Here at youbloom, we pride ourselves on giving good advice. As musicians and creatives who love the independent ethic, we like to draw from whatever experiences we have – be they salty and extensive or brief, yet fresh – and share them with you so that all angles of this music business madness are explored and unpacked as thoroughly as we can manage. The result of our musings, we hope, is as thorough and transparent an advantage as possible, for you, the unsigned artist.
But just as often as we communicate, we have to listen. And sometimes, we simply have to stop talking altogether. Today is one of those days.
Today we have no advice, only respects to pay to a man who dedicated his life to the pursuit of the impeccable: Mr. Vic Firth.
Mr. Firth, famed, longstanding member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, teacher, and drumstick company heavyweight, passed away on Sunday.
Born Everett Joseph Firth, on June 2, 1930, in Winchester, Massachusetts, to parents Rosemary and Everett E. (himself a noteworthy trumpet and cornet player), “Vic” started learning to play the cornet himself at the very young age of four. Later, the adolescent Everett became interested in several other instruments, beginning lessons in piano, trombone, clarinet, and, perhaps most fortuitously, percussion. During this time, he also began studying and learning to write musical arrangement, and by the time he was a high-schooler, Firth was known in his hometown of Sanford, Maine, as a full-time percussionist.
By the age of fifteen, he had formed his own twelve-man band, and settled on the stage name of Vic Firth, which, he once laughingly recounted in an interview with Modern Drummer magazine, sounded less like a “…skin disease” than the name Everett.
He took regular trips to Boston – a six hour drive away – to take snare drum lessons from George Lawrence Stone, as well as lessons in keyboard percussion from a man named Larry White, who would eventually convince Vic to attend college at Boston’s New England Conservatory, where Firth would earn both a Bachelor’s degree and an Honorary Doctorate in Music. He also made frequent trips to New York City to study timpani with Saul Goodman, and spent a summer in college at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts (where the Boston Symphony Orchestra spend their summers), the result of a scholarship award.
Having entered college as a Music Education major, Vic developed an enthusiasm for teaching, and started the NEC’s first preparatory department. Later, he would become head of the percussion department, leading it for over forty years, and influencing countless students in their musical studies, among them such distinguished musicians as John Mellencamp drummer Kenny Aronoff, and prolific jazzist Harvey Mason.
Firth became the youngest member at the time of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1952, auditioning as a percussionist at the age of 21, while still in college at the NEC. He spent the first four years jumping at every opportunity, moving quickly through the ranks from percussion to timpani, then on to roles as associate principal, assistant principal, and subsequently, principal timpanist. He would hold this position for the remainder of his 50 years with the Orchestra.
A passionate pursuer of the very best in terms of musicianship, and, more specifically, sound, Vic turned his focus on his musical implements. Finding the commonly used drumsticks and mallets of inferior manufacturing quality, Firth began whittling his first homemade sticks in his garage and sharing them with fellow percussionists. Word spread of the sticks’ durability and wide range of functions, and by 1963, Vic Firth, Inc., perhaps his most enduring legacy, was established.
Through Vic Firth, Inc., Mr. Firth’s channeled his innovation and business savvy, which focused on setting the standard for drumstick quality, becoming indispensable in the world of drummers from every discipline.
Though we take many of the advancements today for granted, it was Firth’s insight and relentless perfectionism which drove such crucial improvements in stick design as pitch-pairing, weight-sorting, and centerless grinding to achieve a smoother stick surface. Currently at the height of their production, Vic Firth, Inc. (now the Vic Firth Company) makes around 12 million sticks annually. “The Perfect Pair” is today a trusted emblem of superior work in the drum realm.
In 1995, Vic Firth was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society’s Hall of Fame, and in 2002, retired from the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
“I believe he was the single greatest percussionist anywhere in the world,” said composer Seiji Ozawa of Firth. “Every performance that Vic gave was informed with incredible musicianship, elegance and impeccable timing.”
Craigie Zildjian, CEO of Avedis Zildjian, world-famous cymbal manufacturer (merged with the Vic Firth Company since 2010), agrees.
“Vic was a visionary in the music industry who was revered by all of us,” he said. “Never one to accept the status quo, Vic blazed trails throughout the drum world.”
Mr Firth died at his home in Boston. He was 85 years old.