Kunstpfeifen: an Overview

J.M. Schlitz

© 2002

1. To quote or use, simply mention the author ("J.M. Schlitz") and title.
2. This 2002 study has expanded into a dissertation, parts of which can be viewed here. I've kept this original version online because I discovered that it contains very little overlap with the final dissertation. Readers should be forewarned, however, that a few uncorrected errors still remain.




0. Preface

I. Brief History

II. Kunstpfeifen Today

III. Introducing the Instrument

IV. Some Technical Shortcomings

V. Some Advantages

VI. Lay Terminology

VII. Modes

VIII. Appending Thoughts



Feb 26, 2002



Whistling as we know it today has been largely ignored by the music community at large, but not without good reason. The timbre is innately unpleasant to many people and compares unfavourably to its cousins the recorder, the ocarina, or even the most maligned piccolo. It is too high-pitched, encumbered with technical difficulties, and lacks the acoustical depth of conventional instruments. Most musicians and music aficionados, this author included, have never been attracted to the sound itself; indeed a small percentage of the human population (perhaps some 1%) is even adversely sensitive to the nearly pure sine wave produced by human whistling. These musically unfriendly properties or shortcomings are further reflected by the fact that with a few minor exceptions, historical composers have written very little for human whistling. Instead, most people think of whistling in terms of hailing taxicabs, signaling other people or animals, or at best as an idle behaviour with no real musical value.

Added to the problem of real, actual shortcomings is the problem of labels and perception. Any would-be "serious whistler" must struggle with the fact that whistling, even when staged or performed (Kunstpfeifen), is chiefly associated with novelty, the comic, or the absurd. On stage, television, or elsewhere, it is nearly always presented with exaggerated vibrato, bird mimicry, glissandos and slides, high piercing notes, poor intonation, comedic references, or as a substitute for singing. One rarely, if ever, hears serious musical repertoire but instead hackneyed tunes such as "The Happy Whistler," "Colonel Bogey," the theme from "The Andy Griffith Show," old Disney songs, commercials which feature whistling, bird-related tunes, etc, etc. Worse still are those who claim to represent "the best whistling in the world" and how these "champions" are determined. Thousands of "international champion whistler" titles have been awarded at amateur whistling contests in small towns, where most contestants can't read music and simply whistle along to a store-bought CD. And each year not simply three winners, but some 40-50 new "male international" and "female international" whistling champion titles are awarded, no matter how few the contestants are or how bad the whistling is – per contest. All of this seems to escape the media, who seem primarily motivated by novelty rather than art and apparently see little need for fact-checking where whistling is concerned. And what sort of literature exists on this so-called "art form"? A thin "How To" paperback – whose author, featured on the cover "puckered up" in a comical piscine expression, is neither a professional musician nor expert whistler, but an author of some forty other "How To" guides.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that the medium's real and actual shortcomings as a musical instrument notwithstanding, it is changing the way that people (including whistlers themselves) tend to think about and approach the medium that is really the far greater challenge.

So, while the status quo of performed whistling is all fine for fun and entertainment, what of the instrument's use in serious music? Can we really blame music authorities who, because of these common representations, categorically dismiss the mouthflute as capable of nothing more than novelty or vaudeville-type entertainment?

Of course not. But at the same time, it would be a mistake to assume that 'whistletainment' is the only way to approach performed whistling, or Kunstpfeifen.





Kunstpfeifen in the Renaissance and Baroque

Centuries before vaudeville entertainment, there was a type of serious performance whistling practiced as far back as the Renaissance, and as late as the Middle Baroque. As a formal performance medium, it was used primarily for instrumental music (human whistling did not come to be used for formal vocal music performance until the late 19th century). German speakers called it Kunstpfeifen (literally, "art-whistling"), a term still in general use today, though practiced in its original sense by only a few individuals (artwhistlers).

During the Renaissance and Baroque, instruments had not yet been "perfected." Like the human whistle, they were acoustically less powerful; wind instruments in particular had intonation problems and possessed reliable ranges which rarely exceeded two octaves. These last two, at least, could be easily solved by a skilled Kunstpfeifer with a good ear. Furthermore it did not become common practice until the Middle and High Baroque to specify exact instrumentation-- and even then substitutions were still common. It is therefore not surprising that music of this time was sometimes alternatively "artwhistled" instead of played or sung. So the question concerning Kunstpfeifen during these periods is not so much one of "Is human whistling specified in any of these scores?" so much as "Is there any reason to assume human whistling should have been excluded as a performance possibility?"

