I’m a lifelong wind musician, and perhaps that’s the reason that the fact that I can’t whistle has always bothered me. No matter how hard I tried, my efforts fell as flat as King Julien’s. (For those of you without kids, he’s the deranged lemur king in “Madagascar” who displays his woeful whistling skills and then proclaims his desire to perform professionally.)
Imagine my surprise when I was able to get a low, airy sound out a few months ago. Unlike Julien, however, I have no designs on a whistling career. The more I whistled, however, the more I wondered if there are such people and if I could find someone in the South.
A Google journey brought me to Andy Irwin, a Georgia resident and member of the fledgling International Whistlers’ Guild and a top 20 placer in last year’s Global Whistling Championship. What does it take, I wondered, to embark on such an endeavor?
Irwin was willing to walk me through his rise as a performer.
“I always was the best whistler around until I was in the competition,” he said, laughing at the start of what turned out to be a very entertaining conversation.
His verbal style whirls in, out and around the subjects he’s discussing, putting me in mind of his musical skills. At one point during the interview, he actually broke into song, putting forth the brilliant staccato trills of a piccolo, and I couldn’t tell the difference between his sounds and the tiny wind instrument.
“I can fake a lot of winds,” was his nonchalant response to my jaw-on-the-ground amazement.
He performed Gershwin’s Second Prelude for the competition with a piano accompaniment. There was no pitch correction allowed, and he also couldn’t mix the performance at all. He had been scheduled to compete live in Tokyo before COVID-19 torpedoed those plans, and Irwin was proud of his fellow competitors who made the best of things.
“It’s a really sweet bunch of people who said, ‘Hey, we can do this online,’” he says. “I was the newest kid.”
Irwin describes advancing one’s whistling skills in terminology usually reserved for learning a wind instrument. Harnessing one’s whistling ability, he says, is about finding boundaries — figuring out how low you can bring your notes and how to temper them as you weave them together for a tune.
“If you play a trombone and drop the slide, it finds the brakes,” he says, likening that situation to sustaining low whistled notes. “It’s kind of like bending a harmonica. It’s finding those tricks … Whistling is really efficient — all of the air is doing work.”
Irwin, a sixth-generation Newton Countian, attended Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, and his band director there, an alto saxophone player, would occasionally pick up a flute so he and Irwin could “exchange eights” in a sort of jam session.
That rapid-fire skill eventually evolved into session work in Nashville, which Irwin still does from time to time. When he’s not behind the mike recording whistling work, he’s often on the road performing as a storyteller. He describes his style as “standup comedy but longform narratives,” and he hopes to come to the Rome area when the Big Fibbers Storytelling Festival (bigfibbers.com) is up and running again. Like so many other gatherings, its 2020 and 2021 iterations had to be canceled.
Meanwhile, I encourage you to experience Irwin’s sound-bending skills at his website, https://andyirwin.com, and if you are interested in enhancing your own whistling technique, there are resources available through the International Whistler’s Guild at https://whistlersguild.org.
Whether you’ve been whistling during your day-to-day activities your whole life or you have an interest in competition, the whistlers from this year’s competition are sure to amaze you.