VIC FIRTH

Born June 2,1930, in Winchester, Massachusetts, and raised in Maine, Firth is the son of Everett E. and Rosemary Firth. His father was a successful trumpet and cornet player who started young Vic on the instrument when he was only four. Fortunately for the world of percussion, Firth was not destined for a career as a cornetist. He soon began to study arranging, with additional lessons on trombone, clarinet, piano and percussion. By the time he was in high school, he had gravitated full-time to percussion, studying first with Robert Ramsdell and later with George Lawrence Stone, Salvy Cavicchio and Larry White. By the age of sixteen he was actively pursuing a career as the leader of his own 18-piece big band, playing vibes and drumset throughout the New England area.   continued below >


WATCH OUR VIDEO INTERVIEW WITH VIC ON THE
HISTORY AND CONTINUED DEVELOPMENT OF HIS COMPANY!


 


VIC FIRTH BIOGRAPHY, CONTINUED

Upon graduating from high school, Firth attended the New England Conservatory of Music where he studied with Roman Szulc, then the timpanist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In addition to his studies in Boston, Firth made biweekly trips to Juilliard in order to study with Saul Goodman. When Szulc retired from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and auditions were held for the position, Firth was selected for the job. At age twenty-one, Firth was the youngest member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops Orchestra, the average age in 1952 being about fifty-five. Not yet finished with his bachelor's Degree from the Conservatory, he had to make special arrangements in order to complete his course work and degree.

Firth's teaching career at the New England Conservatory also began before he had graduated, first in the preparatory department, then as head of the percussion department, a position he has held since 1950. He has guided numerous gifted students through their education, not only at the conservatory, but also at the Berkshire Music Center, Tanglewood, summer home of the BSO. Percussion students who have studied with Firth hold key positions throughout the world. He is hesitant to mention outstanding pupils, but he fondly recalls a class on percussion techniques for a Copland seminar that included three young conductors - Claudio Abbado, Zubin Mehta and Seiji Ozawa.

When asked about Firth's teaching style, Late Show with David Letterman drummer Anton Fig, who studied with Firth at the New England Conservatory, stated that "Vic is a very dynamic and forceful individual. He draws you into his highly productive work ethic. His lessons give you clear direction, not only with music but with life. He provides a balanced role model for the importance of work, family and compassion for other human beings."

This work ethic, along with the support from his wife, Olga, and two daughters, Kelly and Tracy, provided the drive to succeed in the business world in addition to performing music. Unsatisfied with the sticks available during his early years, Firth, like many percussionists, began making his own. Realizing that a concert violinist might spend $2,000 to $10,000 on a bow, he thought it strange that a superior quality stick was not widely available for symphonic percussionists. He began with timpani mallets, making round heads with no seams. As his students began using his sticks and dealers began asking for them, he made the decision to expand the manufacturing process.

Unlike his other successful business ventures - an investment partnership and an art gallery - Firth had no clear plan for developing his stick business. The driving principle was quality, with a guarantee that each pair would be straight and matched in pitch. What began in 1960 as a basement operation out of his home has now expanded into a corporation with two plants, a main office and 150 employees to handle the manufacture and worldwide sales of over 12 million sticks a year.

Never one to rest on his success, Vic also began another flourishing venture that most percussionists may not know about; a line of professional gourmet products. For Vic it was a natural evolution from crafting wood sticks and mallets to designing professional salt mills, peppermills and rolling pins. Bringing some of the same business practices from the music industry, Firth works closely with many of the most successful chefs in the business to craft the highest quality wood products available to the home baker and professional chef.

Although most young percussionists are familiar with the name Firth because of his sticks and mallets, many promising students first encounter Firth's musical substance through his numerous compositions and etudes. The Solo Timpanist and The Solo Snare Drummer etude books have set the standard for audition material at the all-state or college entry level.

