An accomplished inventor. An accomplished manufacturer. An accomplished musician. A successful educator. Most people would be happy to hang their hat on one accomplishment of note. Vic Firth was all of these.
Born on June 2, 1930 in Massachusetts, raised in Maine, his musical indoctrination began at an early age with the cornet, eventually aspiring to percussion, trombone, clarinet, piano, and music arrangement. By the time he reached high school, Vic had started his own 18 piece band, the “Vic Firth Big Band” which performed throughout New England. He furthered his education in vibraphone, drum set and timpani at The New England Conservatory in Boston.
While a student at the conservatory, Vic began what was to become a lifelong passion of his; teaching. His skills included guiding gifted students such as Kenny Aronoff and Anton Figg.
At the young age of 21, Vic auditioned and became the youngest member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a gig that required him to make special arrangements to complete his course work at The Conservatory. Vic spent more than 40 years performing with the BSO, playing for an incredibly distinguished roster of of conductors such as Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa.
As the story goes, Vic was charged with performing pieces at the BSO which required a better drumstick than what was being manufactured at the time. The mother of invention makes her appearance. At that point, he “whittled” his own sticks from bulkier sticks, created his prototypes, sent them along to a wood turner and these eventually became the genesis of Vic Firth, Inc. Intended for his own use, his students began asking for them, which eventually led to said sticks being carried by retailers. To this day, Vic is credited with inventing or standardizing many of the manufacturing processes that are commonplace in the drumstick industry. The list of world-class drummers and percussionists working with his sticks and mallets is endless.
“We are selling the drummers’ bread and butter,” Vic was quoted as saying. “They may think twice before buying a new set of drums, but they always need sticks.”
During a 2002 Boston Globe profile, Vic was described as “debonair, affable, intelligent and sometimes cheerfully profane”. In the same Globe profile, Vic recalled “a cameo appearance with the Grateful Dead” in Providence RI.
“I was sitting on the stage, and they asked me to lead off the big drum solo,” he said. “I was wearing a coat and tie and I told them I’d look like a stuffed shirt. But they persuaded me to take them off, and I did start off the solo.” Through an audience member, word of Mr. Firth’s escapade reached a member of the Boston Symphony’s august board of directors. Before long there were, for the percussionist, repercussions. Mr. Firth’s manager called him into his office. “Tell me it isn’t true,” he said, “that you played with the Grateful Dead.” “So I told him it wasn’t true,” Mr. Firth told The Globe. “As I headed for the door, he said, ‘Did you really do it?’ and I said, ‘Of course I did.’ “Just don’t do it again,’ he said, and I didn’t.”
Sadly, Vic Firth passed away, July 26, 2015. His legacy will live forever as drummers all over the world will continue to perform with his drumsticks.
(by Lew DiTommaso)