Indeed, there were a few drawbacks that discouraged the practice of Kunstpfeifen. First, the human voice's ability to utter words and prayer gave it an undisputed importance in religious music. The importance of this cannot be overestimated, since it is the religious sector whence art music originated. Words were also indispensable in narrative musical genres such as masses, cantatas, opera, etc. Kunstpfeifen could offer no advantage that might justify sacrificing this important feature of singing; thus Kunstpfeifen remained primarily an instrumental practice.

The second reason is socio-cultural: delving into history as far back as the ancient Greeks (A V van Stekelenburg, 2000), one will discover several taboos concerning whistling, not unlike those which still exist today in many non-Western cultures. Its sibilant properties and eerie, high pitch-- due in part to its peculiar lack of partials-- seem to have made it almost universally associated with the occult; thus in addition to being 'instrumental', Kunstpfeifen was also a secular practice.

But otherwise, while whistling may not have been deemed suitable for vocal or religious music, there is nothing that would have precluded the medium's use in instrumental music-- which has traditionally been consigned to secular music, where religious or quasi-religious taboos would not apply. Indeed, some modern musicians have already begun to invoke the practice of Kunstpfeifen in performances of instrumental Renaissance music.

As for Kunstpfeifen during the Baroque, Simone Wallon has written a brief study "Un chanson a siffler au temps de Louis XIV" (Revue de Musicologie, 1968 v.1 pp.102-105) examining a 1710 French chanson by Michel de La Barre (1675-1745, known esp. for his early transverse flute music) who specifies, interspersed with the singing in several parts of the score, "il sifle" ("he whistles"). Much contrary to modern whistling, 1) the chanson is written in a minor key; 2) the whistled parts are in no way suggestive of birds; and 3) the chosen tessitura is quite low, not exceeding A above the treble staff (remembering that whistling, like the piccolo, plays at 8va). Furthermore the whistled parts call for controlled trills and demisemiquaver (32nd notes) runs, so we can only assume that Kunstpfeifen had by then already evolved techniques that were fairly well-known to composers. This would mean that Kunstpfeifen in its original form-- instrumental, virtuosic, and used in serious music-- was entirely different from the circus or vaudeville-type performances with which the medium today has become so strongly associated.

By the time of the High Baroque, however, the chamber orchestra had already taken shape; new instrument-making techniques led to instruments that were acoustically more powerful, more flexible, and offered easier control of intonation than Kunstpfeifen. More demands were made of range, and part-writing had become increasingly virtuosic. Furthermore, orchestras-- much like trumpeters-- had become, in part, a status symbol of aristocatic power, and it was no longer seemly to employ surrogate Kunstpfeifer for lack of an instrument. To be sure, Kunstpfeifen continued in private homes, but was increasingly less preferred as a formal performance medium. Most music written after the Early Baroque, therefore, would have to wait for a modern revival of Kunstpfeifen before finally being heard once again through the medium of human whistling. Today that movement is called Pfeifkunst (German) or artwhistling (English).




Though performed whistling today is rare, it is not unheard of. In North America and Europe, most performing whistlers still strongly identify with and draw upon the tradition of music hall (aka vaudeville, c.1870-1940), during which the stage whistler (Kunstpfeifer / siffleur) enjoyed his or her greatest popularity. These forms of performed whistling originated much later than original forms of Kunstpfeifen-- around the time of the Industrial Revolution-- and were most popular circa 1900-1930. They died out with the "big band era," though since the 1980's there has been some interest in their revival as a form of popular entertainment. These vaudevillian varieties are the types most commonly associated with performance whistling today (where such a notion exists at all) and are briefly described here if only for the sake of clarifying the important distinction between stage whistling and artwhistling.


1. Whistletainment

Modern whistletainment, like modern popular music, stems from the comparatively recent tradition of vaudeville, which evolved for the purpose of providing mass entertainmnent. The vaudeville industry had been booming since c. 1840, and was further boosted by Edison's popular phonograph invention, then later by radio. America's first professional whistler*, John Yorke Atlee (1842-1910) was such a vaudeville whistler (by 1891 he had already recorded 36 songs). Vaudeville whistling typically featured a repertoire of folk tunes, ethnic tunes, bird-related songs, show tunes, and other well-known songs originally meant for singing. Whistletainers today still follow in this tradition, employing a similar repertoire or some combination thereof.

