NEC Remembers Vic Firth

Relationship with New England Conservatory and with Boston Symphony Orchestra dates back more than half a century.

In 1952, esteemed New England Conservatory alumnus and faculty member Everett “Vic” Firth was a 21-year-old student when he joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A decade later, Firth was inspired to design a higher-quality drumstick than the “warped utensils and implements not specifically designed for percussionists.”

Firth began making drumsticks and mallets for himself and later for his students at NEC; his first drumstick prototypes, SD1 and SD2, were initially hand-whittled from thicker sticks. He then sent them to a wood tuner in Montreal. Firth’s company grew quickly; he began manufacturing in a 65,000-square-foot plant in Newport, Maine, where his products are still made. The rest is music history.

Firth, who died Sunday of pancreatic cancer at his home in Boston, stayed firmly rooted in his Northeast roots throughout his life. A native of Winchester, Mass., he grew up in Sanford, Maine, where he played many instruments before settling on percussion and forming an 18-piece, the "Vic Firth Big Band," in high school.

For five decades, Firth served as timpanist at the BSO, where he performed for legendary conductors, including Leonard Bernstein. He also led the percussion program at New England Conservatory from 1952 through 1995 and was a long-standing financial supporter of NEC, specifically for its 40th Anniversary Jazz celebration and the development of the new Student Life & Performance Center, which will open in 2017. In 1992 NEC recognized Firth's contributions to the world of music with an honorary Doctor of Music degree.

The Vic Firth Company became the world's leading drumstick manufacturing business. Later on, Firth diversified his drumstick and percussion accessory enterprises into a gourmet cookware operation with a Vic Firth line of rolling pins and pepper mills. World-renowned chef and television personality Emeril Lagasse was very close to Vic and hosted him on his cooking show. In 2010, Firth’s company merged with the Boston-based cymbal maker Avedis Zildjian Company.

From Frank Epstein, Director, NEC Percussion Ensemble

"Vic Firth was an icon in the percussion world. He was a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 50 years and its timpanist for most of that time. He graduated from New England Conservatory cum laude and was also a faculty member at the Conservatory for nearly five decades.

"Vic’s talents were recognized early. A strikingly handsome man, he sported black sparkling eyes and equally dramatic black hair. Vic seemed to traverse the world on air. However, he worked hard at everything he started. He took nothing for granted and no matter what the situation, he was always prepared and ready to deliver. This included epic performances on a nightly basis at Symphony Hall, working with students at the Conservatory, and later developing and honing his skills marketing and developing a line of drum sticks the likes of which had not been seen before.

"I studied with Vic for two years and then joined his section at the BSO for some 34 years. I played next to Vic for all that time; that itself was a lesson in concentration, power, rhythmic articulation, tone, and musical character. Vic represented the core of the orchestra. He controlled its rhythmic center like no one else. Yet the color of his sound was warm and big, if not universal.

"Vic possessed a vivid vocabulary and he used it freely, however, he was never mean spirited, in fact quite the opposite, he was charming and alluring, and seemed interested in all that was around him, especially the people who surrounded him.

"He did not like to be alone, this was curious to me all those years of knowing him, but it was also part of his charm. He wanted to share his world with someone by his side all the time. The many people whose lives he touched, the audiences that heard him play, and the many owners of his signature drumsticks will remember him always."

From Anton Fig '75, "Letterman Show" Percussionist for 29 Years and NEC Alumnus

"Vic Firth was one of a kind. He was an encouraging, supportive, no-nonsense person with a strong work ethic. He was also a dynamic tympanist and highly successful businessman. I am fortunate to have been his student while at New England Conservatory."

From Harvey Mason '75, Legendary Drummer and NEC Alumnus

"With great, great sadness I'm mourning the passing of my longtime friend Vic Firth. Vic was key to my illustrious career as a studio musician. As my teacher and mentor at New England Conservatory, he was demanding and extremely thorough in preparing me as an orchestral percussionist. Vic was also a very special friend, who, in spite of his recent physical challenges, attended my May 2015 Honorary Doctorate ceremony [at Berklee] in Boston. He was proud and happy as I gave him well-deserved major props!

"What a great life he lived, it ended far too early for us but he achieved so much and shared so much. He'll forever be remembered. 'Vic …' so precise, so unflappable, so decisive, so debonair, so cool! I will miss you Vic …"