As a performer, Firth recalls memorable performances with such legendary conductors and musicians as Leonard Bernstein, Serge Koussevitsky, Leopold Stokowski, Jascha Heifitz and Vladimir Horowitz. "Vic is quite simply the consummate artist," says Boston Symphony conductor Seiji Ozawa. "I believe he is the single greatest percussionist anywhere in the world. Every performance that Vic gives is informed with incredible musicianship, elegance and impeccable timing. I also feel very lucky to count him as a dear and cherished friend, and it has been one of the great joys of my life to get to know him and his dear wife Olga."

Asked what his key to success has been, Firth responds, "I still enjoy the music as much now as I did when I started!" Other keys to succeeding include a highly competitive nature and enthusiasm for life. "Mostly, though," says Firth "I've just been in the right place at the right time."

Perhaps no one summarizes Firth's esteem in the percussion community better than jazz drummer Peter Erskine. "I have had the great pleasure of knowing Vic personally for twenty-five years," Erskine says, "and thanks to television and recordings, I have known his great music-making as timpanist for the Boston Symphony for even longer. And I have used his sticks since high school. Vic is the consummate musician, teacher and business person. No matter whose drumstick you use, we must all be grateful to Vic Firth for raising the level of stick and mallet design and production. Simply put, I wouldn't want to make any of my music without his sticks, and I cherish the friendship of the man and his family."

Vic retired from the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2001 after a 50 year tenure as timpanist. In 1995, he was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society's Hall of Fame.



Q & A with Vic Firth

Even though he's the last person to admit it, in the percussion world, Vic Firth is a national treasure. With 50 years of experience as the timpanist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, having played under the baton of the greatest conductors of all time, Vic has a wealth of knowledge that we wanted to tap into. Here are a few of our questions:

As a young student, you learned from some of the greatest historical figures in the percussion world. Can you share some memories and things that you learned from these masters?

You are famous for making "adjustments" to what composers notated on the timpani parts in order to accommodate for a specific sound quality or texture that you want to achieve.

First, do you feel any apprehension about "improving" upon a composer's notation? Can you site some specific examples where you've made changes? Second, how did Seiji Ozawa or guest conductors of the Boston Symphony Orchestra react to your interpretations?

Your playing style is often likened to that of a drumset player in a big band -- you control the tempo, often even more so than the conductor. Is this a role that you consciously take on wherever you play, or has it developed over the many years playing specifically with the BSO?
Can you give us an overview of your concept of sound on the timpani?



MORE ABOUT VIC FROM THE PAGES OF MODERN DRUMMER:

“Vic Firth: Celebrating 50 Years with the Boston Symphony Orchestra”

Written by Rick Mattingly, Reprinted with permission, Modern Drummer Magazine
Volume 25, No. 11, November, 2001

When Vic Firth joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1951, the average age of a BSO member was fifty-five. Firth was twenty-one -- the youngest person to ever land a position with that orchestra. Now, as Firth begins his fiftieth season with the BSO, he holds the distinction of having been in the orchestra longer than anyone else.

He's not the oldest member, though. And Firth has no plans to shoot for that particular goal. "Fifty is a nice, round number," he says. "So I think I might just throw it in after this season. They want me to stay, but there's a saying that it's better to leave a year too soon than a week too late. Although my wits and responses, as far as I can tell, are as sharp as ever, I think there is an obligation to never be less than your very best. So I'd rather leave on that note than to wait a year or two too long, as I've seen some of my colleagues do. You tend to remember that more than all the years of good playing.

"I think what's given me the longevity is that I've enjoyed it so much," Firth says. "I came into one of the most highly skilled groups of players in the world. From day one I was absolutely bowled over with the sound made by the individual musicians and the orchestra as a whole. And to this day I've never gotten over the joy of contributing to the beautiful music we produce. When we play Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky -- all the standard war-horses -- it is readily understandable why that music has lasted so long. And when you get to the more contemporary music of Bartok, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev, there is such greatness there that it must be tough for a young composer today to realize what you have to do to write music like that."

Firth has also enjoyed working with the world's greatest conductors and soloists over the past half-century. "Even though you play certain pieces many, many times, it's interesting how each conductor and soloist interprets those black-and-white dots on the page," he says. "Each one is a musical sculptor who does different things with the same tools. That's part of what has always been exciting for me. No two performances are ever the same. Performing has always been an adventure, and the thrill of that adventure is still with me. Maybe I found the fountain of youth in music."