In addition, whistled bird effects were popular, and by the 1910's vaudeville saw a divide in whistlers who 1) were bird-imitators, 2) whistled music but incorporated bird effects, and 3) vaudeville whistlers who whistled only music and avoided bird effects altogether. Of these, the second style was formalised (though certainly not originated) by Agnes Woodward (c.1873-19??). She standardised a series of bird-inspired ornamentations (bird-emulative varieties of trills, glissandos, flutter, etc.), assigning a symbol for each, which were appended above or below the staff. At her school of whistling, functional from 1909-c.1945, students were taught mainly to read and write these symbols in addition to traditional musical notation.

All forms of bird-influenced whistling had a big impact on the early radio / television / moving picture industry, which in turn has made bird effects today almost inextricably associated with performance whistling, though not all vaudeville whistlers, past or present, have ever used them.

* Alice Shaw, though not the first, has become the most well-known vaudeville whistler today due to a widely quoted 1982 article in the American Heritage on "Whistling Women." Surprisingly, the portion of the article devoted to Alice Shaw, while making superhuman claims about her whistling ability, is sketchy at best and based almost entirely on an 1888 promotion sent out by Alice's agent. Research is ongoing.


2. Operatic Whistling

At about the same time in Great Britain, another type of performance whistling developed independently of both Kunstpfeifen and vaudeville. With the great changes demanded of instrumental music described in the previous section, the only major instrument whose range did not change much was the human voice (about 2 octaves). By 1850 however vocalists were forced to sing more powerfully and with heavier vibrato, in keeping with the ever-larger and more powerful orchestra. Emotional expressivity now became increasingly important, and vibrato made lack of perfect intonation less obvious.

All of this made vocal literature after 1850 very accessible to whistling. Two important early vocal whistlers who performed serious music were Edward Dolbey (1906-1996, alias "Andrew Garth, whistlist") and Guido Gialdini (1878-194?). However, despite a few attempts on both sides of the Atlantic, this type of voice-emulative whistling (or "operatic whistling") found few audiences because it offered few advantages over singing other than novelty, which soon wore thin on audiences. By the 1940's, operatic whistling had moved off the stage.

Nonetheless the high adaptability of vocal literature to whistling still continues to inspire practitioners of vocal whistling, though it is not formally taught or transmitted. This adaptability and strong association is largely responsible for the occasional mis-classification of the human whistle as a "vocal instrument" (erroneous because, any activity in which the vocal cords do not vibrate is, by definition, not vocal).




Neo-Kunstpfeifen, or artwhistling, is an extension of the old practice (c.1400-1700) to include not only Renaissance and Baroque literature, but serious music of the later classical tradition as well. Like its predecessor Kunstpfeifen, artwhistling is limited to the repertoire of neither the voice nor that of any single instrument.

Many symphony musicians, music students, and other persons intimately familiar with serious concert repertoire are often able to produce quite excellent artwhistling. The problem is that most have never seriously considered it as a potential performance medium.

Nonetheless there is a small percentage of formally trained musicians who-- under various billings (Kunstpfeifer, artwhistler, classical whistler, instrumental whistler, siffleur, etc.)-- have evoked the ancient practice of Kunstpfeifen in at least one formal performance. Still rarer are a few who specialise in Kunstpfeifen-type whistling and perform regularly, hailing from (to my knowledge) at least six different countries (see the link to our new Society at the bottom of this page).






The human whistle is a closed flue pipe (duct) instrument, or in other words, a fipple variety of the flute family. In terms of range (see below) it is classified a sopranino instrument. Thus it is not a Helmholtz resonator (Peter Ladefoged, 2002) and contains no such cavity, but instead an irregularly shaped, ever-changing bore which is neither conical nor cylindrical (Joe Wolfe, 2002). This helps account for many of the instrument's peculiar properties.




