Musicians are often thought to have the same characteristics as the music they play. If we accept that premise, then in order to get an impression of a member of the Boston Symphony, we might first look at the music performed by “The Aristocrat of Orchestras.” Simply calling it “classical music” is not enough, as there is a world of difference between a Mozart Piano Concerto, a tone poem by Strauss, a choral-symphony by Mahler, and The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. As a point of reference, try to imagine a rock group which must sound exactly like Chuck Berry on one tune, the Beatles on another. Yes on a third, and Frank Zappa on the fourth. If the word “versatile” comes to mind, you’re on the right track.
Vic Firth is truly versatile, and this is reflected in the music he plays, his many outside activities, and in his very personality. Concerning his music, he easily adapts to the varied requirements of the symphonic repertoire. In addition, his background includes work with jazz groups and dance bands. His outside activities include a thriving stick and mallet business, teaching, writing (method books, as well as, solo and ensemble material), and art collecting. Speaking with him, one is struck by his openminded attitude about all types of music, and his ability to see relationships between many seemingly diverse aspects of life, music, and art.
VF: I actually started off playing jazz. I was about thirteen or fourteen when I first joined a group and, of course, they were all older men. When I was about fifteen, I formed my own band and we booked all over New England. It was an eighteen to twenty-piece band with a singer, and I also booked a small band with six or eight players, and we did a lot of work. I’d had the good fortune of starting with a fine teacher named Bob Ramsdell, who taught in Maine, where I’m from.
Upon graduation from high school, I entered the New England Conservatory, where I studied with Larry White, who was in the Boston Symphony. I was strictly a jazz player; I hadn’t done anything but that. I had already been studying with Larry White for about two years while I was still in Maine. I used to come down to Boston every other week to take a lesson. So my mallets and percussion were in pretty good shape, but I had never seriously taken a tympani lesson at this point.
The summer after my first year, I had a chance to go on the road with a jazz trumpet player. I think the pay was about $120 a week, which in those days, was a veritable fortune. Meanwhile, there was a music club in Maine that was looking for someone they could send to Tanglewood on a full scholarship. So I was offered this scholarship to Tanglewood, which is the summer home of the Boston Symphony. I thought, “What the hell. I’ve never really played any classical music before, so I’ll go to Tanglewood and see what the other side of the coin is all about.” I got all caught up in the classical music scene. I took a complete change of course, and probably didn’t sit behind a drum set again until twenty years later.
RM: What was it that attracted you so strongly to classical music?
VF: I suddenly saw all of this great, beautiful music. There was such a variety of it and there was such a lot there that I didn’t know about. I guess I just thought it would be a lot of fun to see what it was all about. I don’t think I realized at the time that I would get so wrapped up in it all, and take it so seriously, but I subsequently did.
RM: You had a lot of background in drums and mallets, but not on tympani. Did you have a lot of catching up to do?
VF: I went back to the Conservatory, where I had been studying with Charlie Smith. I also studied with Roman Szulc, who was my predecessor in the orchestra, and I spent two years studying with Saul Goodman. In terms of catching up, you know, in all honesty, any instrument is terribly difficult to play, and play well. But I don’t think tympani is the hardest one, by any means, in terms of the technical problems one has to solve. In other words, if you compare it to an oboe or violin, they have tons more to accomplish before they arrive at a certain standard as opposed to a timpanist. Now I know I’m going to get killed by all the other timpanists by saying that, but I don’t think it’s all that difficult. Now, as I said, everything is difficult to play well and play artistically—you have to have a certain God-given talent to do more than just pound away. But in terms of time input; I know fiddle players who started when they were seven, and who have been playing for thirty years, and they still have repertoire they haven’t accomplished yet. I don’t think that holds true on tympani. It’s a different kind of an instrument. It isn’t a solo instrument where the solo repertoire goes on for years, never mind the orchestral repertoire, which goes on for centuries. We just don’t play that much.
RM: I think a lot of people find tuning the tympani to be a bigger problem than playing them.