Vic Firth was born in Massachusetts and raised in Maine, the son of a musician who started Vic on trumpet when he was four. Over the next few years, he also took lessons on trombone, clarinet, piano and percussion. By the time he was in high school, Vic was playing percussion full-time and studying with the legendary George Lawrence Stone. By age sixteen, Firth was working professionally as a drumset player in a big band.

"Within the Boston Symphony, the timpanist is a real time bearer," Firth says. "I control the tempo; I can make it, break it, shape it, or destroy it. I learned about time when I was in high school, playing from 9:00 pm to 3:00 am in a jazz group with older men. Boy, did I learn to maintain time, because everybody around me was drunk! I don't think I took even a sip of a beer until I was in my twenties because I saw these guys making such fools of themselves.

Vic with Saul Goodman

"I don't pretend to be a moralist, but I've seen a lot of people come and go, and the ones who stay are the ones who eat right, sleep right, and don't do abusive things to themselves. To really be a creative, professional musician, you have to be honest with yourself and the music." After graduating from high school, Firth attended the New England Conservatory of Music, where he studied with Roman Szulc, who was then timpanist with the Boston Symphony. In addition, Firth traveled to New York City twice a month to study with New York Philharmonic timpanist Saul Goodman."Saul had a natural feel for the instrument and understood the difference between Brahms and Stravinsky and Bach and Bartok," Firth says. "He knew how to color the sound to fit the music, because you don't use the same stick, the same stroke and the same sound for everything."

When Firth won the Boston Symphony audition upon Szulc's retirement, he became fascinated with sound and phrasing. "At the time I joined the orchestra, we had a principal viola player who looked like a plumber's helper in terms of his hands," Firth remembers. "Each of his fingers was the size of my big toe, but when he picked up that viola, the sound he made was from heaven. So I would listen to him, and then I started listening to the cellos, and I decided that's what the timpani should sound like. Most timpani players try to phrase with the brass section, because all of us drummers started out in marching band. But when you learn how to phrase with the string section, you get a whole different concept of what kind of sonority you're creating that contributes to the sound of the orchestra."I used to do whatever I could to bring the sound of my instruments into a richer category," he explains. "Some of the composers were not that knowledgeable about timpani, and so I took it upon myself to alter the parts. Sometimes I'd go too far and it didn't sound like that composer's music any more, so I'd back off."

Many of Firth's changes have been penciled into timpani parts and passed among timpanists throughout the world. "There are a lot of things you can do to achieve a higher quality of sound," Firth says. "For example, in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony, the timpani plays a background ostinato on the F that's written on the fourth line of the bass clef. I would also put an F an octave lower on my largest drum and play them in unison. Conductors never noticed, but it made for a richer, warmer sound."

One of the hallmarks of Firth's playing is the way it blends into the total sound of the orchestra. His timpani rhythms do not cut through the orchestra's sound as much as they support that sound from within, serving as the internal heartbeat of the music. In some respects, Firth's approach to playing timpani with an orchestra can be compared to the late Mel Lewis's approach to playing drumset with a big band. In fact, when Firth was head of the percussion department at the New England Conservatory of music, he invited Lewis to be on the faculty."

Mel was a great artist and interpreter of sound," Firth says. "We needed a drumset teacher at the Conservatory, and I said that they should bring up this guy from New York. This goes back at least thirty years. Mel wasn't the world's greatest technician, but when it came to playing in an ensemble and bringing sounds to that ensemble that played into the arms of the music, this guy could do it. Mel was all color and imagination for sound and the way he blended into the group was phenomenal.

"As far as the technical aspects, I was always very technically skilled myself, so I said I'd teach the students technique, because all the drumset players had to go through me as well. And the first thing they had to work on was George Stone's Stick Control. I didn't care what level they were, we started on the first page and did those first thirteen exercises. Before I got done with them, no matter where they started at, they increased their ability three hundred percent."