Ugo Conti (1988) has shown conclusively that the sound spectrum of the human whistle (in the most common method of whistling) contains a negligible degree of partials and for practical purposes is classified as a pure sine wave (i.e., no overtones, no undertones). This is further corroborated by modern spectrograms. This makes the human whistle closest in timbre to high-pitched varieties of the ocarina or recorder, though lacking their acoustical strength and depth. Its closest relative in the modern orchestra is the piccolo, whose compass is roughly equivalent.





Fig. 1: The pianoforte keyboard, showing standard music pitch nomenclature and the compasses of various instruments

Up until about a decade ago it was considered unusual even for performing whistlers to command a range of two-and-a-half octaves. The norm now is three octaves; some command four or more.

The human whistle is a sopranino instrument (or "piccolo instrument," to use a more ambiguous term) and reads treble clef at 8va. The developed compass usually approximates that of the modern piccolo, though exact compass and range varies with each whistler.

For comparison, approximate ranges of some other treble instruments are given below:


Piccolo and Flute: 3 octaves

Tin Whistle (a.k.a. penny whistle, Irish whistle): 2 octaves

Ocarina: 1 octave and a 2nd (some specialised models have greater compasses)


Oboe: 2 octaves and a 7th

Clarinet: 3 octaves and a 6th


Trumpet: 3 octaves

Horn: 3 octaves and a 5th


Violin: 4 octaves and a 5th or more (no real limit)


Piano (modern): 7 octaves and a 3rd


Soprano, Tenor, etc.: 2 octaves

Note: One must be very careful when assessing a whistler's range, however, since many who "whistle as a first instrument" may innocently claim, for example, c1-c2 as not one octave but two (see the "Middle C Myth," below). This notwithstanding it can still be seen that among the human whistle's numerous shortcomings, range is not one of them.




It has oft been suggested that whistlers, like singers, may be divided into distinct categories such as Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone, Bass, etc.; and indeed compass, like range, does vary with each individual. However, such a classification though ostensibly convenient is rarely accurate, since much is determined by the amount of practice the individual has spent developing his or her compass-- and at which end of that compass.

Like the developed compass, the natural compass also varies with each individual. The average length of the human vocal tract is about 17.5cm for adult males, 15cm for females, and still smaller for children, depending on physiological development (age). Correspondingly, natural compass is highest for children and lowest for adult males.

The bore-- in this case, the human vocal tract-- is not only irregular, but ever-changing in its dimensions, because it changes to accommodate different pitches and harmonic registers.

A survey is pending, but preliminary findings indicate that for adult males the lowest comfortable note is somewhere around b1 (493.88 Hz), whilst for females it is somewhere near d2 (587.33 Hz). However, this can be lowered significantly by individuals who have learned to extend their resonating vocal tract into the sublaryngeal region (something which is impossible for the human voice).

The higher end of the compass, on the other hand, is determined by two additional factors besides vocal tract length: 1) the length of the upper front teeth-- the longer, the lower one's highest note, since as the tongue elevates for higher pitch the air flow is increasingly more impeded by the presence of the upper front teeth; and 2) the number of overtones-- and thereby higher registers-- which one has mastered. For well-practiced individuals the latter may compensate for the former.

In the sporgendo (common) mode, the lowest note for adult males, so far as I've heard, appears to be f1; while theoretically there can be no limit on the highest note, since the number of overtones is infinite. Many individuals are capable of c5 or somewhat higher; though one of my colleagues is capable of a5 and I would not be surprised if c6 or even c7 can be reached by some.

As with range, however, the student should beware that many if not most accounts of whistling compass are unreliable, since (for reasons discussed elsewhere) there is only a very small overlap between serious whistlers who have spent considerable time with the instrument, and trained musicians familiar with standard musical notation and nomenclature.




With few exceptions no historical composer has ever written anything specifically for the human whistle, which makes it a pure transcription instrument. On the other hand, an adroit whistler has both the expressivity of the human voice and the flexibility of many wind instruments (through specialised techniques, some of which are described below). Therefore those who study artwhistling are not bound to the literature of the voice nor any single instrument; they are equally at home performing flute, trumpet, oboe, or even violin solo literature, and limited only by their technical mastery and understanding of music.



Acoustics and Mechanics of the Instrument

These topics are extraordinarily complicated and beyond the scope of this webpage. Many theories are either in dispute or have not yet been conclusively substantiated. The most up-to-date (and likely only) source for the nature of sound production and other physical properties of the human whistle takes place within our new Society (see link below).






