I started whistling when I was five years old. My father, Joseph — also known as Bub — has always loved to whistle and was my role model. There are a few things that stand out in my mind over the years. First, it’s listening to classical music snippets from a record collection called 120 Musical Masterpieces. I also loved to whistle Strauss waltzes. To this day, Strauss waltzes are my favorite rehearsal music.
Next, I remember whistling for an hour or so a day as a teenager while delivering Long Island Newsday after school. In those days I was louder than I was good. My customers routinely said they could hear me coming from blocks away. They didn’t say much about how good it was!
In college I performed in talent shows and coffee houses, jammed at open mic nights, and whistled on campus (Binghamton University in upstate New York) as I skateboarded from class to class.
Upon arriving in Washington, DC in early 1987, I continued attending open mic nights, picking up a keen interest in the blues. And then it happened. While hiking in the Shenandoah National Park with a bunch of friends in the fall of 1992 someone heard me whistling and suggested that I “do something” with my whistling. I was flattered and said that I had heard there was a national contest but that I didn’t know anything about it. My good friend Elizabeth Sauer (now Foster) said that if such a contest existed she would find it.
And she did! Every April the town of Louisburg, NC, which is around 30 miles north of Raleigh, hosts the National/International Whistlers Convention. I first competed in 1993, coming on second place in the “popular music” category. I went on to compete eight more times, winning the first place grand champion title four times (1994, 1996, 1999 and 2000).
No, I am primarily a self-taught whistler, but singing in choirs for 15 years taught me how to make music. Whether you play the oboe, flute, guitar, sing, or whistle, there are many common elements to making good music. Phrasing, attention to detail, arranging, and intonation are among the factors that separate music from noise. I have Betty Buchanan, former music director of the Capitol Hill Choral Society with whom I sung for ten years, for helping me become the musician I am today.
Over the years I’ve perfected the standard “pucker style” (where the air travels over the tongue through the puckered lips). I also whistle with my tongue only, which produces a rougher, more airy sound. Next, I’ve developed what I call the “chirp” whistle, which sounds like a referee’s whistle. I produce this by keeping my jaw mostly closed, then doing a tongue whistle through lightly closed lips. The force of the air forces the lips open and closed very quickly. It’s a cool sound. Finally, I’ve developed the “wa-wa” whistle, which is tongue whistling while mouthing the words “wa-wa”. It reminds me of Peter Frampton’s famous voice synthesizer on his hit tune, “Do You Feel Like We Do?” I also whistle in and out, use a vibrato when appropriate to give warmth and feeling to the sound, and warble. Warbling is like a vibrato, but rather than a smooth transition between notes, it’s a snapping between notes. Undulating the tongue laterally produces this sound. All of these things take practice to master. Each is an arrow in my stylistic quiver, giving me different ways to portray, arrange, and interpret music.
Yes. Kissing makes my lips mushy, which is bad for sustaining a pucker. I refrain from kissing 24 hours before a performance and 48 hours before a competition. Yes, I’m serious.
Yes. Being good at something requires commitment, practice, training, and time. When I was competing I’d usually ramp up my practice to nearly two hours a day. In the off-season I usually practice around 45 minutes per day. Much of that is in the car on the way to and from work. In April of 1996 I did a Graceland pilgrimage and whistled for around 4-5 hours every day. Yes, I was alone. No one could tolerate that much whistling – I even had trouble! By the end of each day my lips would be trembling from over puckerage! It paid off…that year I came in first in the pop and classical categories and won the first place grand championship!
I have rather eclectic tastes, in general, and most of it’s whistleable. I whistle everything from John Denver and the Grateful Dead to Beethoven and Rachmaninov. I throw in a little Sound of Music and UB40 here and there too. My favorite practice music is Strauss waltzes and Beethoven Symphonies.
Everything I listen to affects me to some extent, but guitarists have had the most impact, including Jerry Garcia, Pat Methaney, Carlos Santana, Mark Knopfler, and B.B. King.
For more than 40 years the National and International Whistlers Convention has been held in Louisburg, North Carolina, USA. It started out small back in 1973 and has blossomed over time to include whistlers from around the globe. The convention is more than a competition. It includes a whistling school, concerts, group meals, opportunities for sharing new techniques, and is a whole lot of fun. The man behind it all was Allen De Hart, a former administrator at Louisburg College, which is where the convention talks place. There was also a platoon of other organizers and helpers, including Lillian Benton. They committed a substantial portion of their lives to fostering the art of whistling and they deserve much credit and praise. Sadly, Allen passed away in 2016 at the age of 90. I am blessed to have known him. I whistled Happy Birthday to him on his 90th birthday, a few months before he died. In recent years the convention and competition have been hosted by other countries.
