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”.)


Why I Never Learned to Whistle — 16 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!

    • 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!

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