What’s been your favorite whistling experience?

February 23, 2017

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.