Down East 2013 ©
Photograph by Jennifer Baum
From a factory in Newport, musician Vic Firth has built the largest drumstick empire on the planet and in the process changed the sound of music from jazz to classical to pop. Not bad for a smart-aleck kid from Sanford.
When Vic Firth was a boy learning how to play the drums in the 1940s, there was a right way and a wrong way to hold the sticks. The right way was called the traditional grip, and it meant holding the drumstick in the left hand between the second and third fingers so that the pair of sticks on the drumhead would almost form a right angle. This took some getting used to, and a lot of young drummers would end up hitting the drum harder with one hand than the other, making some rhythms come out sounding a little stilted.
Clever guy that he was, Firth soon figured out that the issue was not the drummer or the grip. “It wasn’t the left hand that was the problem,” he says. “It was that the sticks were different sizes.” One was often much heavier than the other. Back then there was no such thing as pairing sticks by weight, never mind by pitch, so that both sticks resonate at the same frequency.
Vic Firth would change all that. As a young teacher at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, he made an arrangement with a wood turner in Montreal to produce custom sticks, and in so doing he created a drumstick empire that also made Vic Firth a living legend.
Being the principal timpanist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) didn’t hurt. A native of Sanford, Firth was the youngest musician to become a principal and the longest tenured performer with the world-renowned symphony, pounding out rhythms well into his seventies. He’s played for or with an amazing array of greats — from Leonard Bernstein to Arthur Fiedler to Chet Atkins to Tony Bennett — and his innovations in drumstick design revolutionized the world of drumming.
At his factory in Newport Firth tells his story to a couple of visitors. Hard by the shore of Sebasticook Lake in central Maine, the facility gets its share of guests because of its state-of-the-art production processes. At seventy-eight, Firth is full of stories, and he’s gracious and old-school enough to share them, with a charisma not unlike that of Frank Sinatra. He leans in to make eye contact, sitting in the modest boardroom at his mill, and has something of a Boston accent, which is understandable since he has spent most of his life playing and teaching in Beantown, the world headquarters of Vic Firth Incorporated.
But there’s a lot of the Maine boy still in Vic Firth. Although he now lives in Dover, New Hampshire, he was raised in Sanford and still has a seasonal place in the Yorks. He likes few things better than to fish for mackerel and bluefish off his boat, something he did with his father, who worked as a music teacher in Wells, Kennebunk, and Exeter, New Hampshire. The senior Firth was a trumpet player, and Little Vic — Everett to family — had his first cornet at age four. “I had the worst embouchure, the worst sound,” he says with characteristic self-deprecation.
So at about age ten Firth ended up going to see a drum teacher who was a family friend. His father saw to it that he was well versed in other instruments — piano, cornet, trumpet, trombone — as well as theory — “only to learn orchestration,” he says. By his teens he was playing dances, running his own eighteen-piece big band and booking performances all over New England. This was the World War II era, and Sanford had a big airstrip. “There might be 18,000 sailors around,” Firth says. “I’d be playing dances with these older guys — it was wild, everyone was drinking except me — from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. and then I’d get up and go to school at 8 a.m.”
While studying at the New England Conservatory of Music, Firth won a scholarship to attend Tanglewood. “There was a [charitable] club that awarded a scholarship for a Maine student to go,” he recalls, “usually a singer or a flutist. Drummers were at the bottom of the list. But that year there was no one but me suited to go.”
It was at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s vaunted summer retreat that Vic Firth went from being a jazz boy to a classical kid. “The symphonic side fascinated me,” he says. And he practiced it obsessively. “If I had a day when I practiced less than eight hours, it was a bad day.”
Firth’s dedication — and his rhythmic chops — took him straight from school to the big time. “It was a shocker,” he says, to be accepted into one of the world’s great orchestras at the tender age of twenty. At the time the average age of his colleagues was fifty-five. “Most of the players then were Europeans,” he explains. “And here I was some punk kid from Maine that most of them had never heard of.”
One very important person was aware of this talent from Maine, however. “It all started with Arthur Fiedler, who’d heard of me and asked me to audition for the Pops,” remembers Firth.
Of course, like any other kid barely out of his teens, Firth wasn’t sure what he really wanted to do. “I was offered a job as a cymbalist and turned it down.” He chuckles. His father wasn’t amused, encouraging him to rethink his choice. The savvy young Firth went back to the bargaining table. “I didn’t want to play cymbals,” he says. After a bit of back and forth — that kind of negotiating was unheard of at the time, especially by someone so young — Firth walked out with a deal in his favor. “I agreed to be a percussionist,” he says. Then he smiles. “But only for a year.”
That year never ended. Firth played with the orchestra. He played with the Pops. He played at Tanglewood. He recorded with Fiedler, Charles Munch, Seiji Ozawa, and Leonard Bernstein. “I saw more players, managers, and conductors than you can imagine,” he says.
And just as his father had before him — and orchestra players have everywhere — he began teaching. Between the BSO and the New England Conservatory of Music, his world revolved around drumsticks.
