Why I Never Learned to Whistle

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It’s true: I can’t whistle! Never learned, despite years of trying.

This article’s title is misleading — or perhaps its more accurate to say it simply reflects wishful thinking. I’d love to know why I can’t whistle. But since I don’t know, I can’t tell you.

Why I Never Learned to Whistle

Speaking of you — does anyone else experience this kind of thing? Not whistling specifically. Of course you can whistle. Everyone I know whistles. (If you can’t, then bless you, brother or sister!)

What I mean is, is there anything you can’t do, despite years of practice, even though pert-near everyone else you know can?

My odd sonic disability baffles my whistling-enabled friends. I’ve had people insist, in all sincerity, that I was pulling their legs.

Kind folks have tried to teach me, serenely confident they’ll succeed where all others have failed. “See? You just purse your lips this way and force air between them!”

I’ve mostly stopped taking lessons, because it’s painful to watch people I love descend through successive stages of hope, to frustration, to impotent exasperation.

Still unclear to me is whether my inability to whistle is genetic, psychological, or something else. Maybe I still haven’t practiced enough. Maybe there’s a book or website that could get me over the hump. I don’t know.

No one I’ve known could whistle like Cheri’s recently deceased mom, Winnie. Her whistle (when she wasn’t holding back) reminded me of an air raid siren. When Cheri and her younger sister, Zephyr, were kids, they’d hear that whistle from across the neighborhood and know Winnie was summoning them.

Cheri herself has a powerful whistle, though nowhere as loud as Winnie’s. She uses it to call our faithful pooch, Cheyenne, who always comes running. When Cheyenne hears me trying to whistle, she stares at me with the same look of bewildered incredulity as my human friends.

People typically whistle through their lips. But I’ve seen people whistle through two fingers, and occasionally through their teeth.

Whatever your style — if you can whistle at all, I’m in awe of you. Don’t even get me started on the very idea of whistling a tune: sheer magic!

(This article is an entry in my “Gary Matthews Random Facts File”.)


Comments

Why I Never Learned to Whistle — 24 Comments

  1. Haha, that was pretty funny. I can whistle but only just so. I can’t really get all the notes right if I’m trying to whistle a tune. My father can whistle entire songs loud and in tune. But that’s also common place. What isn’t is this friend of mine from college who could whistle blowing out and whistle on the intake! Consider what that means, for a moment. Most people take a deep breath, whistle, run out of breath, take another breath and start again. This fellow doesn’t have to stop. He keeps whistling out, when he is out of breath, he whistles in, fills up on air and starts whistling out again. Never breaks rhythm. He also was very good at Indian vocal classical music. Lost touch with him…

    What can’t I do that everyone can (seems like everyone)? I can’t blow a bubble with bubble gum! I have tried since I was a child and finally accepted it’s not going to happen.

    • Dev, I also can’t blow bubble-gum bubbles. That’s something I’ve started taking so much for granted that I forgot all about it when writing the above. Otherwise I’d have mentioned it. That and whistling seem related, do they not? Both involve forcing air between pursed lips to create a certain effect.

      Your in-and-out whistling friend is truly astounding!

    • Then it can’t be coincidence (can it?) that the letters in “Christian and Baha’i Dialogue” rearrange to spell “Ha Ha! I sing a drab elucidation” as well as “Rad! I sing a diabolic tune, ha ha!”.

  2. Gary. I enjoy all your e-mails–thank you!- especially the one on whistling , which I can never do. Raymond is a long-time whistler from which I exude much appreciation–like he Cheri and Winnie had a second language going for them!!

    • Thanks, Susan. It feels great to know I’m not unique in my inability to whistle! Is there something going on where people like us, who can’t whistle, end up marrying people who whistle exceptionally well, like Raymond and Cheri?

      I’ll mention for readers that your husband, Raymond, is not only a good whistler but an extremely talented flute player. As you know, he played at the ceremony where Cheri and I were married, among many other events. I wonder whether there’s a correlation between whistling and the playing of wind instruments? The processes do seem similar.

  3. Gary: I’ll bet if you had been a kid when your Mom’s and my Grpa Crosthwaite was living, and had him to teach you, that you would be able to whistle! I was only five when he died in 1939 but he had already taught me to whistle during one of our hikes to a nearby fishing spot. He even taught me to “double whistle”.. two notes at once (never very strong or loud but a whistle none the less).

    He also took me to the local pool hall to entertain myself with stray pool balls or the spittoons, while he played dominoes with his cronies. Not many little girls got that privilege! Mother and Mama Crosthwaite didn’t know about it until after he died because one day when walking past the pool hall with them I said something to the effect that I had not been in there for a longtime. They asked when had I ever been in there? and I told them that Papa had taken me in there with him! They were both aghast and Mama said “He was supposed to be taking you to the park!!”

    • Fabulous story, Tania — thanks for sharing it! Your grandfather sounds like the one all kids dream about — and every kid should have.

      And a double whistle? Two notes at once? Amazed as I am by any whistle at all, that’s magic upon magic. How is such a thing even possible? We live in a world of miracles.

    • The reasoning here makes sense, Janelle: You are my twin sister; neither of us can whistle; so it must be genetic. The only wrinkle in that logic is that our twinship kinship is strictly by adoption. A technicality that hasn’t kept us from being eerily similar in dozens and dozens of other respects — so why not whistling?

      Some folks reading this may be questioning whether it’s possible to have an adopted twin. You and I, sis, know that it is indeed possible. But that’s another story for another time.

