Tihda Vongkoth was starting to lose hope. It was a week before her first musical competition, when her music theory teacher told her that her accompanist had to stay home to take care of her terminally ill husband.
Without a pianist to accompany her, the 16-year-old couldn't compete in the Florida Orchestra's Young Artists Competition, so she knew she had to find one fast. She told Rosana DiMarzio, Florida Orchestra's director of education and outreach, about her predicament and DiMarzio suggested a couple of accompanists.
Tihda called both of them frantically over the next few days, but the night before the competition, she still didn't have an accompanist.
She practiced for hours, stroking the keys with her mallet, unable to concentrate.
It was 10 p.m. when she got a call.
Bang those drums
Tihda was swept up by percussion music after she attended a Florida Orchestra concert in middle school.
By seventh grade, she knew she wanted to play percussion instruments. She was especially taken by the marimba, an instrument that originated in South Africa that has wooden keys and resembles a xylophone.
Her decision surprised her mother, Khit Vongkoth, because no one in the family was a musician. Vongkoth thought it was a passing phase, but realized her daughter's talent after she attended one of her concerts a couple of years ago.
Vongkoth, who had divorced nearly a decade ago, was working as a bank teller, raising two children on her own in Largo. She wanted to support her daughter's passion, but couldn't afford to pay for lessons or buy instruments, especially a marimba, which lists for $2,500 to $15,000.
Instead, she bought her a practice pad, a round pad with the texture of a drum head.
When Tihda first got it years ago it was white and pristine. She has pounded it so thin, she can almost see through it.
Frustrated, Tihda had taken a break when the phone rang the night before the competition. It was Wayne Gallops, the former director of bands at Howard Blake School in Tampa. He was one of the accompanists she'd been calling. He had worked with a friend of hers and she knew he was familiar with the piece she was working on, Concertino for Marimba and Orchestra, by Paul Creston. He had just gotten back in town and he said he'd be happy to help her out.
"I just took a minute and pulled myself together and I went back to practice," Tihda said. "I played the piece 10 times better and I knew it would come together."
She practiced for another hour and went to bed.
And got up before 6 a.m. Feb. 15, the day of the contest.
Because the marimba that she borrowed from her instructor is more than 6 feet long, she had to disassemble it to transport it. She pulled the keys off and rolled them up, removed the cardboard frame, lifted the tubular resonators up from the frame and unscrewed a long pole that attached both legs.
After she wrapped the pieces in old blankets and put them in the back seat, her mom took the wheel and they were on their way to Hillsborough Community College's Ybor City campus, where the competition was held.
Since her freshman year, Tihda has attended the Pinellas County Center for the Performing Arts at Gibbs High School. She is in the wind ensemble at school and is a member of the Pinellas County Youth Symphony and enjoys a variety of percussion instruments, including timpani, a set of kettledrums with variable pitches.
"By nature you have to have rhythm to be a percussionist, but what I feel is music," she said.
Music wasn't her only passion. Tihda, now a junior, played soccer for years. Over the summer, she decided to make a commitment to music and quit soccer.
"I came across a point in my life where I had to choose," she said.
She worked most of the summer at the credit union where her mother used to work to get the funds to pay for Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan. She won a scholarship, which helped cover the $5,000 tuition, but she still had to raise $2,000 to cover other expenses, such as plane fare, percussion mallets and munchies.
When she first got there she hated it, but the passion of her peers was contagious. She discovered that even though she had been practicing frequently, she wasn't working hard enough.
"I have to get my head straight," she told herself.
Before the camp she took a solo approach to her music. After, she felt the power of the ensemble. "It's not about being a percussionist, it's about playing music in an orchestra," she said.
That's when she decided to enter the senior division of the Young Artists Competition, which is generally open to musicians ages of 15 to 22.
Enough is enough
It was about 7:30 a.m. when Tihda checked in at the competition. She was assigned a practice room on the second floor. She went up to look at it and decided it was too small. She was assigned another room on the third floor. She checked that one out and thought she could make it work.
She unloaded the marimba from the car, and with her mom's help she lugged it to the elevator, where they started putting it back together.
Each held a leg as they fastened a center support bar. Tihda layed the cardboard base pieces on top and attached the resonators. Then she put the keys on top and fastened them with string.
She tried to roll the marimba into the elevator, but it didn't fit.
That meant she had to take it apart piece by piece again and cart it up the elevator.
They got to the third floor, where they put it back together and wheeled it around the corner to the practice room. It didn't fit in that room either. An assistant on that floor scouted for another room. She returned promising a spacious room on the first floor.
They took the marimba apart once again. Traveled down to the first floor, put it back together and wheeled it the practice room, where she finally had enough space.
It was about 9:45, and soon after Tihda started warming up Gallops walked through the door. They had 30 minutes to practice before the competition, which was on the third floor.
Practice, practice, practice
Most mornings, Tihda drives to campus from her Largo home to a tiny percussion rehearsal hall and puts a sign the door "No one enter." She chooses from dozens of mallets in her duffel bag, some tipped with rubber, others with fluffy fabric or wool.
Before running through about 30 musical exercises, she sets her music on a stand and rests her silver watch and a metronome in front of it. Then she gets into "the zone."
"I'm oblivious to anything that happens around me," she said. "It seems like no one else exists except for me and the instrument."
What a workout
This time, Gallops helped with the marimba assembly. They got to the third floor auditorium about 10:30, and Tihda was first to compete in her division.
She didn't have time to get nervous because she had been so busy assembling her marimba for the past few hours.
Instead of striving for a sophisticated presence, she approaches the music with an athletic aggressiveness. Before she played, she focused as she often does, picturing the tensed bodies in the Gatorade commercials and beads of sweat on their faces.
Her face was calm and her eyes intense as she danced up and down the scale with her mallet. Her breathing got heavier and heavier as she worked her way from rich base tones to clear pristine high notes. Then she capped off her performance with a confident glissando.
She would have to wait four hours to find out if she made it to the next phase of the competition.
And the winner is
About 3:30, Tihda got the news. She was one of five finalists and the last phase of the competition was on the second floor, a floor below where her marimba was.
"Oh, gosh. Here we go again," she thought.
This time, she was up last in her division. A second before she took the stage to play, she forgot every note. Then, suddenly, she was back in the zone.
After her performance, she was confident that she placed, but her competitors were so talented she didn't know where she stood.
Minutes later, Tihda watched each of them claim their awards.
Maybe getting an accompanist at the last minute had hurt her performance, she thought.
Then, the emcee called her name.
She won the grand prize, $1,000 in cash and a $1,000 savings bond, plus an opportunity to play with the Florida Orchestra in January.
She plans to buy a snare drum and give her worn out practice pad a rest.