Many ukulele players are attracted to outsider instruments that on the surface seem easy to play but which turn out to be deceptively difficult. (The kazoo is a good example of an instrument that is easy to play – badly.)
I wish hereby to make a case for the return of that most humble of ear-splitting musical instruments – second only to the human voice in its portability and versatility – an underrated musical technique that in the past has been held in high esteem but which now seems sadly to be dying out: the noble art of whistling.
My grandfather (also Ralph Shaw) told of a time when he heard a tradesman in the street whistling a tune. He asked about the tune and learned that it had recently entered the music charts. He then went off to seek out and buy the record in a record shop.
This anecdote from the 1930’s or 1940s, has elements in it that just wouldn’t happen today. Leaving aside the fact that buying a record from a shop has become such an unusual and specialised task, when was the last time you heard a tradesman, or indeed anyone, whistle? Can you even conceive of being so affected by a tune whistled in the street that you’d feel impelled to go out and hunt down a recording of the melody?
Apparently, I was able to whistle almost from birth. Family legend has it that, when I was a babe in arms on a B.O.A.C. flight from Canada to the UK, the other passengers, including my parents, were mystified by the fact that someone was clearly whistling but no-one appeared to be doing it. Until someone realised, “It’s the baby, the baby is whistling!”
That was me.
Although no-one can now remember what the tune was.
I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t whistle. Then again, I grew up in a culture, unlike now, when it was common for people to whistle and many could do it well. It was a way of having portable music. Much like how ukuleles and singing were ubiquitous before the invention of transistor radios. It was also easier to practice whistling in those jolly days because people were generally less judgemental of the process of getting good.
Getting good at whistling is like getting good at singing. Both involve the nuanced control of human musculature with special attention to intonation (aka. being in tune) which takes time and persistence to develop. For so many would-be singers and whistlers, the learning-curve gets halted due to the judgement of others. It’s so very easy to dismiss someone else’s crude early efforts by deciding “they just don’t have what it takes.” Good whistlers and singers eventually make their art seem natural and effortless, so it is easy to think of these difficult-to-acquire skills as being “God-given” or “natural”.
Movies are partly to blame for this. Watch any film or biopic about a well-known singer or band and you rarely get a glimpse of their early practice and development. The performers emerge as fully-formed talents who never had to struggle with sounding bad. Even knowing the many liberties taken in movies I find this a very unrealistic and disappointing aspect of such films.
When people ask me how I got to be so good at whistling I tell them, jokingly, that it comes only through years and years of annoying the people around me. I guess this could be partly true, although I’ve been blessed in my circumstances for being allowed to practice music without much criticism or comment. And, when it comes to whistling, such freedom is especially important. By its very nature whistling is high-pitched – it cuts through the hubbub – and is almost impossible to teach. You just have to get on and do it and persist until you get better.
A key moment that inspired me to improve my whistling was on a visit to Dortmund as a child in the 1970’s and seeing a man stride up a flight of wide steps while whistling loudly and beautifully. He warbled his notes in a way that I had never heard before. I held that sound in my ears for years while I tried and tried over and again to copy it. It was helpful eventually to discover the music of Roger Whittaker who had a similar bird-like ability and which gave me something to listen to and aim for in the warbling department.
A common sight on British TV in the 1970’s, was a character called Percy Edwards. He was a household name known for his accurate bird imitations: a skill that was far better appreciated at a time when the general population could identify many different bird calls.
Go back further into history and you find that hunters learned to imitate songbirds in order to order to catch them for food. Songbird pie was a common dish. As in the nursery rhyme:
Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye, Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie…
Whistling used to be a specific musical profession. A professional whistler was called a Siffleur and there were numerous acts in Vaudeville and Music-Hall who did nothing except entertain audiences with their whistling. Quite when and why the art of whistling fell out of favour I don’t exactly know. Indeed, amongst certain circles, whistling has never been in favour. A major no-no in fact. Once, while busking to a crowd of people who were waiting to cross Burrard Inlet on the Sea-Bus, a guy dropped a two-dollar coin into my ukulele case saying, “I’ll give you that – but only if you don’t whistle.”
It turned out he’d just come out of prison, where whistling is definitely not allowed. The sound of my whistling was putting him on edge. Similarly, you mustn’t pucker-up and blow in the confined spaces of the theatre – where it’s considered bad luck to whistle – or indeed on a boat where it is also bad luck, especially if you’re a woman because: “it could invite the wind”.
In close quarters, where people can’t get away from it, one mindless whistler can spoil the mood of many and this can cause the many to get very cranky. In such places, whether it be prison, backstage or onboard, whistling is something you just don’t do because it is simply very annoying. And no wonder; once you have the knack, whistling can be done easily, tunelessly, and totally without thinking. Little wonder some whistlers get a bad reputation.
Unlike piano players, who make a clear decision to sit down and open the keyboard to tinkle the ivories, whistlers will often trill away while their mind is on other things without realising they are doing it. It’s hard to know exactly why this is. I do it myself. Before my father’s dementia got to where it is now, he would accuse me of whistling tunelessly while I’d be doing a household task. This comment, and it occurred several times, stung me. It would stop me in my tracks while I wondered how it could possibly be? I’m usually complemented on my whistling and have NEVER been accused of being “tuneless”.
Once I’d studied the situation, I concluded that he was not commenting on my ability to stay in tune, rather he was disturbed by the fact that he didn’t recognise the tune and therefore, since he didn’t know it, it couldn’t possibly be a tune and that’s why my whistling was tuneless. That’s fathers for you!
But frankly, I couldn’t recognise my melodies either. I’ve discovered that I have a repertoire of automatic whistling tunes that I never consciously copied or composed. In fact, except that I’ve since had the wherewithal to record some, I am unable to repeat these auto-tweets no matter how hard I try. I’m not saying the tunes are good, necessarily, just that they only seem to come out when my mind is on other things. I just hope to high-heaven they never put me in prison. I wouldn’t last five minutes.
Next time: in Whistle While You Twerk I’ll tell you about the use of whistling in live performances and recordings.