Friday, January 11, 2013

Whistling While I Work

"You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow."
~Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not 

I've been thinking about whistling this week after reading performer and musical anthropologist Michael Feinstein's latest book, The Gershwins and Me


Feinstein has never been shy about expressing his opinions and I found his observations about music in today's culture fascinating. While giving modern technology high praise for its role in making music accessible and for providing tools for innovation, Feinstein regrets the proliferation of isolationist listening because of its potential to break down shared experience, which in turn contributes to a de-emphasis of music because of the lack of communal relating points. A corollary to this idea is that when there's so much music out there that we're spoilt for choice, it's difficult to find common cultural ground.

It's an arguable point, I think, because there is conversely much joy to be found with so many songs to choose from, so many iterations of those songs, and so many artists making so much different music.

The bottom line is that a plethora of choices requires us to be discerning consumers of art, and arts education makes us wise shoppers.
George and Ira Gershwin

Feinstein of course argues that a good place to start with such education is with the standards, those classics of sublime composition and lyricism such as those the Gershwin brothers produced. "Bringing people together is what...the Gershwin songs have always done," wrote Feinstein. He's preaching to the choir with me on that point. Just as I love history for the continuity of life's lessons it illustrates, I've loved the standards from the Gershwin songbook for ever and a day. I see them as illustrative of musical continuity and community-building. As a wee Sue back in the late 60s and 70s I absorbed the ubiquitous television variety hours and specials that featured the standards, later trying to replicate the amazing phrasing and timing of their performers. My success at that is why I'm here writing a blog while others are out there performing the music with verve and precision! And that's fine, because some of us have to be the listeners while others perform.


We don't have variety hours these days, and it's increasingly difficult to secure funding for arts education. But we can choose to pay attention to the music of yesteryear, for sheer enjoyment and to provide a foundation of musical knowledge. 

And there's one thing we can pretty much all do: whistle. That's right, just put your lips together and blow. Unless you're in India or Russia, that is, where whistling is considered rude. Or in Korea where it's considered to be bad luck for women to whistle. Or in a theatre during a production, lest you want to accidentally trigger the stage crew to bring down the rigging. 

Presuming that his readers were not out to sabotage shows or traveling to Korea, India or Russia to whistle away their cares, Feinstein noted:
One friend of mine observed that people no longer whistle. After pondering that thought I went out to roam the streets to see if it was true. The thought alarmed me, because my father always whistled and that sound was of seminal comfort. So I spent what seemed like an eternity wandering around, strolling the streets in search of any whistler, anywhere. Exhausted and disheartened by the sea of silent iPods, I was ready to surrender and head home.
Fortunately over-hearing a stray whistled phrase from "The Man I Love" restored Feinstein's faith in humanity that day, but his story got me thinking about this phenomenon.

Whither, whistling? Is it really a lost art? With its piercing quality, whistles have most often been associated with attention-getting and used as warnings. Personally, I never mastered the art of a two-fingered loud whistle but was always impressed by kids in grade school who could manage that sound.  Warnings aside, whistling has mostly served to amuse and pass the time. Echoing Feinstein's concerns, some musicologists posit that whistling as an art form is in its death throes because music isn't being shared communally and performed socially at home, a phenomenon ushered in by the age of radio then pushed along in the modern era with music piped into our heads vis-a-vis electronic devices.  If you've got the radio or an iPod handy, why learn music? Why even whistle to entertain yourself if there's always someone else to sing to you?

Now there are plenty of folks who find whistling to be loud and obnoxious and who'd say good riddance to it.  I, like Feinstein, find it to be a comforting sound (provided it's done melodically, and probably sparingly depending upon the skill and repertoire of the whistler). And I do believe that the ability to reproduce a song, whether by singing or whistling a tune, builds community through shared experience and arts appreciation. I can't imagine how those could be anything but positive things. 

All this has served to provide me with a New Year's resolution of sorts. That's right: I've resolved to whistle more.

There. You can't say you've not been warned.

I don't have the time or level of dedication that Feinstein has, so you're not likely to see me roaming the streets and lurking in back alleys searching for whistlers. With my luck I'd be more likely to find flashers and meth dealers back in there, although I suppose they're as entitled to whistle as is anyone else. So no whistling quests for me, but I do intend to pay informal attention to the incidences of whistling I come across this year and take note of the ages and genders of said whistlers. I figure I'll find older, male whistlers for the most part. Whistling has typically not been culturally considered an appropriately feminine pastime, despite its treble range, and I also suspect that very few people younger than my generation bother to whistle. I'm happily willing to be proven wrong on these points.

Whistler's Mother, who'd look more cheerful if she'd only whistle
I don't think I'll be heading down to the annual International Whistler's Convention in North Carolina, but I might check out this year's winners come April for inspiration. It's probably impossible to feel down-in-the-dumps and whistle at the same time so, hey, Intentional Daily Whistling could become a stress reduction movement if it catches on.  Remember, you read it here first, so make sure you attribute the movement to me in the Wikipedia article.

Mostly, though, I think paying attention to the wanton whistlers around me and contributing a few warbles of mine own is a feasible way that I can help assure the continuity of an art form that contributes to musical accessibility.

Unless you've got some motor skills issues (which can be worked on) or regularly wear a space suit, you, too, can whistle. So pucker up, and let me know how many whistlers you come across this year. I'll be one of them. 

And for more whistling trivia than you can possibly absorb in one sitting, check out the thorough Wikipedia article on whistling HERE. I am actually a decent pucker whistler but exclusively rely on the less common 'blowing-in method."  Right, that's me, rebel whistler.

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