I mostly skipped high school physical education classes to help the music teacher. But little did I dream that one of the greatest experiences in my life would come from an association with the world’s best athletes.
My adventure as pianist and arranger for the 1968 U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team in Mexico City proved to be an experience that profoundly influenced the rest of my life.
It began with a part-time pianist’s job I learned about through a friend whose gymnast daughter was training with the famed SCSU coach and former Olympian Muriel Grossfeld, who was the coach of the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team.
Little did I know when I first walked into the gym, and saw the sad orange piano with its Coca-Cola spills, that I’d be heading to Mexico City.
I had never arranged music for movement, so I spent the next few months developing this skill with Grossfeld. First I had to learn to recognize the various floor-exercise movements such as cartwheels, handstands and flips in order to create and edit music for each gymnast’s 90 second floor exercise.
The piece needed to enhance each routine. We selected music that had a clear melodic line and used contrasts in register, volume and rhythm to support the gymnasts’ different movements—slow and smooth for the dance-like patterns, fast and strong for tumbling. We recorded the finished product so the girls could practice to it, but it was live for the competition, with me at the piano.
The team that assembled in Mexico City was led by Cathy Rigby, but she wasn’t the only star I met over the course of the Games, which I started by watching the opening ceremony from the bleachers. We wore the official uniforms and stayed in the Olympic Village where I marveled at such beautiful and physically fit people all in one place—and the huge amount of food available for everyone at all times.
The swimmers (including Yale swimmers Don Schollander and John Nelson) lived right near us and were always very outgoing.
Though we practically lived in the gym, I did get out to a few events, especially track, where I got to see U.S. high jumper Dick Fosbury unveil his Fosbury Flop and meet decathlete Bill Toomey.
Another day, I ended up talking to a man in the cafeteria who turned out to be Jessie Owens, the famed black athlete who had won four gold medals at the 1937 Olympic Games in Berlin in full sight of the racist Adolf Hitler.
(Image left: Her skills were musical, not athletic, but pianist Pat Bissell of New Haven was just as much a team member, as evidence by her ring and pin from the 1968 U.S. Women's Olympic Gymnastics team. - Jen Fengler/Register)
The 1968 controversy came when John Carlos and Tommie Smith gave the black power salute at their medal ceremony, and the Czech gold medal gymnast lowered her head when the Russian national anthem was played for a Soviet medalist.
When we left the Olympic Village, Mexican students formed a chain around the Americans to protest the Vietnam War, but we were able to leave without incident.
It was stressful working with the athletes and coaches the last few days before the final competition. It didn’t help that at the last minute I found the piano was out of tune, so I dashed to a music store to purchase a tuning wrench and corrected the problem a few minutes before the performance.
I continued to arrange music for women’s gymnastics floor exercises for several years after the 1968 Olympics. The work was musically challenging, and I really enjoyed exploring a diversity of music to use.
In 1969, I collaborated with Grossfeld to arrange and record gymnastic exercise music for Kimbo Educational Records. In 1972, I helped arrange the compulsory floor exercise music for the Munich Olympics, but I did not perform there, because I was about to get married to Bret, my husband now of 40 years.
Not long after, the music used in competition was taped instead of live. It simplified the coordination of music and movement and also provided a more appropriate volume of sound for large gyms. After my daughter was born, I operated a studio for piano students and returned to teaching public school music. For the past 8 years, I have been teaching piano and music history at Gateway Community College, and Bret and I live in a duplex owned by my daughter and her husband in Fair Haven.
As I reflected on the many hours I spent watching the gymnasts practice their routines while I was performing their music, I realized that performing in music and sports requires many of the same skills:
Development of gross motor skills in sports and fine motor technique in music. Those constant physical exercises such as stretches for the wrist and ankle joints in gymnastics are like the daily practice of scales in music, each requiring focus and discipline as well as great love and dedication.
