Whistling Training is Gaining Momentum
I’d like to share with you my experiences as a lecturer and teacher of whistling in recent years. I hope you can find something of use in my advice, and remember what our friend The Maverick Whistler says, “Work Hard!! Whistle Harder!!!!”
Interest in learning how to whistle is gaining interest from a wide range of students. When I’ve given my lecture titled “Non-Traditional Instruments in Popular Music” at colleges around the U.S., whistling (or the puccalo, as I like to refer to it) is the instrument receiving most of the questions. Since the audiences are mostly music majors, the concept of adding a second (or third) instrument to one’s repertoire is often the point, as well as interest into how a whistler can accomplish various advanced controls of his/her instrument? Is there an embouchure that develops, as with players of horn and reed instruments? What’s a typical range of notes? What unique qualities do puccalo players have that distinguishes their instrument? The satisfying thing to me is that none of the students or their instructors has belittled the puccalo once they are exposed to its possibilities. This is good news for us whistlers – that gaining respect for our art is possible, and some have made it their life’s work to do so. I suspect that some of you reading this have the same feelings.
The other class I teach is an actual whistling workshop titled “Just Put Your Lips Together and Blow”…a reference to the famous line from a Humphrey Bogart movie. Here the students are quite a mixture from musicians, people who already whistle and want to improve, to people who haven’t produced their first note yet. The later being folks that are often frustrated because they’d love to be able to do what we do. Who wouldn’t?
In this article I’ll touch upon just a few of the basic elements that make your puccalo perk-up and get noticed. I’m assuming that you’re already able to do some whistling at this point.
Listen to Yourself Critically
I think that listening to oneself critically is the most important aspect of becoming a better whistler. Many of you have never recorded your own whistling and I advise you to begin to do so today. This is not just limited to whistling – it’s a general technique that all good musicians and singers use to get better.
I often hear whistlers who are a bit flat…not quite on pitch. Why is this? Can’t they hear what I hear? The answer is ‘NO!’ What we whistlers hear is a combination of the external and internal sounds we create when we whistle. Remember, our puccalo is inside of us…not connected to our bodies from the outside like a trumpet or flute.
Given, this combination of sounds, how do we learn to ‘tune into’ what others are hearing? Unless you never intend to perform for an audience, this is critical. One way is to train your hearing is to filter out the internal sounds and focus on those coming from the air. Recording your whistling along with background music is an excellent way to hear this. But, it also takes critical listening effort as well. What this means is to really listen to your notes compared to the accompanying music. But first you must lose your ego, so you’ll be able to say, “Hey that dude is flat” or “Her timing is off” etc. Usually it’s more difficult to be critical of yourself than of others. I suppose this is a natural defensive quality of humans, but it doesn’t make for better musicians, artists and other creative types.
Another method I use in my classes is to whistle into a tuning device, which has a built-in microphone and can tell you the note you’re whistling, as well as if you’re sharp or flat. This visual feedback gives you an unbiased interpretation of your pitch…it doesn’t care if you’re a beginner or multiple world champion Geert Chatrou, who wouldn’t be a bad whistler to listen to.
Once you’ve determined where you have problems, you need to find a way to train yourself to listen to the background music and get in tune as fast as possible. No one wants to hear someone searching for the right notes.
Shape Your Notes!
The next basic aspect I’ll touch on is called the envelope or shape of a note. Think of three parts: a start (called attack), main part (called sustain), and end (called decay) of every musical note. There is no single best way to shape your notes, but rather you need to be able to tailor your notes to the music you’re playing to. I’m not talking about advanced techniques such as vibrato, tremolo and others here, but rather the basic quality of a single note. Some readers may have never thought about something so simple, but without mastering this fundamental element of control, all the other fancy things just don’t sound right. It’s like painting a house a nice color, when the framing isn’t strong enough to last very long.
I tell my students to close their eyes and do a single long note. This makes it easier to focus on those three essential parts. No note just happens instantaneously, although fast ones seem to, and that’s a good thing for staccato style notes for example. While the quality of the sustain (middle part) is probably the most important aspect from a listener’s point of view (it should be on pitch and not wavering – unless vibrato is used), the way the note comes up to the sustain is also important. Practice getting to the desired note at different rates – fast medium and slow. Normally you don’t want to over shoot the note and come back to it. Loudness and pitch are the two things to absolutely be able to control during this exercise. The end, or decay aspect, is probably the easiest part to do, but don’t forget this leaves a lasting impression, and often deals with the emotional aspects of the note. For example, a sensitive ballad may require slow decays of notes.
The last piece of advice I want to leave with you is to search out professional recordings that use whistling, and listen to them from many points of view. There are many fine whistling recordings available but no whistler is the best at everything. One whistler may be great at some forms of classical music, but unable to swing or do pop or rock music at a professional level. Some whistlers can do fancy effects and bird sounds but can’t do music very well. The point here is to expose yourself to as much good whistling as possible and to pick the ones you want to emulate. Then the hard work starts, but also there’s fun in accomplishing what many think is impossible.
Ultimately, with enough effort, you will develop your own sound and style, and take your place next to the great whistlers of all time. I’m hoping to someday hear a great Indian whistler performing as an equal with Ravi Shankar, Dr. L. Subramaniam and others who have made their mark on the world stage. Is that YOU I’m talking about?