During the time I competed (1993-2004) the contest consisted of two categories: popular and classical. There’s also allied arts, which is not officially part of the contest but affords people the opportunity to combine whistling with some other art or skill, such as singing, guitar, dance, mime, and other creative expressions.
Contestants had up to four minutes to perform a popular piece before a live audience and panel of judges and up to six minutes for a classical piece. There are preliminaries and finals and, when necessary, tie breakers.
First, it has always made me sad when people who like to whistle won’t whistle around me. I promote and encourage whistling by anyone who can eke out a sound with pursed lips. My wife Kristen likes to whistle and I encourage her to keep working at it. As with amateurs and pros in sports, there are differences among whistlers. There are a number of things that separate an amateur whistler from a champion: technical ability; purity of sound; accuracy of pitch; interpretive and arrangement skills; presentation skills; and enthusiasm. And then there’s practice, practice, and more practice!
Drinking too much water actually causes your mouth to get dry. It’s like licking your lips…it makes them chapped. Dry mouth is a serious issue for whistlers. Thankfully it’s not a huge problem for me. To manage it, I drink small sips of water as I prepare to perform or compete. Ice water is best for me because it causes my skin to contract a little, which keeps the lip surface tight and smooth, which is good for airflow. I also pace a lot, which reduces stress, and prayer helps too.
Two things stand out for me. One is performing with the National Symphony Orchestra at the annual Labor Day Concert at the U.S. Capitol in September 1996. It was an amazing scene: A sea of people in front of me, the symphony behind me, and the lighted Capitol ahead in the distance. I performed “On The Mall.” a patriotic piece written by Edwin Franko Goldman in the 1920s. The piece calls for a whistler for the main theme. The best part is that I performed it twice that night. Once alone with the orchestra. Then at the end of the program I came back on stage, taught the audience of 60,000 people the four-section main tune and we all whistled it with the orchestra. It was one of the coolest experiences of my life.
My other most memorable whistling moment is being summoned to the Oval Office by President George W. Bush to give a concert … with 15 minutes notice on June 20, 2001. At the time I worked at the White House budget office, known as OMB. Not too long before that day I whistled at Chief of Staff Andy Card’s birthday party. He told the president about it and then the president had my boss bring me over. I had seen the Oval Office before but had never been inside. It’s a rather comfy place, and smaller than you’d think. I stood next to the president’s desk; he put his feet up, leaned back, and asked me to whistle a few tunes for him. “Country-western,” was his response to my question about what type of music he liked. In retrospect I should have whistled the “Yellow Rose of Texas,” but in a pinch I suggested the “Lone Ranger song,” and he enjoyed it.
After a truncated version of the “William Tell Overture,” my audience of one said, “Do something hard!” Perhaps a little jazz and some improvisation would impress him. I cranked out a spirited version of Duke Ellington’s “Take the A-Train,” which brought a cheer from the Commander in Chief. I then asked if he liked classical music. Without hesitation he said, “Not Bach,” but added, “Why don’t you ask the Vice President what he’d like to hear?” While I was merrily riffing away, Mr. Cheney, Andy Card, Albert Gonzales (White House Counsel), and a few staff had joined us. Absorbed by my tuneful meandering, I hadn’t even noticed their arrival!
With a nod of greetings, I asked the Veep, “How about some Beethoven.” “That sounds good,” he said, so I did a little bit of the Fifth Symphony. The already surreal experience had grown quite beyond anything I had ever experienced…here I was chatting and whistling with the leaders of the free world in the people’s house. Throughout the 20-minute encounter, I kept reminding myself to pay attention and enjoy…this was never going to happen again.
The president asked for more. I respectfully said, “I don’t want to over-do it.” “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll let you know when I’ve had enough!” That is surely the most memorable line of the visit. Just then Director Daniels started whistling the opening call of “Dueling Banjos,” something we had discussed on the way over. I responded in kind and soon after we had a virtual hoedown going on! That got the burgeoning crowd ginned up.
President Bush then asked for a final tune that would “get us going for the day.” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” came to my mind and lips. I did a gospel/bluesy version and really put my heart into it. Before I knew it the final notes had been absorbed by all the history and power surrounding me.
In a final gracious act, the president took out a card and wrote a note to my father. “Chris came by the Oval to share his magic,” he wrote to Bub Ullman, who taught me to pucker nearly 50 years ago.