Q & A with Freestyle Music Choreographer Terry Ciotti Gallo

When it comes to dressage freestyle routines, one name comes to most enthusiasts’ minds: Terry Ciotti Gallo. After having arranged music for several billboard names in the industry, including Laura Graves, Adrienne Lyle, Steffen Peters, and Debbie McDonald, Equine Journal had the opportunity to talk shop with the music maestro herself.

Equine Journal: How did you get involved in arranging freestyle routines in the dressage industry?
Terry Ciotti Gallo: I was coaching gymnastics at San Diego State University (SDSU) where I was responsible for the team’s dance training, as well as developing and coaching their floor exercise and balance beam routines. A former SDSU gymnast asked the director who the current floor exercise coach was. It seemed she thought the cross over from gymnastics to dressage wouldn’t be that difficult and she needed help finding music for her horse.

EJ: Is it difficult to switch gears from working with humans on a floor routine versus a horse?
Ciotti Gallo: Yes and no. The same principles that apply to music choice and choreography for people work for horses too. The music part was easy for me because I had a rather extensive music library and knew how to pick the appropriate music for an athlete (I asked that first rider a lot of questions), plus I already was a music editor. The process I used from the first horse to the present has not changed much in these 28 years.

Learning how to apply choreographic principles to a sport about which I knew nothing was more challenging. Visually, it was easy to understand shoulder-in, haunches-in, and tempi [changes], but why the heck was that thing called a half- pass? And why were those letters in that strange order? But once I knew the movements, I went into “coach-think.” You need to know the rules and tests in order to compete well, so I studied them. To see how a half-pass progressed from a single line to steeper angles with multiple changes of hand fascinated me. I was hooked. Also, I mapped out all the tests. That exercise taught me how movement flowed in the arena. Now I had parameters and was ready to try my hand at choreography.

EJ: What is the first step you take when someone asks for your services?
Ciotti Gallo: The first step is always an interview. A rider’s taste, goals, perception of the horse, and even the geographic location can make a difference.

EJ: What is your process for music selection?
Ciotti Gallo: I prefer to be on-site but that is not always possible, so I need a video of the horse and rider team. Now, I have a visual impression of them, but most [importantly,] I can determine the beats per minute of the gaits. Between that information and what I learned in the interview, I go through my library to develop a few ideas to present to my client. If the rider has asked for a direction that is not in my library, I start searching.

EJ: How does editing the music help with arranging the freestyle routine?
Ciotti Gallo: I may split one gait when choreographing but no more, otherwise the music can start to sound really choppy. Regardless, I always do the choreography first. Things are going by the judge very quickly. They are not only trying to evaluate the technical but also trying to assess the many aspects of the artistic—and they don’t know the order of gaits or movements!

Editing to me is a kind of puzzle, but happily, I like solving puzzles. In fact, editing is my favorite part of freestyle development. I select the parts of the music that represent the movements, such as powerful sections for tempis or extensions and a softer section for pirouettes. Now it is a matter of filling the gaps so that the presen- tation is free from bad cuts or an unmusical structure.

EJ: What is the biggest challenge of freestyle?
Ciotti Gallo: There is no minimum time for United States Dressage Federation (USDF) level freestyles but there is a maximum of five minutes. For FEI, there is a minimum and a maximum. As a choreographer, for me the most challenging part is to make sure my riders are within time limits—especially in FEI shows.

The best freestyles are a collaboration among the rider, the trainer, and the designer. I ask my riders questions about what should be included, but always tell them to check with their trainers. When we put together a sequence that may be new or challenging for the horse, it may take a few times for the horse to get it, but if the initial information is accurate, that should not be much to overcome.

EJ: Do you have a favorite genre you enjoy arranging?
Ciotti Gallo: No, I like it all. Music with a strong beat is graphically very clear in the software program, so it is easier to edit. Fully orchestrated music less so, but the music is usually more expressive. It is a trade-off.

