Just purse your lips and blow. Sounds easy enough, but like tying shoes or riding a bike, whistling is one of those skills we grownups tend to take for granted. Whether we do it to call the dog or pass the time in our cubicles, we don’t give the art of whistling a second thought.
But for many of us, this talent certainly didn’t develop overnight. Nor did we learn to carry a tune without plenty of hard work, frustration and exhaling until we were blue in the face.
That is, unless you’re Steve “The Whistler” Herbst. Inspired by his father’s whistling, Herbst, a professional whistler, actually taught himself the tricks of the trade at the ripe old age of 7.
Meet the whistling whisperer
“It almost feels like I’ve always been whistling. I don’t remember the initial struggle or the initial breakthrough,” says the father of one and grandfather of two, recalling the days he spent locked away in his bedroom, whistling to records like Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.
Striving for perfection, the young boy would start the record over and over again, imitating the various instruments until he got it just right. With patience, persistence and practice, Herbst developed a remarkable three-octave range before ever reaching his 10th birthday.
“I knew I had something special by the time I was 10, because what I was doing really sounded unusual,” Herbst says.
Unusual? Yes. Impressive? You bet. Today, the New Yorker is part of a growing community of whistlers, helping to revive what he calls the lost art of whistling. The 1930s through the 1950s was actually considered the “golden age of whistling,” says Herbst, as big bands would often feature whistlers as soloists. Ask your grandparents, and they’re likely to remember legendary Bing Crosby not just as a crooner, but also a top-notch whistler.
From performing with bands to coaching, Herbst has made a career of his unusual talent. He’s performed with guitar great Les Paul, made TV and radio appearances, earned numerous awards – and was even inducted into the International Whistlers Hall of Fame. Not shabby!
Here’s the how-to
But before your child can dream of reaching such whistling heights, he or she will first have to master the basics.
Herbst says there are many different types of whistle techniques, including tongue and palate, finger, hand and throat. The most common, and easiest to learn, however, is the pucker whistle. So grab your little ones and get ready to rediscover the lost art of whistling.
- Have your child practice in front of a mirror.
- Before he begins, have him lick his lips so that they’re nice and moist.
- Instruct him to say “ooh,” and have him notice the position of his mouth. The lips should form a small circle, and the tongue should be slightly curled. Either press the tongue against the bottom teeth or hold it slightly back.
- Without blowing too hard or forcing the air out, have your child gently blow a steady stream of air through the small opening of the lips. He also can try to produce a sound by sucking the air in.
- Have him adjust the position of his lips and tongue until they produce a note.
- Herbst, who also gives whistling lessons, says the trick is to keep practicing. “If you can’t make a note, keep going until you get a note and then figure out how you made that note … keep (whistling) until you can do it at-will, because the first time is likely to be an accident.” From there, he adds, you can go up or down a step, to produce different notes. Practicing with favorite songs also can help to develop those whistling “chops.”
This post was originally published in 2012 and has been updated for 2016.