More than 60 contestants from a dozen states and half-a-dozen foreign countries competed at this year’s International Whistlers Convention. For 40 years, serious whistlers have come to the campus of Louisburg College every spring. The competition is spread over three days to accommodate an elimination round and the finals in the junior, teenage, and adult divisions.
The whistlers offer up a classical and a popular piece. And while there are prizes in each genre, the most coveted is the grand championship covering both performances.
Chris Ullman, a four-time grand champion in the adult division, served as a competition judge this time around. He explained that whistling winners need multiple skills, including technical ability, musical interpretation of and stage presence.
“Well, you’ve got to have all three. If you want to be a champ, it’s like being a golfer,” Ullman said. “You’ve got to have a good drive, you’ve got to have a good short game, and you’ve got to be able to get out of the bunker.”
Ullman also suggested a training regimen, which includes no kissing for 24 hours before taking the stage.
“You want to keep the lips kind of crisp, not mushy,” he said. “Kissing makes lips mushy. I sip ice water right before the performance and the ice actually helps constrict the tissue on your lips to keep the surface smooth because you want the air traveling through. You don’t want it to be rough at all because that can affect the quality of the sound.”
There are pitfalls peculiar to whistling. Carole Anne Kaufman has been going to North Carolina from California for the past 12 years.
“It never fails, it seems, that when we’re here at the competition that we’re complaining about dry mouth, and I’m sure it has something to do with travel, but I think it has more to do with nerves,” Kaufman said. “It’s funny. I can get through whole shows without a sip of water, but I can barely get through a song here at the IWC without a sip.”
In this year’s classical competition, kids and adults alike tackled Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Shostakovich. Kaufman offered up an aria from a Bizet opera.
Other contestants whistled to tunes from their native lands.
The international contingent included competitors from Canada, Spain, and Russia. Most came from Japan and China, where the International Whistlers Convention was held in 2008 and 2010, respectively. In Japan — even though women traditionally are discouraged from whistling — younger performers are establishing their own tradition.
Marina Kato, 14, said that although she’s always whistled at home while washing the dishes, she’s been a competitive whistler for less than a year. Kato, who won this year’s grand championship in the female teen division, adds that she likes using her body as an instrument which makes a beautiful sound.
Some of the winners go on to fame, if not fortune, performing for the Jay Leno Show, with symphony orchestras and on CDs. Kaufman, who calls herself a whistling activist, has a larger agenda.
“Whistling was popular back in the 1940s and before and it did wane out. People forgot that it’s a world-class instrument,” She said. “And I will tell you this: every time I perform for someone, minds get blown and people experience music in a way they never did before, and they get a new respect for whistling as an art form.”
Kaufman — who finished third in the adult women’s division of this year’s championships — and many of her fellow competitors will be back next year to celebrate their annual rite of spring — and to breathe new life into mankind’s first musical instrument.