VF: If you have a problem with finding pitch, then as a tympanist, you’re dead. You have to learn to tune to an E-flat while the orchestra’s playing in E-major. The only way you can do that is either by practicing your tunings with a record playing, or actually have a hundred musicians around you. Nobody’s about to give you that kind of free time, so you sort of have to learn on the job. That’s why I encourage my students to play anywhere and with anyone. Play with every local orchestra, every hillbilly orchestra, anything you can play tympani with, PLAY! Pay or no pay. Having that experience will pay you further down the way.
RM: How did you join the Boston Symphony?
VF: While I was in my senior year at the Conservatory, I had the good fortune to audition for the symphony, and I was accepted as a percussionist. The conductor then was Charles Munch, and I think he liked young blood. They had a theory in those days to put a young person with a more experienced person, and they would complement each other.
RM: Some people contend that playing in a symphony orchestra is the job of a craftsman rather than of a creative musician.
VF: I think to a certain extent someone could give me a very strong argument that that’s true. We do have a printed part and it very specifically instructs you what to play. However, once you have become more experienced, you can see all kinds of subtleties in how you color what’s there to play, and how you can shade it. I take all kinds of liberties on what’s written and what I play. By that I don’t mean I change rhythms; it’s a more sophisticated, and I might add restricted, area. There is where you separate the pros—those who can find the subtleties.
The average listener is not really aware of how much freedom there is in this music. Now if you were to say to me, “I play in a rock group and we play certain tunes every night and they’re never twice the same,” I could say, “Well, we played the fifth Beethoven symphony five times on our last road trip, and it was never twice the same either.” But the differences are much more subtle and low-key than the differences that the rock drummer would be describing. I think it’s creativity in a different way. If I were playing with a jazz group, I obviously would be inspired by the spur-of-the-moment kind of thing, and I would maybe do things totally different, whereas I can’t say I would do that in the Boston Symphony. But you would be amazed at the variation of things we do within the confines of what the composer has stated. By the same token, although jazz is improvisatory, the jazz musician still has certain guidelines to follow.
We get audiences who will come to hear different conductors do the same piece, and they definitely know what they’re listening to and appreciate the differences. But the classical music audience is very limited. It’s too bad that classical music doesn’t get to more people, but by virtue of the fact that it’s expensive to put on, and the houses are so extremely limited in size, a lot of people never get to hear it.
RM: Society seems to be oriented towards picking favorites—you are supposed to pick your favorite music and then only listen to that one style.
VF: There’s something to be enjoyed from rock, from jazz, from classical, from whatever. That’s why it’s a damn shame that more people can’t have the exposure to enjoy it all and not pick sides. It’s all there. I think if more people heard the whole music spectrum, they would enjoy music more, knowing what there is around to hear.
Most of the rock concerts I go to, everybody’s yelling and screaming and throwing rolls of toilet paper. They’re having a ball, but they’re suddenly going to realize that there are other sides to musical experience than just loud. Right now, there seems to be an awful lot of just loud music. Some of the things they are doing are beautiful, and musically they are very exciting. But I don’t need to be overwhelmed with sound to be impressed with beauty. A great painting does not have to be the size of a billboard. It doesn’t have anything to do with size—a miniature painting can be just as beautiful. When they try to overwhelm me with sound just for the sake of overwhelming me with sound, to me, that has nothing to do with great music.
If I were going to take someone who was not into classical music to a concert, it’s for sure I wouldn’t take them to an all-Mozart concert or a Haydn Mass, or a Brahms Requiem. The first concert they go to would have to be something like the Tchaikovsky 5th or 6th symphony,or Beethoven’s 5th, 7th or 9th, or maybe Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. There’s something there that they would immediately be able to identify with, either because it’s more contemporary, or it generates a certain excitement, or they might have heard it somewhere before but didn’t know what it was. Then, when they realize that a lot of music is exciting, and it moves them emotionally, they might go to a rock concert and be moved by it, and six months later they might go to a symphony concert and say, “Gee, that’s equally enjoyable for different reasons.”