If Vic Firth’s development into a world-class musician seemed almost inevitable, the rise of Vic Firth Incorporated came about almost by accident. In the fifties, Firth was playing with whatever sticks were available. But he was not particularly happy with them. “The tools needed improving,” he recalls. “They were never good enough. I was always complaining about them, and one day I decided to stop complaining and do something about it. So I found a wood turner in Montreal, and I ordered ten pairs of sticks for personal use.”
At the time, Firth was teaching at the conservatory, and his new sticks caught the attention of his students. “Everyone saw them and said, ‘Can I buy a pair from you?’ I said, ‘No, but next time I place an order I’ll get some for you, too.’ ” He got a lot of these requests.
And then one day a really large order came in. “Drummers are strange guys, and they have a special fraternity,” he says. “You never hear of trumpet shops or flute shops but there are drum shops all over the place.” Somehow just such a shop in Chicago heard about Firth’s sticks and asked if it too could place an order. “From there I started to get orders from drum shops everywhere.”
Suddenly he found himself with a company. “I think my best ability at that time was ignorance,” he jokes. “Here I was without any knowledge of marketing or sales or manufacturing.” As his orders got larger, his man in Montreal grew too expensive, and Firth began to look around for another manufacturing facility. And if you’re searching for wood workers, where better to look than in Maine? Firth found the craftsmen he needed in Kingfield, and his young company soon found itself turning out thousands upon thousands of drumsticks.
Not just any drumsticks either. Because he was so unhappy with the sticks he’d used previously, Firth wanted to make sure his products were of the highest quality. This meant a raft of innovations thatleft his competition in the sawdust.
First, there was the issue of weight. Vic Firth insisted that his sticks be sorted and paired by their weight. He demanded that they be straight, too, which seems rather obvious but was unheard of previously. “The boss of the biggest drumstick company at the time said to me: ‘You can’t guarantee that two pieces of wood will be straight. How can you even tell?’ ” Firth’s sticks would carry just such a guarantee. And he wanted them all to be sorted and paired by pitch, as well, so that they resonated at the same frequency. Again, this was unprecedented.
This idea of pitch also came to him by chance. One day he was carrying some sticks and dropped them on a cement floor. When they hit, he noticed that they all sounded different. He picked them up and let them fall again, hearing the same thing. No good. They’d have to be paired by sound as well as weight. He had all sorts of ways of doing this at first. He first tried to make a cement form, but it didn’t sound the way the floor did. Then he moved on to using two gravestones to test the sticks — purchased from a guy in South Berwick — doubling up sticks by hand. These days the sticks are rapped by a tiny hammer, studied by a computer, and then placed into bins by the pitch at which they vibrate.
With each of these innovations, Vic Firth’s status grew, and so did his company. By the nineties, even with a full-scale factory in Kingfield, he was having a hard time keeping up with all the orders. So Vic Firth expanded to the Newport facility he currently occupies, keeping both going for a while, then moving out of Kingfield altogether.
It’s difficult to overstate what a phenomenon Vic Firth Incorporated was becoming. It was soon the largest drumstick manufacturer on the planet, selling 12 million pairs a year in more than 400 different styles to more than 126 countries worldwide. The company owns 60 percent of the marketshare, and has gone from employing fifty-nine people in 2001 to 180 today. And it has many of the world’s greatest drummers as endorsees.
It also keeps Firth busy. For decades, he would report to his office in Boston at 7:30 a.m., leave to attend a ten o’clock rehearsal with the BSO, head to the conservatory to teach all afternoon, and then play a concert at night. “I used to put in a lot of fifteen- or sixteen-hour days,” he says. “That’s why I go at the pace I do today.”
He’s been married to the same woman, Olga, for forty-six years, and the couple raised two daughters, Kelly and Tracy. Tracy is an important part of the business now as chief operations officer at Vic Firth Incorporated. Firth himself officially retired from the BSO five years ago but his days are no less busy.
Today Vic Firth Incorporated also makes rolling pins and gourmet pepper mills, including a signature line for celebrity chef Mario Batali.
But drumsticks remain the center of the business, and the process by which a hickory dowel becomes a custom Vic Firth stick is rather amazing. Vice President of Manufacturing Mike Gault walks his visitors through the stages. First, the Appalachian hickory is trucked in from Kentucky and Tennessee and dried in one of seven kilns. The wood is reduced in five different steps, going through as many machines, to reach the size of a stick. “Most of our competitors do it in one step,” says Gault. “But that puts a lot of stress on the wood. We’ve adopted a method similar to making pool cues, which means a series of small cuts so they don’t stress the wood. And we’re still doing it faster.”
After being reduced twice, a laser checks the wood for straightness. Then it’s sanded and the finish is applied. The sticks are sorted for weight, pitch, size, and checked for straightness two more times. Each one is individually inspected.
“People see this pair of sticks and they don’t realize what we go through to get this,” Firth says. “Then we give them to some guy with green pants and purple hair and a tattoo on the inside of his nose, and he breaks it in five beats.”
And with that thought, Vic Firth flashes a wide grin.