During the first corona lockdown, when those of us fortunate enough to have a garden were enjoying the idyllic spring weather, Jane expressed her delight at hearing me communicate back and forth with a song-thrush. I’d imitate its calls and after a while it started to imitate mine. We had to wonder what the bird thought of this game. Was it making friends? Or threatening me perhaps? Or was it just enjoying our musical exchange as a bit of fun in the sun?
I do believe my whistling skills are pretty good. Whenever I hear an interview with the winner of a whistling competition (in the kind of feelgood story that public radio often includes to temper the news) I listen critically to the winning performance and sometimes think, “I can do better than that!” But so many of life’s possible projects fall by the wayside. And now I kind of regret not having tried out for one of these events just to see how well I actually would do.
One of my more unique performance abilities is not even musical. I do specific whistling impressions. But not birds.
I begin with Kettle coming to the boil:
It starts with the hiss of a stove-top kettle getting up a head of steam. As the pressure increases you hear both the hiss and the beginning of a whistle. The whistle gets louder, higher and more piercing until, as the piece reaches crescendo, it changes to that ear-splitting quality that kettles have that make you come running to turn them off. Doing this requires the uncanny ability to whistle two notes at the same time (one of the notes is an overtone of the main note.) Although, by the end of my effort, no-one cares about this skill because they are all covering their ears due to it being so loud and shrill.
It’s a masterpiece.
After enjoying that moment, I then move on to creating: The sound of a musical saw: This is a niche impression of a sound once far more common than it is now. For a more hipster audience I might switch to moving my hands in the air while playing an invisible Theremin: an electronic instrument whose sound is identical to the musical saw and similarly obscure.
My pièce de résistance however is to sound exactly like a Vancouver downtown crossing signal:
At Vancouver’s pedestrian operated 4-way crossings you hear either Bing-Bong, Bing-Bong, or a loud bird-like Eee-Uuu, Eee-Uuu… depending on if you’re crossing North-South or East-West.
I became so skilled at perfecting the exact tone and loudness of the Eee-Uuu that I had to be careful where I practiced. I once did it while waiting at a road crossing and people set off into the road before the lights had changed. This was extremely dangerous so instead I would whistle along with the signal while I crossed. But I wickedly kept the sound going long after the actual signal had stopped. Fifty yards down the road people would be tentatively stopping and looking over their shoulders wondering how come the crossing sound was still following them. And, in my clowning days, it was a good trick at street festivals where I was able to cross the road anywhere using my own personal crossing signal.
It reminds me of a story about a visiting American who had never heard such crosswalk sounds and asked, “What’s that noise?”
The Canadian replied, “That is so blind people know when to go.”
The astonished American said, “Holy moly, you’re so tolerant in this country, in the States we don’t even let them drive!”
My favourite area of Vancouver’s Classical record store The Magic Flute was the ‘Miscellaneous’ section. I would invariably walk out of there with a CD of anything from: Le Temps des Castrats featuring recordings of the last actual Castrati (male singers who were castrated before puberty), to the wonderful French-horn player Dennis Brain playing Mozart’s Horn concerto in E-flat (without having to be castrated), to a CD by Norwegian-born whistling virtuoso Leo Eide: The Living Flute.
What a guy.
Many of life’s treasures get lost, stolen or given away, but, for better or worse, my Leo Eide CD is still in my possession. The liner notes, printed in English, German, French and Swedish, enlighten the listener with fascinating facts:
“Leo Eide sings, dances, yodels, performs conjuring tricks, stilt-walks, clowns, hangs by his teeth …an artist with real bite!”
“He is Sweden’s only whistling stand-in; the audiences at Stockholm’s City Theatre have been impressed by how skilfully the actors can whistle, not realising it was Leo Eide”
“He had been inspired by a Dutchman who whistled non-stop for nine hours …Leo whistled for 14 hours and grabbed the record.”
“Classical whistling demands a certain refinement of the mouth to supply the classical repertoire with carefully chosen overtones. Leo worked so hard on Mozart, Vivaldi, Rossini and other masters that he almost got blisters on his tongue.”
(I love the word almost there. I’m so relieved he was able to avoid tongue blisters.)
“Whistling is not always considered ‘refined’; it is classed as a sort of oral accordion.”
“A whistler is generally met with appreciation …there are many in the audience who would like to be able to whistle.”
I believe that last part is pretty much true. I’ve had many people tell me that they wish they could whistle better or, at least, whistle at all. And, when whistling is used in popular music, it really stands out in a memorable way.
(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding,
Daydream – The Lovin’ Spoonful,
Winds of Change – The Scorpions
White Christmas – Bing Crosby,
Jealous Guy – John Lennon,
Mexican Whistler – Roger Whittaker,
Bluesette – Toots Thielemans,
Tighten Up – The Black Keys,
Don’t Worry Be Happy – Bobby McFerrin
The theme tunes of: The Andy Griffith Show, The Thin Blue Line, The Great Escape and The Bridge on the River Kwai (whistling goes so well with marching!)
Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life and of course the catchy 1949 theme to The Harlem Globe Trotters: Sweet Georgia Brown recorded by Brother Bones and his Shadows (which, I want to believe, was Hank Marvin’s band before he met Cliff Richard – but it’s not.)
The whistling solo in Walk Like an Egyptian by The Bangles was played on a machine.
If you are thinking, there don’t seem to be any female whistlers in that list, you are correct. For generations women have been encouraged not to whistle. Not necessarily by men (jealously keeping female whistlers pressed under the glass ceiling while they took all the best whistling jobs) but mainly it seems by other women. When women do whistle it is often because they have been influenced by a male friend or family member and then had to secretly practice in private because their mothers and other women tell them it’s just not done, it’s unladylike, and, if they pursue the practice, no-one will ever marry them.
American whistler Alice J. Shaw (no relation to me) went against this trend and became a renowned vaudeville star; touring the USA, Europe and India.
Wikipedia says of her:
Because a “whistling woman” was sometimes considered vulgar or unwise, Shaw was careful to craft her shows with the utmost decorum, both in her physical movements and in her facial expressions. Reviewers remarked on her ability to follow sheet music, which emphasized her self-discipline
Alice J. Shaw also made some of the earliest recordings of whistling. Further down the same Wikipedia page you can hear a 1907 performance with her daughters Ethel and Elsie: collectively known as The May Blossoms.
I was beginning to theorise that whistling began its demise with the advent of Rock and Roll but then remembered even Elvis Presley recorded a track called A Whistling Tune on his 1971 album C’mon Everybody. I always assumed it was Elvis doing the whistling but now realise, that for all I know, it could just as easily have been Leo Eide, the Living Flute, standing in.
What I do know is that my own ability to whistle has waned recently. Or, as B.B. King would say, the trill is gone…
I wonder if a slight weight gain over the corona period has caused the shape of my lips to change? Or, like brass instrument players who suddenly lose the ability to form an embouchure, has my ‘lip’ gone?
Jane thinks it’s neither of these. She believes it’s from a lack of performing live gigs and tells me I need to practice more. She says my whistle muscles have become weak and flabby due to lack of use …Hmm the cheek of it all! But at least that is something I can work on.
We’ll see how it goes. If I can get my whistle back up to speed maybe I’ll grab the chance to do one of those unrealized ambitions: like competing in a whistling contest, making an all-whistling album or even learning to imitate note-for-note some classic guitar solos by Led Zeppelin, Prince or Guns n Roses.
One thing is for sure: it would probably be a lot of work and there’d be no money in it whatsoever.
But, as Thaddeus the Song-thrush told me, “So what else is new? That’s music – you don’t think about why you’re doing it – you just do it!”