The simultaneous coordination of auditory and visual coordination with movement. A gymnast learns basic floor-exercise routines and coordinates them in a series of timed movements with music. Baseball fielders have to react to bat sounds, such as the “crack” of a long hit. An instrumentalist learns the musical patterns of pitch and rhythm in a piece and performs them in a sequence.
Participants need to think creatively and try different approaches to solve problems. While a gymnast might correct a move that has been problematic by placing the foot differently, an instrumentalist might take a problematic passage and try a change in fingering.
Critical thinking is necessary to perform well. Both athletes and musicians must be able to fully concentrate. Solid preparation and mental approach are the only variables that you can control when performing in front of many people. Former Yankees outfielder Bernie Willliams, now a professional musician, calls this “the zone” in his book “Rhythms of the Game.”
For group success, participants must work interdependently and individually simultaneously. For example, a soccer player has to kick well and interact with team members to achieve a goal. In baseball, to turn a double-play involves two players, each anticipating the other’s movements and rhythm. An instrumentalist in a musical ensemble must be able to play a fast scale passage and keep time with the other musicians.
Both sports and music are often noted for promoting peace, social harmony and championing human dignity. Athletes and musicians are often from diverse economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds. They must communicate effectively, verbally and nonverbal to work together or perform for long hours. Tolerance of differences and camaraderie is needed to be successful.
Stronger participants motivate the achievement level of the group and give weaker ones needed encouragement. Williams said that when his baseball team was in a slump, everyone came together and focused. They did all they could to support one another unselfishly and did what they could to prop up members who were struggling. The same is true for any musical ensemble.
Patricia M. Bissell is a music instructor at Gateway Community College
In Search of Good Gymnastic Music
American Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation
Division for Girls and Women’s Sports, Gymnastics Guide, 1973, Page 42
As pianist for the 1968 Women’s Gymnastic Olympic Team in Mexico City, I began to question the suitability of the musical arrangements used for gymnastics. After five years of searching and attempting to develop a more suitable style of music with Muriel Grossfeld, I was able to summarize my experience in the arrangement of “Summer of ‘42” which was used for the compulsory floor exercise by the 1972 Women’s Gymnastic Olympic Team.
(Image left: Bissell, center, and pianists from other gymnastics teams break for a photo at the '68 Olympics)
This musical arrangement had to be flexible enough to serve six totally different gymnasts. The sections from beginning to end included: (1) an introduction of the theme followed by a quick and strong repetition for tumbling; (2) a waltz rhythm under the theme leading to a handspring and cartwheel; (3) a slow but flowing statement of the theme to underline a back walkover; (4) a strong and firm march rhythm under the theme to emphasize a full turn, continuing with a faster and brighter rhythmic statement of the theme for a leap, and a sudden soft contrast for an arabesque; and finally, (5) a strong statement of the theme, varied from the introductory statement for tumbling, ending with a lighter thematic statement reminiscent of the beginning. In essence, the direct, easily understood and yet contrasting musical line enhanced the elements of the compulsory floor exercise, helping to combine each girl’s movements into a smooth presentation.
I would like to share with you some of my observations of the past five years in selecting and arranging music for floor exercise. I hope that such observations will be helpful. I give consideration to four factors in composing gymnastic music.
The Duration Factor
Because of the time limit – maximum 90 seconds – the arrangement should be built around one melody. The style of this melody must enhance the best qualities of the gymnast’s performance and personality for this short period of time. Medleys of tunes are too often a “mish-mash.” If two or more melodies are used, they must be complimentary or related structurally. For example, two strong or similar melodies can cancel each other out; on the other hand, totally unrelated melodies can create confusion.
The Acoustic Factor
Consider that you are in a gymnasium, not a concert hall. With inferior pianos to play, the difficulties of recording and reproducing the piano on tape, noisy audiences, or two or more events going on at the same time, the music must be so melodically and rhythmically clear that it is easily comprehended by the gymnast, the judges, and members of the audience sitting anywhere in the gym. Good “gymnastic melodies” can be found in popular, folk or classical music. To test the suitability of the music for gymnastics, first listen to the melody only, without the accompaniment. Some melodies may sound well as a piano solo, while others depend on an orchestra, words, or a particular singer. Then consider the strength and clarity of the rhythmic patterns in both the melody and the accompaniment. As yourself, “how well will this melody and rhythm sound on a piano in the gymnasium?”