Unlike drummers who concentrate on the speed at which they can play the Stick Control exercises, Firth was interested in a different aspect of technique. "There's no question that speed and chops are a major part of your ability," he says. "But when a student started with Stick Control, all I was concerned about was the quality of sound. Regardless of the sticking, every exercise should sound like exercise 1, which is just 8th notes played with alternating hands. Those exercises should be devoid of any inflection. The idea was to be in total control of the sound.

"It would take several months of honing, but gradually you could hear finesse developing in these students' hands. They didn't even realize it for a while, because they heard themselves every day. But I only heard them once a week, and I could hear major improvements from week to week. I would make them play it triple piano, and if they accented a single note I'd jump all over them. I wasn't the sweetest guy in the world when it came to teaching. But if they could take that abuse from me, then they wouldn't have to take so much when they became professional players, because they would be so highly skilled.

"I told students the first day that if they didn't put in a minimum of five hours of practice a day, they shouldn't dare show their face in the room. I had a few dropouts and a few who broke down and cried after a while -- and a couple who tried to take a swing at me," Firth says, laughing. "But those who survived could play with superb touch and control. When you have that kind of control and somebody tells you to make it louder or softer, or faster or slower, you can smile instead of starting to shake.

"This applies to every drummer, whether you're playing Beethoven with an orchestra, jazz with brushes, or whatever. You have to have the control to make your instrument speak where it's supposed to. You also have to be able to phrase. Phrasing is a word everybody uses, and the simplest explanation of phrasing is how you go from one note to another. And until you can learn how to do that and have an expressive, musical vocabulary, you haven't accomplished what you set out to do in music.

"The whole process of playing is basically about sound," Firth stresses. "You put something in the atmosphere that is beautiful, or grotesque, or shimmering, or ugly, or anything you want, but it has to be something specific. That's what makes it exciting. So everything I've done was built around sound."

That quest for sound led Firth to design and manufacture his own timpani sticks. What started literally as a basement operation that produced three models of timpani sticks and two models of drumsticks has grown to be the biggest drumstick manufacturing business in the world with over two hundred sixty models of sticks and mallets.

"I thought there was a need for a higher-quality stick than was being manufactured at the time," Firth recalls. "Also, I was asked to do certain things that were perhaps more sophisticated than a lot of timpanists were doing, so I started designing sticks to accommodate what I had to do."

At that time, timpani sticks were typically of the "cartwheel" design, in which a rectangular piece of felt was wrapped around a core and stitched. Players had to avoid hitting the drum with the seam, as that could produce a "clicky" sound. Firth came up with a seamless head for his timpani mallets, and the heads were also round so that the same amount of felt struck the drumhead no matter at what angle the stick was held. Soon, Firth was designing drumsticks as well as timpani sticks.

"I started out just making a few pairs of sticks for my own use," Firth says. "Then my students started asking if they could buy some. I had a wood turner who was making them by hand with a wheel and a chisel, so I went from ordering ten pair for myself to ordering two dozen pair. Then those students started graduating and going different places in the country, and one day I got a call from Maurie Lishon at Frank's Drum Shop in Chicago. He had seen my sticks and wanted to sell them, so all of a sudden I was ordering fifty pairs at a time. And it just grew from there."

His guiding principle was quality, guaranteeing that every pair of sticks would be straight and matched in pitch. From the very beginning, Vic's wife, Olga, and daughters, Kelly and Tracy, helped out with the family business. Tracy remains a valuable executive at the company to this day.

"I still have as much fun with this business now as when we made twelve pairs a month," Firth says. "One of the biggest kicks for me has been getting to know all the drummers who use the sticks, listening to their needs and gripes, and trying to produce things that satisfy their musical needs. I have a very profound respect for people who have an artistic ability and understand what's involved in making music. As a result of that respect, I think I've got a lot of friends out there who appreciate what I do and who know that I have great appreciation for what they do."

One of the first drumset artists to have a Vic Firth signature drumstick was Steve Gadd. Firth recalls the first time he and Gadd performed together.