RM: Even within the same area, music is often presented as being a competition between artists. I recently heard Roy Burns and Jack DeJohnette do a clinic together, and afterwards, Roy and I discussed the fact that a few years ago. It would have been presented as a “drum battle.”
VF: Maybe it’s changing. If Roy Burns and Jack DeJohnette can get together and it’s no longer a battle of the drums, but simply two artists presenting their styles of playing and their ways of doing things, that’s a compliment to them and it’s a compliment to those who are listening. We’ve come a long way already.
Today, players feel less competitive. When people feel terribly competitive, it may only be a facade for their insecurity. The better players don’t feel as competitive. They do a certain thing and they know what it is and how they do it. I never feel competitive with anybody. When we go into a city that has another great orchestra, I don’t feel I’m competing with the tympani player that’s there. He wouldn’t be there unless he was a great player. We do things differently and both our styles are very accepted and highly thought out. He may be red and I may be blue—it doesn’t make any difference. Both colors are acceptable. I don’t feel I have to compete, nor do I want to compete, and I don’t want anybody to feel that they have to compete with me.
I remember years ago, every time somebody played three notes that were fast, everybody would turn around and look. Everybody was terribly competitive about everything. I think we’re becoming more educated and more human and more well-behaved professionally. Among the young students today, I see much less hostility and more friendliness and more admiration for someone who does something well. When they hear someone doing something better than they can do, instead of getting mad or envious, they accept that as a challenge to go out and practice more.
RM: As a performer, how important is it to have experience playing other styles of music than the one you are specifically involved with?
VF: The more we know about the other areas, the better we do in our individual area. I know that I wouldn’t have such good time today if I hadn’t played drum set. I see other classical musicians who have no jazz background, and although they do their jobs well, I know that if they could have had some exposure like I had, they would be much better players. If you ever suggested that to them, they would look at you in stark horror. A lot of symphony playing doesn’t involve keeping time, true, but that brings up the other side. There are a lot of things in jazz or rock where you don’t necessarily want to keep time. You’re looking for that abstract quality. Had you played something in the classical area, you could let that spill over. You would have a better grasp on a phrase and a line, and what it means.
I don’t just teach classical students—I also have jazz and rock drummers who study with me. One of the first things I say is that there is no musical separation. I don’t treat one concept any different than I treat another. They study the same music in the same way. And nobody ever look startled. They say, “Great! That’s just what I wanted to do.”
What we’re talking about is sound—how to make sound and the technique of producing a sound. To do that, first, you’ve got to develop your hands. Then you’ve got to develop your ears to determine the quality of sound you’re looking for. The brain then transfers that to the hands, which now have the technique developed to put it on the instrument. And that’s what it’s all about.
Once you have that concept of producing sound, you can play what I play or you can play with Rush. It’s that simple. Now I couldn’t sit in with Rush, because I don’t understand the qualities they want. But I have had experience producing sound and I have technique, so given a little time to understand those qualities, I don’t think it would take me so long. Similarly, I’m sure Neil Peart could come into the Boston Symphony and do the same things I do, in terms of produc ing sound, because he’s very conscious of sound. Obviously he doesn’t know the repertoire like I do, nor do I know his repertoire, but we’re related in the craft we’re involved with.
RM: A moment ago, you mentioned people being moved emotionally by music.
VF: To make an audience enjoy music, they must witness some emotional experience. You’ve got to move them somehow. They’ve either got to be moved by the emotion of joy, or happiness, or sadness, or the music has got to bring out something that sounds grotesque, or serene, or ugly—you could take any adjective you want to describe a player’s performance. But if you don’t move that audience, the one option left to them is boredom.
To eliminate boredom, it takes some personality on the part of the player. I’ve seen players who had all the technical proficiency in the world, but when they played, their personality was not in the music. It doesn’t matter which field of music you’re talking about, the great players all have something they generate that’s part of their personality. It gets into the veins of the music and is then passed on to the veins of the listener. And that’s when you get something worthwhile happening musically. I heard Journey recently, and Steve Smith is a great drummer with that group. That guy starts to drive and push and that group takes off. He’s so exciting it’s just unbelievable. In any type of music, there’s something about certain players that keeps your attention. Something in their personality amalgamates with what they do musically, and that’s what makes them exciting.
