Vic Firth, Who Gave Drummers Their Sticks, Dies at 85
If you build a better drumstick, the world will beat a path to your door.
That, more than 50 years ago, is precisely what Vic Firth did, in the process becoming, almost inadvertently, the world’s most prolific drumstick manufacturer.
Mr. Firth, who died on Sunday at 85, spent more than 40 years as the principal tympanist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, playing under a roster of distinguished conductors including Leonard Bernstein, Serge Koussevitzky, Erich Leinsdorf and Seiji Ozawa.
During his tenure as the orchestra’s music director, Mr. Ozawa called Mr. Firth “the single greatest percussionist anywhere in the world.”
Mr. Firth, whom The Boston Globe, in a 2002 profile, called “debonair, affable, intelligent and sometimes cheerfully profane,” never planned to become a Stradivari of sticks. But by the early 1960s, after having played with the orchestra for a dozen years, he had grown frustrated with the drumsticks on the market, which, he realized, could not meet the demands of the full symphonic repertoire.
Seeking sticks that were fleet, strong, perfectly straight, of even weight in the hands and able to produce the vast range and color of sounds he desired — from the patter of raindrops to the rattle of bones to the thunder of cannons — he was forced to jury-rig a pair.
Working in his garage, he whittled a prototype that had the lightness, versatility and equilibrium he desired, and engaged a wood turner to fabricate the sticks. Mr. Firth intended them solely for his own use, but his students clamored for them. Soon other drummers did too, and in 1963 Vic Firth Inc., as the company was originally known, was born.
Today the company, which has headquarters in Boston and a factory in Newport, Me., turns out some 12 million drumsticks and mallets annually. Its wares have been used by renowned classical, jazz and rock drummers, among them Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones and Anton Fig of David Letterman’s house band.
“We are selling the drummers’ bread and butter,” Mr. Firth told The Bangor Daily News in 2008. “They may think twice before buying a new set of drums, but they always need sticks.”
Made chiefly of hickory, maple or birch, Mr. Firth’s sticks, which range in price from about $7 to $50, are designed for durability. But though a drumstick may hold up well under Handel and Haydn, he said in the same interview, “a man in green pants and purple hair breaks it in one rimshot.”
Everett Joseph Firth, known as Vic, was born on June 2, 1930, in Winchester, Mass., and reared in Sanford, Me. His father, Everett, was a trumpeter and cornet player, and Vic began cornet lessons at 4.
After trying his hand at a spate of instruments, he settled on percussion, and by the age of 16 had his own ensemble, the Vic Firth Big Band, which played throughout New England.
In 1952, at 21, Mr. Firth was invited to audition for the Boston Symphony. Practicing for 14 hours before his audition, he bested nine other candidates, becoming the orchestra’s youngest player by a wide margin. While in the job, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music.
In 1956 he was named the orchestra’s principal tympanist, a post he held until his retirement in 2002. Mr. Firth was also a longtime faculty member of the New England Conservatory, serving as the head of its percussion department for more than 40 years.
Vic Firth Inc. was acquired by the Avedis Zildjian Company, a well-known maker of cymbals, in 2010 and has been known since then as the Vic Firth Company. For some years, Mr. Firth’s company also made highly regarded wooden kitchen implements including saltshakers, pepper mills and rolling pins; that division was sold to Maine Wood Concepts in 2012.
A member of the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame, Mr. Firth lived in Boston. His death, from cancer, at his home there, was confirmed by Rob Grad, a Vic Firth Company spokesman.
Mr. Firth’s survivors include his wife, the former Olga Kwasniak; two daughters, Tracy Firth and Kelly DeChristopher; and a sister, Sherrill Auld.
If Mr. Firth’s tenure with the Boston Symphony made him a star in classical music circles, his stick-making life gave him cachet with the purple-haired set. As a result, he was sometimes asked to sit in with some of the world’s foremost rock bands.
In the 2002 article in The Globe, Mr. Firth recalled a cameo appearance with the Grateful Dead in Providence, R.I.
“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.”
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