Vic Firth Passes Away at 85

Vic Firth, legendary Boston Symphony Orchestra timpanist and founder of Vic Firth Company, passed away yesterday in Boston. He was 85.

Firth was born in Winchester, Massachusetts, and raised in Sanford, Maine. He was the son of Rosemary and Everett E., a successful trumpet and cornet player who started Vic on the cornet when he was four. In the following years, Firth took lessons on a variety of instruments.

By high school, he was playing percussion full-time and, by age 16, had formed the 18-piece "Vic Firth Big Band," which performed throughout the New England area.

At age 21, Firth auditioned for and became the youngest member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra by 30 years. Firth performed with many legendary conductors and musicians, including Leonard Bernstein, Serge Koussevitzky, Leopold Stokowski, Jascha Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz and Seiji Ozawa.

While a student at the New England Conservatory, Firth also began to devote himself to teaching, which would become one of his lifelong passions. He started first in the preparatory department at the school and eventually became head of their percussion department, a title he held for 44 years. He taught numerous future legends, including Harvey Mason, Kenny Aronoff and Anton Fig.

Firth was obsessed with the quality of sound. This is what guided his playing, his teaching and ultimately, led to the birth of the Vic Firth Company in 1963. Firth hand whittled his first pair of sticks in his garage, and when word got out about his sticks' superior quality, the company was born.

"I thought there was a need for a higher-quality stick than what was being manufactured at the time," Firth said. "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."

Vic Firth is credited with inventing or standardizing many of the key manufacturing processes used today in the drumstick world, including centerless grinding, pitch-pairing, weight-sorting, injection molding, and the introduction of the more environmentally conscious stick sleeves, which keep sticks paired together.

"Vic was a visionary in the music industry who was revered by all of us," said Craigie Zildjian, CEO of the Avedis Zildjian Company, which merged with the Vic Firth Company in 2010. "Never one to accept the status quo, Vic blazed trails throughout the drum world."