RM: A lot of the modern recording techniques seem to be designed to eliminate the player’s personality.
VF: I’ve seen it happen in Symphony Hall. We’ve made recordings where I’ve ended up in a tent, all miked up, the brass has been three miles away when we should be close together, the strings have been all broken up, and the conductor—we’ve done recordings in the round where we’re looking at the conductor’s backside! It’s terrible! The craziest, most non-musical things you could ever do, from the basis of what music is all about. I mean, music is about people who not only have contact through musical ideas which are connected, but should be together physically to get the feeling; to play off of each other; to bounce off of each other. To isolate these people and make them void of any emotional contact, to me, is castrating the music itself.
The pendulum always swings too far in any given direction, but after you’ve been around long enough to see pink pants come in and out about four times, you don’t worry about it. I remember when the first electronic devices came out about twenty years ago, and the talk was that they were going to replace live musicians. What you see as you look back is that there are certain improvements as a result of these innovations, but they don’t replace anything. We’ve got different recording techniques to be sure. But I wonder if at some point somebody will get a group together, set them up just like they were doing a performance, put a couple of microphones in front of them, and all of a sudden, everybody will say. “This is the way it should be.” The pendulum will swing back in the other direction; to the other extreme.
Right now, I think they are getting more involved with engineers than they are with music making. You can dehumanize the music as much as you want, and you will get some records, and you will probably get some people who are dehumanized who think it’s wonderful. I don’t know—you may get a good musical result, but again, I think it’s the kind of thing that’s gone way over to one side. Then it comes back and you get some ridiculous extreme on the other side. From recording in the round with the orchestra all broken up, we have another engineer come in who says, “Oh no, we have to be just like you were doing a performance.” He puts everything right back in its place, makes the record, and everybody says it’s the greatest thing we ever did. Meanwhile, twenty years ago, that’s the only way we did it.
RM: You’ve been in the Boston Symphony for over thirty years, and you’ve played a lot of the same music many, many times. Do you ever get bored with it?
VF: No. It’s as exciting now as it was the first day I went in. My first few years in the orchestra I was overwhelmed by the sound of the orchestra and the calibre of players around me. And there was a lot to be learned. It’s still overwhelming to play great music with great musicians, but for slightly different reasons. When I first went in, it was like being on a fast roller-coaster ride, and I was hanging on for dear life. Now, the roller-coaster ride is just as fast, but instead of hanging on. I might be pole-vaulting at the same time. Playing good music with a fine group of musicians will always be exciting.
RM: There are probably a lot of people who know you more for your sticks than for your playing. How and why did you get in the stick business?
VF: The reason was, years ago, I was never satisfied with the commercial sticks available, so I made sticks for myself. The next thing I knew, my students started saying. “I’d like to have a pair of those sticks.” So the next time I called the wood turner who was making them for me, I told him to send down ten pair instead of the usual two pair. Then I started getting letters from people saying, “I saw a pair of your sticks. Could you make me some?” So then I was ordering fifty pair. Next, Maurie Lishon from Frank’s Drum Shop called and said, “I hear you’re in the drum stick business. Can we sell your sticks?” So then I started ordering a hundred pair. Then another couple of dealers called and the hundred pair went to two hundred pair. Over the last fifteen years, we’ve gone from that to where we now keep an inventory of about a hundred thousand pair of sticks at all times, and we’re shipping all over the world.
We’re going at it full-steam. I’ve probably got the most complete line of sticks of any manufacturer, in that we not only make many drum sticks, but we also make vibe sticks, tympani sticks, and Leigh Stevens marimba sticks. I think we’ve got about sixty models now. I can’t believe my involvement, but it’s been kind of fun and I’ve been lucky. I think I’m inclined to be a workaholic anyway.
