. For others, it is identifying the best rendition of a favored piece. Says Hugo, “The choice of a particular orchestration depends on the athletes, their needs, their skating level, their ability, and the qualities of their skating. Of course, I prefer to use a high-quality recording, but I try above all to identify the version that will show an athlete at his or her best. A classical piece may have been played by hundreds of orchestras, with each musical director giving it a unique flavor. It’s in paying attention to the little details that once senses the nuances. I will often ask the skaters to tell me what inspires them most. When a piece of music is matched with the right skater, magic is created.”

To assist his clients with music selections, Hugo draws on a variety of sources. He says, “Over the years, I have purchased thousands of CDs. iTunes has become an indispensable resource, because the skaters can access it easily and be involved in the choice of their music. The audio quality is perfect for skating and the selection is extraordinary. Sadly, too many coaches and skaters can’t tell the difference in sound quality between a good musical recording and a bad one, because they use their computer speakers to listen to or cut the music themselves. Often what makes it to the arena is awful. I never work with bad recordings. A chef cannot create successful dishes with bad ingredients!”

Creating the Program

“Once the music is chosen,” says Hugo, “some clients will make specific editing requests; others will give me carte blanche to create the entire program.”

Hugo then begins creating the musical design. “In general, the first draft takes about one to three hours to put together,” he says, “but of course it depends on the complexity of the request and the number of parts to be combined. A mix can have just a single transition, but sometimes more than 100 are required!”

“Then,” continues Hugo, “once it is skated on the ice, the mix is tweaked to ensure that the elements are performed at exactly the moment of maximum musical impact. Adjustments are made to the second on certain sections of the music, in order for it to line up perfectly with a footwork sequence, spin, or lift. For the spectator, this may not all be apparent, but all is planned and calculated with precision to create the illusion of perfection.”

In a short YouTube video describing his collaborators, Yu-Na Kim’s coach Brian Orser jokes that, “If there’s no ending to the song, oh well, Hugo will make one.”

David Wilson, Yu-Na’s choreographer elaborates, “For one of my senior men, we found a Samuel barber piece – a very, very involved piece – I had fallen in love with it, it was perfect, but there was no ending. That’s probably why it’s never been used. Hugo created an ending out of the swells and the flourishes in the orchestra that were there. I don’t think somebody overly attached to music theory would go there, but I made a point of asking people who were musically in the know and it worked. It blew me away. If he wasn’t there it wouldn’t happen.”

Hugo adds, “There is no ‘miracle solution’ for creating an ending. I rely on my experience to draw from other sections of the music, or even from another piece of music with similar orchestration. When it’s totally impossible to construct ending, I will specifically compose one for the client.”

When asked about Torvill and Dean’s challenge of reducing Ravel’s 17-minute Bolero below the 4:28 they used (in 1984 time did not begin until skaters began skating, unlike today where it begins when they start moving), Hugo replies, “My core philosophy is to always respect a musical work and to ensure that the mix builds on it. Since 1984, the technological tools available have evolved dramatically, permitting transitions which were previously impossible. It’s always a challenge, a puzzle, a mystery to be solved through research and experimentation. I don’t give up easily. As for Bolero…my 16 years in this business tell me that a solution is certainly possible. After nearly 20,000 mixes, I have always found a solution.”

Success Factors

But using available technology is only part of what Hugo offers. Says Hugo, “I often say that it’s not the best sewing machine that makes the best designer. People have a tendency to believe that my work is technical but, in fact, I use only technology in order to achieve my creative goals. It’s musical design. It is not so much the type of equipment, but rather how you use it.”

He continues, “I learned to cut music using an analogue system with 4 tracks and today, I work with 16 tracks on 3 screens and all is digital.”

Hugo describes himself as self-taught, holding a degree in Industrial Design, which he says “helps me a lot in the creative and artistic process. I asked lots of questions, I made lots of mistakes, and I always want to keep improving.”

Hugo’s technical capabilities are complemented by his familiarity with skating. He competed in ice dance from 1979 to 1995, with a fourth place finish at Junior Worlds in 1993, with partner Elizabeth Hollett, and a sixth place at the Canadian Senior nationals, while skating with Martine Michaud in 1995.