  4. Well now, I used to be able to whistle. I could whistle a tune just jim dandy! I could call dogs with my whistle. I could summon kids with my whistle. I could whistle while I worked. And then one day ppppffffff it was gone. No whistle. Nada. Not even a squeak. Gone. Kaput. Try as I might, no whistle is forthcoming.

    I don’t even remember when I lost my whistle, but it is gone. Where it has gone is a mystery to me. Maybe it left because I wasn’t using it enough; maybe it found a new home. But in any case it is gone!

    • Wow, Verne. Until I started reading responses like yours, I had no idea there were so many mysteries and little oddities surrounding whistling. At least I’m feeling less alone!

  5. It’s so nice to see something on the internet that is in favor of whistling rather than complaining of how “annoying” it is. I love to hear others whistle no matter how good or bad, it’s just a happy sound! I was always in awe of my Dad & Grandpap whistling when I was little, I was determined to learn how to do it myself. I must have done something right as I occasionally get complimented on whatever I am whistling while I am out & about. …Mom says that she always knows where I am when we are out together! I hope that the tides will shift for you someday & you too will be able to go forth & make music!
    Cheers!

    • Thanks, Carissa, for the encouraging words and the personal history backing them up. I do keep trying! Once in a while I get a high-pitched hiss that I imagine might evolve into an actual whistle if I had the patience to keep working on it full-time for another decade or two.

      At this point, I would settle for a simple one-note whistle I could use to call my dog. Never mind whistling a tune, as it seems you have learned to do. Kudos to you for your perseverance!

  6. Dear Gary,

    another non-whistler here from Italy!

    I knew I would find such a comment :

    “See? You just purse your lips this way and force air between them!”

    How typical is that? I don’t know about you, but this sentence can drive me mad in a matter of seconds.

    I mean,do those people think I’m so stupid that I’ve never tried to do such a thing?

    We have a very famous singer here, Andrea Boccelli, who’s always been blind and for some reason he always keeps his eyes closed. Now, imagine that somebody tells him: ” Can’t you see a thing? Why don’t you just open your eyes and you will!” -_-

    Being told “just put your lips like this and blow” is exactly the same to me!

    Ok,be that as it may, I’m not alone and this is such a consolation! ^_^

  7. ” I also can’t blow bubble-gum bubbles. That’s something I’ve started taking so much for granted that I forgot all about it when writing the above. Otherwise I’d have mentioned it. That and whistling seem related, do they not? Both involve forcing air between pursed lips to create a certain effect.”

    That makes three of us, and since we are at it, another thing related to tongue and lips is blowing a raspberry. Yes, blowing a raspberry, something that any kindergarten child is able to do except for me! 🙁

    • Andrea, you surely are not alone. Thanks to you and the other kind commenters like you, I now know I’m not alone either. That feels great.

      Blowing bubble-gum bubbles is another thing I’ve never been able to do! That doesn’t feel like coincidence. As you observe, the two actions seem related. But I can blow a raspberry. Curiouser and curiouser!

  8. Thank you Gary for your reply! 🙂

    Well, actually it wasn’t me who observed that, I was just quoting another comment, I don’t want to take credit for that! 😉

    You’re right though, it’s interesting; when I give it a try (raspberry), the closest I manage to get to is the English “th” sound. So, I definitely prefer to eat raspberries than blow them! 😉

    You wrote that your friends find it hard to believe that you can’t whistle,may I ask you what they say exactly?
    Are they respectful or they make fun of you?
    I’m asking because this topic never came up with my circle of friends, so I’d like to know what kind of reactions I should expect!

    • Andrea, my friends have always been respectful whenever I’ve mentioned my inability to whistle. It isn’t a disability I go out of my way to talk about. But neither do I try to hide it, so occasionally it comes up in conversation.

      Some folks are incredulous — but sympathetic. Others are like, “Wow, that’s interesting!” No one (so far as I can tell) ever seems to have thought less of me as a result of my admission of disability. ≧◔◡◔≦

  9. Ok, I understand and Iìm glad that you’re surrounded by such intelligent and mature people.You’re lucky! ^_^

    I like it that you wrote “No one (so far as I can tell) ever seems to have thought less of me”, because this is my fear when I think of somebody finding out some lacks or limits of mine. As if they thought: “Oh, he cannot [whatever you like], what a loser/dorky!”

    • Lucky, yes I am, to have the friends and associates I do. My guess is that yours are just as intelligent and mature. I’d wager you’ve nothing to be anxious about, were you open up to them about “lacks or limits”.

      The thing is, we all have disabilities that might make us feel sheepish or embarrassed. You do, I do, all our friends do. Being candid about our own just makes it easier for others to relate to us. They may even feel grateful, because we’re giving them permission to relax around us and acknowledge their own shortcomings.

      Somewhere I noticed that if I present myself as always doing everything easily and well, first time every time, I don’t fool anyone. Sooner or later they figure out I’m putting up a front. I come across as pretentious and insecure. Whereas, if I laugh openly at my own failures, and invite others to join me in laughing at them, they figure those failures can’t be all there is to me: There must be other, more important things I do reasonably well.

      Pick any random person, and it’s likely there’s at least one thing that person can’t do that most people can. Also likely there’s at least one thing that same person does well, that almost no one else can do. This reality is one of the things that makes us each special, while (paradoxically) binding us all together.

  10. I don’t know about my friends really, I hope you are right but this is a topic we never brought up so I have no clue what their reaction could be. I can’t help but think that as soon as I say that, everyone will start whistling! -_-

    To sum up your point, what you want to say is that if I can’t do a certain thing and other people can, there must be something that I can do and they cannot.
    Of course, but for the time being this is not convincing enough yet.

    I assume this is another of my limits! 😉

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