We’re terribly fussy with the quality control. We guarantee all of the products. I guarantee sticks against warpage, and I never heard of anybody who does that. Those sticks get rolled from the time they come out of the burlap bag as a dowel. The last time around, I personally roll them. I pull out all of the warped ones, and they end up as kindling in my fireplace. I have the most expensive, monogrammed kindling wood in the world! We reject thousands of sticks every year. By doing that, we cater to the drummer who’s discriminating and fussy, and to whom it’s still important to have a straight drumstick.
I have two people who spend their life just pitch-pairing sticks. We wanted to match the sticks as perfectly as possible, so we bought a very expensive digital readout scale. We got exact weights on every stick, calibrated to hundredths of thousandths of ounces, and they weren’t a pair! The pitch was so far apart that when you’d hit the drum, you’d hear two different sounds—a distinct difference in pitch. So we went back to the old-fashioned way of just pitch-pairing, and that’s about 99% true.
I have other people who just do specific things. The vibe sticks are all handwound. The felt on the tympani sticks is all hand trimmed and tied. So we’ve been successful by taking a very pedestrian item and sophisticating it to the point where it’s almost ridiculous. It’s become quite an operation, although it’s still a small business compared to some of the other drum businesses. But we’re proud of what we do.
RM: Let’s talk about the tympani themselves. Which aspects of their construction most affect the sound?
VF: A tympani that is lightweight never has the sound projection of a heavier instrument. I always make the remark that you never hear of a lightweight grand piano. You can’t project a big, full, rich sound if the instrument is terribly light. Now when I say big, I don’t necessarily mean loud. You can play pianissimo and still have a big sound, and you can play forte and still have a small sound. What I’m describing is a sound that is ever-present at any dynamic level; it touches every part of the hall that you’re performing in so that everyone hears it. That’s a big sound, regardless of dynamic. I’ve always found that you need an instrument that has a certain amount of weight to create that concept of sound. This is not only for tympani—for any drum and for many of the accessories, there’s a point where a certain weight and thickness is important. Every instrument should have some construction in terms of weight that will produce the sound the player’s looking for.
You can buy a lightweight car, and it will provide you with transportation, but it won’t give you comfort or safety. Now a lightweight drum won’t give you comfort, because it’s not going to make the sound you want, and in terms of safety, the damn thing might collapse on you. I don’t know what my particular tympani weigh, however, I know there’s enough weight there to support what I’m doing. The minute I get on a lighter set of drums, I simply can’t produce the sound that I want. Now I might make it sound good, and everyone around me might say, “That sounds good enough,” but they didn’t say, “It sounds great.” Just, “It sounds good enough.” It may be acceptable, but the first one you have to please is yourself. Does it meet your standards? Does it do what you want it to do? The toughest one to please should be yourself.
The French have a word called “timbre” which has to do with the shadings of sound. The more shadings you can produce from a given instrument, the more musically interesting your instrument becomes. You won’t need ten cymbals for ten sounds—you’ll get several sounds out of each cymbal. Then if you have ten cymbals, my God! You’re going to be a powerhouse. But the idea is to have a minimal amount of equipment and produce a maximum amount of color and variety of sound. The weight thing is one of the important factors in the variety of sounds you can produce.
Talking about music making and musical instruments is complicated because it’s all so very individualized. It’s hard to tailor one thing to everybody. You can’t! Let’s start with our hands. Look at my hand and then look at your hand. They’re different shaped hands. So what feels good in my hand would feel klutzy in yours. We have now exposed one of our differences. Now we go to the instrument, and we each choose a different one. We part a little further. Then we start to play, and your technique is a little different—good or bad, better or worse, it’s beside the point. It’s these partings and separations that makes the various artistry of various players different, outstanding, and unique.
RM: That brings us back to the point that you made earlier about not making comparisons between different musicians and different styles of music.
