- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 12, 2002

When Steve Herbst whistles, people listen. The professional pucker artist has taken the medium of whistling out of the shower stall and into some of the country's most prestigious concert halls.
It doesn't pay the bills, but Mr. Herbst, a 56-year-old Manhattan advertising executive, recently released a CD's worth of whistle chops, "Broadway and Beyond."
Earlier this year, he was crowned international grand champion at an annual whistling competition in Louisburg, N.C., home of the International Whistlers Museum.
This weekend, Mr. Herbst will perform solo on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage with prerecorded piano and symphonic accompaniment.
If it seems like an eccentricity, Mr. Herbst says whistling is as American as apple pie.
"Back in the '30s and '40s, there were a lot of whistlers, and they were well-known, and people bought their recordings," Mr. Herbst says by phone as his pet parrot, Verdi, cackles in the background.
The "whistling troubadour," Elmo Tanner, for example, scored a radio hit in 1938 with a song called "Heartaches." That was before the age of Walkman, boomboxes and cellular phones, when people could more readily entertain themselves, Mr. Herbst notes.
With a professionally whistling father around for inspiration, Mr. Herbst whistled first for pleasure and then, by age 10, was tackling such pieces as Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf."
"Whistling is an idea whose time has returned," he says.
There are two major styles of whistling: common, everyday "bird whistling" and the more challenging medium, "instrumental whistling," an attempt to capture the sound of a live instrument.
Within those two forms are different methods. There's the traditional pucker method of pursing the lips. Other, less respected methods involve cupped hands, fingers and thumbs.
A puckering whistler himself, Mr. Herbst says most whistling champions are lip-pursers. "You get the purest sound that way," he explains.
Mr. Herbst has performed on stages in New York's Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall as well as the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He boasts a three-octave range and says his whistle tones have been compared to the sounds of a theremin, an electronic synthesizer that can approximate various instruments.
"What I'm trying to do is replace an instrument" to whistle so skillfully that the listener isn't even aware that he's not hearing, say, a violin or flute.
"The point is, you never lose the song," he says. "The whistling doesn't distract from the song; it enhances the song."
Mr. Herbst's signature tune is the traditional Irish melody "Danny Boy," which he plans to perform this weekend. He'll also essay Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" and "Claire de Lune" by Debussy. He also does more contemporary tunes, including Leonard Bernstein's "Maria" from "West Side Story."
If it's done right, Mr. Herbst says, whistling belongs in the same class as playing real woodwind or brass instruments.
"When you're talking about concert-class whistling or professional whistling, yeah, I would compare it to a regular instrumentation," he says.

WHAT: Steve "The Whistler" Herbst
WHERE: Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, Grand Foyer
WHEN: 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday nights
INFORMATION: 800/444-1324 or 202/467-4600

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