The song that did my head in

Tell us a story about a piece of music that stayed with you.

I’ve already answered this prompt, but I’ve got a second, rather different, answer. (Apologies, I couldn’t come up with a more eloquent title.)

I started playing the keyboard when I was about ten, and took to it fairly quickly. I only started playing for fun, but when my teacher suggested I should sit some exams, I thought it would be nice to have something to show for my hobby. All went well: I sat grade 6, grade 8, then a diploma. It was in preparation for my second diploma that I found my limit.

Tico Tico (or, to give it its full name, Tico-Tico no Fubá) by Zequinha de Abreu is quick and tricky, which feels like too simplistic a sentence to convey just how difficult I found it. It’s a piece that sounds almost as difficult as it is to play, because, despite its repetitive elements, it’s a sort of dance up and down the octaves, requiring sharps and flats at high speed. In the videos I’ve found on YouTube the performers make it look so easy, but don’t let that fool you!

In the video I’m linking to, you can’t see the keys, but this is the person my teacher told me to look up because it is closest to the version I was attempting. The song properly starts thirty seconds in:

I had a few months to try to put it together, as I was trying to fit in one last exam before my year abroad. The rest of my programme was made up of pieces I knew inside out, so my focus was on Tico Tico. At first I loved the challenge of it. I think I must have driven my parents nearly insane with my practising, because it’s not exactly easy listening. (Particularly when played wrong.) I started to wonder if I couldn’t just play something else, but I didn’t want to give up.

On the day of the exam, I remember it was really cold, and I had my hands in gloves, stuffed in my pockets, to try to keep them warm – I needed nimble fingers to play this piece! Unfortunately the cold got to them, so even my other pieces weren’t as straightforward as normal. Tico Tico was last, of course, as it was the most impressive note to finish on – if I could get it right.

I was trying to quash my nerves, but sometimes, no matter what you tell yourself, your body knows you’re lying. My stomach was churning and my hands wanted to shake – really not what I needed!

Regardless, normally the nerves are the worst part, so I started playing and that was a very decent distraction. There was no space for my brain to think of anything except trying to get the notes in the right order. There were a couple of blips, but nothing too major.

I was ‘mashing it up’, if you will, with another song, so I had three pieces of sheet music on the stand, Tico Tico sandwiching another piece. (I cannot remember it off the top of my head – it was obviously easier to play…) I had played the first round of Tico Tico, and then the second song, when I dropped its music on the floor.

This was completely OK – if you’re playing a fast song it’s the easiest way to get rid of it. (If only I’d had time to memorise it!) What was not OK was that the sheet got wedged in front of the speaker in such a way as to create a distortion that recalled raw guitars, or a rock band at the end of a song. It was like Tico Tico: The Horror Edition. I don’t know what my teacher, waiting in the next room, must have thought I was doing.

It was a little too far to be able to kick it out of the way, so I just kept on playing as well as I could. To be honest, it was probably exactly what I needed – I would have laughed my head off if I wasn’t still playing. It was about the most realistic worst-that-could-happen, which took the pressure off. It was hardly the sound I was going for, but it was quite the finale.

The second I stepped out of the room, I burst into tears from the stress – and the relief of it all being over. My teacher insisted I had nothing to worry about, but I didn’t really believe him until I got my results back: a pass – with honours! It was a lovely reminder that not everything has to be perfect to go well.

This piece of music has stayed with me, not because it beautifully expresses some heartfelt emotion, but because it was a massive challenge. I will certainly never forget it – it’s one of those tunes that infiltrates your brain and never leaves. (Especially when you’ve played it a thousand times.) It moved me, sure – to rage. To tears! It was and is infuriating, and I have never once played it perfectly to this day.

And yet, occasionally, I still try.

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