VF: Music is an amazing subject matter—the power that it has. I said earlier that music brings out a lot of experi ences. It’s like fine art. How many people can look at the same picture, under the same conditions, and all get different reactions. When you get a few of them that get the same reaction—you’ve got a hit; you’ve got a winner. You can have an early Italian religious painting, which may be beautifully done, and I have a feeling that most people who look at it may not get a lot out of it. Then you might show that same group a beautiful French impressionistic picture, and on first viewing, they might be turned on. They might see things that would be easier to understand and relate to than the religious picture. By the same token, that group might also be turned on by a super-realistic, modern painting. Now this is where the problem comes in: If you can get that same group to appreciate the first picture, and the second picture, and the third picture, and get them to realize that there is beauty in more than one area, then you’ve got an educated group. They might be able to listen to different styles of music, and enjoy all of it.
RM: A lot of people don’t seem willing to listen to the avant-garde music being composed and occasionally performed.
VF: You can go back historically to all kinds of music. When the Glenn Miller band started out, people thought that was the worst music anyone had ever heard, and it went on to become one of the most unique sounds in jazz history. It caught on and became famous the world over. When Stravinsky did the first performance of the Rite of Spring, they threw tomatoes at him! That too has gone on to become one of the masterpieces of the classical literature. So I think it’s worth doing any piece of serious music well, at least once, to see what’s there. It deserves to be played and it deserves to be listened to. If people want to listen to it again, then it has merit. If it gets stored away in the closet, then that’s where it belongs. However, I think everything should be given a fair play, because you never know what’s there. Give it the best shot, and play it to the best of your ability. It may not always be a great piece, because there isn’t that much great music, but it can be a great performance. There are all kinds of ramifications that can be brought about by the right combinations of players, concepts, approaches—so you really shouldn’t knock anything until you give it a good shot. Then you can pass opinion, but even then, what one person says is just one person’s opinion. So if it were me, I might keep it to myself, because I’ve been proven wrong many times.
RM: Besides maintaining your technique, are there other physical things you do to stay in shape for playing music?
VF: I have to keep in shape like an athlete. When I get up in the morning, I exercise and then I run a mile. That’s no big deal, you understand, but just to keep your physical being in shape, you have to work at it. It’s a tough job to keep high standards. After you’ve been doing it a few years, you sort of take a lot for granted. So you have to train.
With all the drugs and booze available today, I think it’s important for people to realize that to make great music, you’ve got to keep your head clean. That’s the only way to go. The higher up on the ladder you get, and the more proficient you get, the more everybody expects from you. Everytime you walk out on stage, there’s always that bunch just waiting to see if you’re going to fall on your face. Your standard of excellence has to be so high, and it requires the greatest of personal discipline to get to the level where you can maintain it. Now if you want to have a musical career that swings for five years, it doesn’t matter. But those five years go by in the wink of an eye. Then you’re thinking about the next five. And if you’ve been abusing yourself for the first five, you’re not going to do so well for the next five. Look at someone like Saul Goodman. He was with the New York Philharmonic for forty-six years, and he had as much spirit on the last concert he played as on the first. He is a great inspiration. And look at Buddy Rich, one of the greatest set players of all time. He sounds as fresh today as in the days with the Dorsey band.
Another thing that’s good is to get away from it from time to time. I played with the Boston Pops for many years, and it was a valuable experience. But I stopped doing that about ten years ago, and I take that time to do other things, such as the sticks, developing new products, going on vacations, and just breathing some fresh air. It keeps my energies recharged. You can’t do the same thing week in and week out with all this strain and pressure and not do anything else. You’ve got to get out and develop your personality. You’ve got the technique, now what do you do with it? I could teach technique to a monkey, but he doesn’t have the communication ability necessary to make music. Now you get to the fine art of music making. Everybody has to go through a development stage—they have to find their niche; find what they do best; find how versatile they are; how interpretive they are; how flexible; there are many things that make a good musician. But just having great technique is not enough. Anybody can have that. But what you do with the tools is what defines the difference between a guy who puts up cement walls and a guy who sculpts like Rodin. That’s the difference.