"There was a DCI convention in Florida, and they asked me to play something with a drumset player," Firth recalls. "I said I'd like to play with Steve Gadd, who I had met but never played with. So I brought some pieces I'd written for timpani and RotoToms with drumset. Steve and I had a rehearsal that began about 10:00 at night, and I was amazed at how little Steve contributed. I had heard so much about his musical greatness, but he was hardly doing anything. One piece was a jazz waltz, and he just played 'boom, chick, chick' through the whole thing. I was playing all these melodic runs, but timpani is not that adaptable to that kind of playing, and the piece really needs a good drumset player to work. In other words, I can only be a beautiful painting if I'm well framed. But Steve wasn't doing very much and I was thinking, 'I'm going to die with this, and all those kids who are coming to see Steve Gadd are going to be disappointed.'

"The next morning we had a quick run-through, and Steve seemed to come alive a little bit, but he still was playing simple time. Then, when we did the performance, he as astronomical. Everything he did was so tasty and delivered with such eloquence. I was absolutely bowled over by his musical intuition, taste, and style. I realized that at the rehearsal he was listening to what I was doing, so he would know how to integrate his part into mine when it came time to play. And when that time came, he played so beautifully I started smiling."

That says a lot, considering Firth's typical look when he performs. Although he insists that performing great music fills him with joy, you'd never know it from his stern expression. "I have to tell you about a conversation that I had with Claudio Abbado," Firth says, laughing. "He had come to Boston to conduct a Mahler symphony. After the concert, we went out to get a bite to eat. The orchestra was looking for a conductor at that point, and he was interested in the job. So he asked me what the orchestra members thought about him. I said, 'They're scared to death of you. You've got a face like an irate beaver; you look mad and mean all the time.' And he said, 'Have you ever seen yourself when you play? That's the same effect you produce!' So I figured if I looked that mean, maybe conductors wouldn't dare say anything about my playing!"

When Firth was elected to the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 1995, Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Seiji Ozawa had plenty to say about Firth's playing. "Vic is quite simply the consummate artist," Ozawa told Percussive Notes magazine. "I believe he is the single greatest percussionist anywhere in the world. Every performance that Vic gives is informed with incredible musicianship, elegance, and impeccable timing."

Although Firth has retired from teaching, students continue to benefit from the elementary and intermediate snare drum method books he wrote for the Carl Fischer company, as well as his books of advanced etudes, The Solo Timpanist and The Solo Snare Drummer. He has also written several percussion ensemble works, including "Encore In Jazz," that have become staples of the literature.

Asked if he considers himself a workaholic, Firth says yes, but then reconsiders the term. "A workaholic, to me, is somebody who's driven to work. But I enjoy it. And when I'm not working, I enjoy that with the same intensity. I'm about to go to Maine for a couple of days. I've got a rose garden that I monkey with, and I've got a boat that I go fishing in. I can't sit still for more than two minutes at a time, so I'm always doing something. But I don't carry my work with me. I think that's part of the secret of success in terms of accomplishment. I'll spend a couple of days in Maine, and it's like a tonic for me. Then I'm ready to go back to playing or merchandising or designing drumsticks with full enthusiasm."

Although Firth takes his work very seriously, he also has a robust sense of humor. He especially likes poking fun at himself. "I used to go jogging in Maine," he says. "There are some rocks next to our summer house where garden snakes liked to sun themselves. They wouldn't hurt anybody, but the kids didn't like them. So when I'd go jogging, I'd scoop up a couple of snakes in each hand and go jogging down the road swinging them around. Then I'd toss them in a swamp a half-mile down the road. You should have seen the expressions on the faces of people who drove past and saw this lunatic running down the road swinging those snakes!

"When I was young," Firth says, "I had some friends I ran around with, and one day my mother said, 'There's something wrong with you guys. All you do is laugh.' Well, we always had a good time, and I'm still laughing and having a good time. It's been a fun trip, and if I could do it all over again, the only thing I would change is that I would start all the adventures earlier so I could have even more time to enjoy them."




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