Having coached and choreographed for both ice dance and synchro, Hugo adds, “For each mix, I can’t help but imagine choreography in my head”

Moreover, Hugo continuously works to expand his musical vocabulary, saying, “In my spare time I see shows, watch films and travel as much as possible, and I bring home a few CDs from everywhere. Australia, Morocco, Europe. I always keep an attentive ear open, wherever I am because often, when I least expect it, I find musical treasures. I listen and I buy lots of music because I hate constantly working with the same pieces. It’s like always eating the same things! I feel I have introduced new sounds to my clients and have changed the audio landscape that one is used to hearing at arenas.”

“I enjoy everything I listen to for work,” he says. “I listen to lots of instrumental music of all sorts. I love discovering new artists and new sounds.”

His passion for skating and for music extends beyond his job, though. Hugo explains, “Skating is a powerful means to introduce music to young people. It forces them to put aside the radio or television, to discover and experiment with other styles. I hope the ISU never allows vocal music for singles and pairs skaters, because we would lose an enormous piece of our cultural heritage. There is so much music available that one can easily be original…you just have to look a bit!”

And, it can’t hurt that, as Hugo says, “I love my job!”

Getting Started

It was Hugo’s coach who first got him started in editing music for others. Hugo recalls, “My coach at the time found that I had a good musical sense and I had an interest in audio gadgets. She suggested that I do the music for all her students.”

So, Hugo “borrowed $4000 from my parents and I began quietly to work for skaters in my ‘studio’ (which was in fact my room at my parents’ house).” His client base subsequently grew by word of mouth.

Most of his first clients were local skaters but, he adds “shortly after I began, Jean-Marc Généreux of So You Think You Can Dance, who was my ballroom dance coach, entrusted me for his own show. At the same time I began to work with Joannie Rochette when she reached Pre-Novice in 1997.

This year, 23 athletes skated to Hugo’s musical designs at the Olympics, of which three gained medals. These days, says Hugo, “The Internet makes international collaborations very easy.” His roster includes clients from North America, Europe, South Africa, Asia and Australia.

Other Services

In addition to designing music for skating programs, Studios Unisons also cuts music for other sports, including fitness, gymnastics and synchronized swimming, where his clients include the British team and duo of Jenna Randall and Olivia Allison. Hugo also did work for Thin Ice on the remake of Ice Castles, and offers a few related services.

Says Hugo, “When I am not super-busy, I try to play around with pop music – even though it’s not my favorite style, I am responsible for creating play lists for events, including the Canadian Championships and the Skate Canada leg of the Grand Prix Series. I put together music for warm-ups and the scoring intervals between skaters. It’s important to make the athletes comfortable, because that influences their level of energy and, in consequence, their performances.”

He also works with three coders who create custom software and tools for his website. Their latest Sk8mix Event Player allows competition organizers to play CDs, as on a regular CD player, but without the associated pitfalls. “I find it unacceptable that certain regional competitions do not have the equipment necessary to correctly play music. It’s terrible for the athlete to have to interrupt their program because of a technical problem,” says Hugo.

What’s Next?

According to Hugo, he currently has “several projects in progress. In fact, I am doing as much work now for beginners as for the world elite. I actually have nearly 300 files open and two administrators are helping me handle it all. I do about 2,000 mixes per year. I have projects currently going for Kiira Korpi, the U.S. Pairs champions Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett, Caroline Zhang, Adam Rippon, Brian Joubert, and Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje. I have just finished a short program for Stacey Kemp and David King and there are new ones added every week. It’s a very exciting and intense time!”

British Pairs skater David King said, “This is our third season working with Hugo and we are still amazed by his knowledge, skill and speed of getting you the end product. He is very reliable and a great person to work with. You have to skate to your music every day for at least a season – it has to sound good and be perfect. Hugo’s music always does.”

Hugo concludes, “The important thing is to keep persevering and to have a passion for what you do. I adore this Michelle Kwan quote, ‘In most pursuits, you can’t look up on the scoreboard and know precisely where you stand. And so most of the time, in your lives and careers, you’ll be the one scoring yourself. Let the standard be high.’ ”

More information on Hugo Chouinard and Studios Unisons can be found at

The complete text of Hugo’s responses in the original French can be found at