I am an inveterate whistler. I have been a ‘siffleur’ for years, whistling happily to myself when I am alone and, more particularly, if out walking. The pattern is fairly routine – I step outside, stand on the pavement and start up. It is automatic. I don’t plan what tune will emerge, although at the moment it is likely to be the nursery rhyme –  ‘Oh, the Grand Old Duke of York’; or the English Folk Song – ‘Dashing Away with a Smoothing Iron’. Subsequent tunes are handled differently – there is almost always some conscious selection.

Responses from passers-by vary; most don’t notice, sometimes I get a nod or smile, and occasionally there are expressions of disapproval. From time to time people who might otherwise keep mum are moved to speak out, and some comments have hurt. Years ago, a complete stranger came up to me while I was whistling, tapped me on my shoulder and said loudly, “I hope you won’t mind me asking, but has anyone ever told you how well you whistle? If so, they were lying – itsounds awful!” She then rushed away. Worse was to come – a friend told me how he had some sympathy for her position (see Whistler’s Mother, 4th August 2014) . 

Since hearing those remarks I have practiced hard. Following whistling tips from champions found on the web, I have more purposefully pouted my lips, practiced scales, trills and warbles, whistled tunes soft and loud, tried to broaden my range, worked on a trombone effect (glissando) and more recently applied lip salve. 

Nowadays comments are generally warmer. Recently there was: “It’s lovely to hear someone whistle like that, it’s just like being with my Grandad all those years ago”. And on another occasion: “What a treat. Hearing you makes me feel happy – thanks”. This blog tells of something one better – a wonderful moment when I whistled along with a complete stranger. It was magical.

When we went from London’s National Theatre to Waterloo Station there was the usual choice. My wife, Rohan, and I could either walk along the fume-ridden pavements of a busy road or go through a dank pedestrian subway. The subway won, as it usually does, but it was a close call. There is, however, a problem; on a winter’s evening much of the subway is uninviting, not to say hostile, with its general emptiness, grubby concrete walls, unpleasant smells and dark corners that could be hiding anything. 

However, during the walk things do get better. At its far end, as one nears the station, the atmosphere changes. Here one walks down the brightly-lit and uplifting poetry tunnel – along its length is a poem about travel painted on the wall in a lovely typeface and arranged like a rivulet. And this time there was more – as we approached the tunnel’s entrance, wafting out with the light was the sound of whistling accompanied by a guitar. 

The sound was, predictably, the work of a busker and for me that gave added pleasure – listening to buskers is irresistible. Plonk a busker in front of me in the street and I will stop and sing along. If there is a coffee shop nearby and I have the time, I will sit and sip through several numbers. In London I am spoiled as in any one trip I would expect to hear several performers: over the last months the music has included accompanied or unaccompanied voices, accordions, violins, saxophones, clarinet and a 4-piece band. This was the first time I had heard accompanied whistling.

Before I actually entered the tunnel and saw the musician, I started whistling along to his ‘There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. He heard me, stopped his own whistling, and accompanied me on his guitar as I walked towards him. Next he started whistling again and for several bars I stood next to him on his pitch in the tunnel and whistled with him in harmony, making up my tune as I went along – and it worked. Here was serendipity at its best. 

Soon we got to the end of the song and stopped, and as we smiled at one another the silence was broken by loud clapping and shouts of “That was brilliant – well done” from a woman who had appeared at the far end of the tunnel. This just made everything even better.

I had to leave to catch our train home so it was ‘goodbye’, ‘thanks’ and a tongue-in-cheek suggestion from the busker that we might perhaps work together some time. Harmonising like that was the stuff of dreams; how I would have loved to go back for an encore or two. My years of practicing and the confidence it brought had all been worthwhile. 

The illustration shows a photo of the Dutchman Geert Chatrou, the current whistling world champion. 

For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Harold, Rohan and Vivien.

13 thoughts on “A Magical Duet for Guitar and Whistle

  1. Family – Susan and I often used to sing and whistle together as we worked – ‘trill’ whistling became my forte, as a former studio assistant recently reminded me with a smile. I’ve rather lost the knack – clearly I need to practise…

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  2. Comment sent to me (Joe) directly

    Dear Joe, So do I! My favourite whistling spot (perhaps we should compile a nationwide list?) is the basement of the car park at Waitrose in Dorchester. Unlike you I usually feel too self-concious to do it with much panache, and prefer to wait for a quiet time there, e.g. Tuesday lunchtimes. Do you find that some days you can whistle well and other days hardly at at all – sort of like a bad hair day? That is my experience and has always mystified me. My mother habitually whistled while she gardened, as did Irish Murdoch. It’s a glorious thing and there’s not enough of it about. Merrily

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    1. Dear Merrily, I don’t have bad whistle days, but may be I am the wrong person to ask! The echo in your car park must make your tunes very special. For soft whistling, lip salve seems to help – have you trued it.love, Joe

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  3. Dear Joe,

    I really enjoyed your blog! I used to whistle as a child especially when I was drying dishes next to my cranky great-aunt who lived with us at the time. She would say to me “A whistling woman and a crowing hen will always come to a bad end”- I’m still waiting for the bad end but I stopped whistling and now prefer to sing.
    Love

    Robin

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    1. Dear Robin, It always strikes as amazing that silly aphorisms, like your great aunt’s, can be so effective and for so long. However, if it made you sing that is a very positive outcome. Love, Joe

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  4. Joe: As always, a lovely read and, as nearly always, it set me off on tangents. This time the further excursion was as rewarding as unadventurous: I went to You Tube to hear Geert Chatrou whistling the 1st movement of Mozart flute quartet 285. He’d make a mint in an underpass … Thank you. Charles

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    1. Dear Charles, Many thanks for you kind comments. I have heard other whistlings by Geert Chatrou but following your note I listened to the Mozart – it is pretty extraordinary. If he comes to London, we could go and hear him together. Yours, Joe

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  5. Dear Joe
    Making music with someone else is a wonderful thing. I’m interested to hear that you practice whistling. I’ve never heard of anyone doing that. But it makes sense – like for singing. Perhaps whistling is wrongly disregarded as an art form or a technical pursuit?

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    1. Dear Andrea, Thanks for your note. There is no doubt that whistling has an odd reputation, but the pleasure it now brings me and number of times that I now get positive responses, has made practice worthwhile. Love, Joe

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  6. A shame blogs don’t usually have sounds I would have loved to hear you whistling with the guitarist
    May be next time you meet you should put yourself on UTube so we can hear you.
    A strange coincidence my grandson (8 yo) loves whistling and his name is Joseph!

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    1. Dear Sauliac, Thank you for your comment. I would love to have a recording of the duet but it was so fleeting and spontaneous that catching it would not have been possible. Congratulations to my namesake – perhaps you might suggest that your grandson listens to Geert Chatrou for inspiration. Joe

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