(Image left: Pat Bissell was playing the piano accompaniment for this floor exercise performed by Cathy Rigby, 15, the youngest member of the 1968 U.S. Gymnastics Team.)
The Contrast Factor
Contrast in the music helps to overcome the duration and acoustic factors while emphasizing the gymnast’s movements. Contrast can be achieved by changes in register, volume, or rhythm. Try developing your arrangements with the melody in different registers. Melodies played in the higher registers are most audible. Melodies in the middle registers are often more effective with the melody doubled in higher or lower octaves. Use caution with the bass registers. The bass registers can be used to contrast with or support higher register melodies or chords or as a drum effect. Fast notes in a low register are often wasted sound in a gymnasium. The arrangement should provide for changes in volume to emphasize particular movements of the gymnast. Try developing the arrangement by changing the basic beat in different sections – for example, from a waltz to a march rhythm. Other rhythmic changes such as acceleration or retardation of the melody can create effective contrast. Arrange chords to underline the basic beat structure and significant rhythmic changes.
The Coordination Factor
After considering the duration, acoustics, and contrast factors, consider the problem of combining the music with the gymnasts’ movements. Having selected an appropriate melody for your gymnast, arrange each musical phrase to coordinate with the different sections of movement, particularly the beginnings and endings of such sections. For example, given a musical phrase that starts a tumbling run, the melody should not stop in the middle, but at the end of that series of movements, thus eliminating “fill-in” or irrelevant sounds which only weaken the feeling of continuity. Experiment by slowing, speeding, adding small extensions, shifting accents, or using silence to achieve this result. As each section of movement changes, so must the music show contrast in register, rhythm, or volume. The total effectiveness of the coordination of the music and movement is determined by the suitability of the melody and style of music in relation to the gymnast, the coherency of the music within itself, and the balance of contrast achieved between the sections of movement and its accompanying music.
Strive for complete musicality, not just a high note for a pose or fast notes for tumbling, but a coherent musical line which might be extended or sustained but never broken or confusing. Such a strong organizaiton and clear identification of line is essential for a quality floor exercise that will motivate the gymnast in daily workouts, be remembered and enjoyed by the gymnast, judge, and audience, and, of course, will achieve a good score.
Pat produced a number of piano arrangements and played for several competitions between 1968 and 1974. She also composed and arranged the music for Gymnastics with Muriel Grossfeld for Kimbo Records in 1972.
GYMNASTICS with MURIEL GROSSFELD
Piano arrangements and accompaniment by: PATRICIA MELCHER
Internationally known gymnastic accompanist
Another first for Kimbo Educational records and Educational Activities! Introducing new music and materials for gymnastics by Muriel Grossfeld, eight times National Floor Exercise Champion and Coach of the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. This album, first in a projected series, contains selections for the complete ability range – from the very young to the skilled gymnast and concentrates on selections that span the intermediate range. Selections vary in temperament so that every gymnast can find something that appeals to her personality. There are specific measures for tumbling and the rhythms and qualities are musically constructed so the gymnast may meet all of the composition rules, i.e., change of pace, effect, and feeling.
14 minutes of warm-up activities and preparation for floor exercises using contemporary music appealing to students.
Fourteen 1 to 1 ½-minute bands of floor exercise music specific for varying ages and ability levels.
Four full floor exercise routines composed by Muriel Grossfeld, described and illustrated in the Teacher’s Guide at four different levels, with interchangeable difficulties.
Mexicana – Nursery Rhymes – Western Theme – Bumble Boogie – from Rachmaninoff – Michelle – Hernando’s Hideaway – Jealousy – Olympic Dream, etc.
1 – 12” 33 1/3 RPM ALBUM AND TEACHER’S MANUAL: $9.95
1969 – Kimbo Records