Whistling in the Dark

Chris Ullman performs the happy birthday song for his coworkers roughly 400 times a year. He has accompanied symphony orchestras and appeared on The Tonight Show. In 2014, he played the national anthem at four major sporting events, including games played by the Washington Wizards and the Washington Nationals.

But Ullman doesn’t sing or play the violin. He’s a whistler. And he’s not alone; though they might be less visible than other kinds of musicians, there are serious whistlers all over America.

In 1993, at the urging of a friend, Ullman entered the International Whistlers Convention, the major American competition held each year in the small town of Louisburg, North Carolina. He won second place in the pop division. “I thought, ‘Wow, there’s hope here!’” he said. He went on to win the championship in 1994, 1996, 1999, and 2000.

But last year, after 41 years, the competition shut its doors, at least temporarily. The Franklin County Historical Society pulled its sponsorship. The event’s organizer, Alan Dehart, is 88 years old, but he says he hopes to get the competition up and running again soon.

Through the years, The International Whistlers Convention has attracted whistling heavyweights like Steve Herbst, Jason Serinus, and Geert Chatrou. There was even a documentary made about it called Pucker Up. “It is very unfortunate that the Louisburg competition has closed down,” said Steve Herbst, who was inducted into the Whistling Hall of Fame in 2007. “It is one of the very few opportunities for whistlers to gather and share knowledge, techniques, practical tips. Going to Louisburg was like finding my tribe after 40 years wandering around in the desert!”

Many whistlers say that the golden age of whistling has come and gone. Bing Crosby whistled on White Christmas, and The Andy Griffith Show began each episode with a whistled theme. But even with whistling parts in more recent hits like Home by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Tighten Up by the Black Keys, whistling is still considered by many to be more novelty than art.

The whistlers, however, beg to differ. They have been trying to turn that perception around “and once again raise whistling to its rightful status of a legitimate musical art form,” said Herbst, “as opposed to be likened to hog calling.”

Chris Ullman whistles the national anthem at a Duke basketball game.

Chris Ullman whistles the national anthem at a Duke basketball game.

Geert Chatrou, a Dutch whistler, managed to make his living solely off of whistling for many years. However, that is the exception rather than the rule. Ullman averages about one whistling gig a month, but doesn’t rely on the performances for his income. In fact, he is the Director of Global Communications for the Carlyle Group, an asset management firm.

Away from competitions, whistlers keep in contact through a Yahoo! group called Orawhistle. There are 1,094 members. Membership requires approval.

Although the convention is at least on hiatus, there is hope for competitive whistling in America. Carole Kaufman, a two-time Louisburg champion and the International Whistling Entertainer of the Year in 2012, is starting her own competition, called the Masters of Musical Whistling International Festival. It will be held this year on July 11th in Pasadena, California. Unlike the Louisburg competition, this one will have stringent auditions. “The vision is a competition concert that features the world’s best whistlers in Los Angeles, California, showing people what world class whistling is really all about,” said Kaufman.

Ullman still practices every day, usually driving to and from work. It makes him feel good, and he thinks it makes other people feel good too. “When you think of all the hardship in the world, whether it’s the economy or terrorism or illness,” he said, “it’s nice to both be a part of and nurture some kind of happiness.”