EJ: You have been on the United States Dressage Federation Freestyle Committee for a while now, what are some of your proudest contributions?
Ciotti Gallo: That’s easy, I designed the USDF Continuing Education in Freestyle for Judges. It took me over 200 hours to get all the material together and organized so that it can be presented in a clear and understandable way. The goal is to get all the judges across the country on the same page—especially in terms of understanding concepts such as suitability, cohesiveness, interpretation, and so on. Even more importantly, the program explains an objective basis for judging each of the categories under Artistic Impression. This program is only given through the USDF, but with pre-approval, is accepted by the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) as continuing education for judges, giving them a special designation after their name on the USEF Officials listing. This past November, Gary Rockwell and I presented this program to 50 “S” judges at the International Dressage Officials Club seminar held at national championships in Kentucky. That was a proud moment, but I get really excited every single time I give one of these seminars.

EJ: In your time in the industry, what would you say are the biggest changes you have seen in regards to freestyle?
Ciotti Gallo: The biggest shift has been in music selection. At first it was mostly classical and then the next wave included artists like Herb Alpert, Ottmar Liebert, and so on because there was a huge resistance to using lyrics and their music had none. Now it is almost an “anything goes” attitude. I give our American judges a big “bravo” for accepting a wider berth of music than they do across the pond, however I would still caution freestylers about using too many lyrics.

The other big change is really only for the elite, where a code of points is now in place. The international Grand Prix riders must submit their programs ahead of time. This has benefits and drawbacks. Awarding Degree of Difficulty is very precise, however in trying to maximize their points, some of these top freestyles are starting to look alike. In some cases, there have been a few riders who have asked too much of their horses. Regardless of the level, riders should only ask their horses to do what is within their capabilities or they can lose points on the movement itself, on difficulty for taking an unacceptable risk, and even on harmony.

EJ: In your time in the industry, what has stayed the same about dressage freestyle routines?
Ciotti Gallo: Poor editing. While people have become savvier about music selection, they don’t necessarily put it together very well.

EJ: What has been your personal favorite routine you have created?
Ciotti Gallo: Oh, that’s an easy one; it has to be Debbie McDonald and Brentina’s “Respect” freestyle. When they did it at the 2005 Las Vegas World Cup, it brought the house down! The entire program was soul music along with some rhythm and blues, which was a first. Also lyrics were used in a groundbreaking way, and the selections—especially Brickhouse—were so perfectly suited to the mare that the impact was fantastic. And the humor! At first, the audience wasn’t sure if they should laugh, after all, this is dressage, but it wasn’t long before they realized it was okay. Everyone clapping in time to the music on the final centerline was unforgettable.

EJ: Do you have a favorite event you enjoy preparing clients for the most?
Ciotti Gallo: That would be Challenge of the Americas, which is a fundraising event for breast cancer research. It is so very different than anything else I do because it involves a six-rider Grand Prix quadrille. I had been doing the music previously, but in 2008, Team Purina USA, and specifically Pam Goodrich, asked that I take over as choreographer, too. It was a little terrifying to stand in the midst of six of the countries best riders and tell them what to do—and it was all new to me to boot! But I learned that not everything is always going to go as planned in a group and that I needed to stay loose. This talented group was certainly capable of helping me figure it out. The last three years, Bill Warren has taken over as “head coach” and I must say, my continuing education in quadrille certainly has not suffered from it. I keep learning, and besides, it is fun to work in a group.

EJ: What do you hope to see in the future of freestyle?
Ciotti Gallo: That is a three-part answer, two of which center around education. The first is judge education. I think a small majority of our top tier judges have a handle on it. We need to not only increase that majority but also educate the lower level judges who affect most of the mainstream riders. They have a great impact on our adult amateurs.

I also hope our national level riders realize that even though freestyles are fun and a great way to express themselves, they are still a technical test. Fifty percent of the scoresheet may say Technical Execution, but Harmony and Degree of Difficulty are directly related to execution. Not only that, but as officials be- come more familiar with the parameters of judging freestyles objectivity, they will expect the riders to exhibit those parameters. Freestylers need to have a greater understanding of what the scoresheet and rules detail. When they grasp that information, I expect we will see some really wonderful choreography to great music.

I work with many young riders. They are learning the principles of design while bringing in their contemporary and creative ideas. Who knows what enjoyment they will bring to the future of our sport!

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