Put simply, without perfect intonation whistling is rarely perceived as "real music." Since very few whistlers are capable of accurate intonation, this is the chief reason (other than perhaps popular image) why the Fine Arts community has found it so difficult to embrace the human whistle.



Acoustic Properties

The human whistle does not have the volume or acoustic depth of conventional instruments; fortunately we live in a day and age where microphones are easily accessible (the microphone must be carefully chosen).

Tone, like any instrument, has its good days and its bad days. There are many factors that can help eliminate acoustic impedance, including diet, drills, and external applications. No "magic formulae" have yet been conclusively proven to work consistently, but again this is one of many fascinating new topics now being discussed (see link below).

The human whistle's timbre lacks the rich overtones of most instruments. Its pure sine wave-- similar to the tones of electronic cash registers and other beeps-- is one reason why whistling annoys many people.






The advantage of range has already been briefly discussed. With proper development over time, a range of at least four octaves is quite feasible for most individuals. This equals or exceeds the range of most orchestral wind instruments.



Prestissimo ("Fast Whistling")

It is generally thought that the human whistle is not capable of anything more than 8th notes (quavers) in common metre; anything faster is considered to be "fast whistling" or some sort of technical anomaly. Yet in the music world, the ability to articulate 16th notes (semiquavers) or even 32nd notes (demisemiquavers) in rapid common metre is no "fancy trick," but a basic rudiment expected of all viable orchestral instruments. Ordinary glottalisation can yield clearly articulated 16th notes, while even faster notes are possible through one of several specialised techniques. In this respect the human whistle is comparable to all other orchestral instruments, while giving it a decisive advantage over the human voice.




Another technique emerging amongst modern artwhistlers is multiphonics, or whistling more than one note simultaneously. Though difficult to master (my colleagues have been far more successful than I), the human whistle offers much more control over the simultaneous pitches than for multiphonics in other wind instruments (though not as flexible as multiple-stopping on stringed instruments).



Circular Breathing

Each instrument has its own method of achieving circular breathing; for the human whistle this is a very simple matter. One need only alternate between egressive and ingressive whistling, for which the embouchures are nearly identical (although the same embouchure may produce slightly different pitches in either mode). For most people one mode usually sounds breathier than the other although this can be rectified with practice. Most performing whistlers can circular breathe to some extent although few are equally proficient in both modes; i.e., while a minority are more proficient in ingressive, most (like myself) are far more comfortable with egressive.




There are a wide variety of techniques that allow legato and other musical effects. Such techniques, however, should not be confused with the effects they produce. For example nodale, or crossing nodes between tones of the overtone series, may be used to produce legato, tenuto, etc. by varying the space between successive notes (linguists and acousticians: compare to voice onset time-- a wide range of values are possible whether positive, zero, or negative. Negative "whistled onset time" of a neighboring mode or "harmonic," incidentally, is responsible for one method of multiphonics).




A potentially tremendous value of whistling which has been overlooked by music educators is the fact that it is a universal and highly accessible instrument. It need not be bought, lagged around, carefully cleaned or maintained (too much), and whistlers don't need to find a practice room (though they should still be mindful of others). The human whistle allows the music of the Great Masters to be experienced first-hand by anyone, anywhere.




In 1988, the engineer/physicist Dr. Ugo Conti invented the first human-whistle-operated synthesizer. Some time ago I came across his patent, which had expired. The "Ugo One" was the original and larger model and offered more timbral options; the "Ugo Two" was smaller and cheaper. Such devices, however, demand laser-accurate intonation of the whistler; and even then, the whistler must be willing to invest a significant amount of time in mastering it, for this machine, as Conti affirmed many times, is an instrument just like any other. It is for this reason that neither model sold very well; thus only a half dozen or so were made. This is certainly not the end of the whistlesizer, however...




Human whistling is a largely unresearched topic and thus little understood; at the same time, it is universally accessible to anyone, regardless of musical background. As a result many confusing or ill-defined lay terms have come into popular circulation for which, fortunately for musicians, standard music terminology has already long existed.




"Warble" is a term used by ornothologists to describe bird behaviour. Whistling entertainers began using it around 1870-1910, when bird effects became a popular part of vaudeville whistling.

Because the term does not exist in the music lexicon, however, the exact musical meaning of "warble" depends on the whistler in question, who may (or may not) use it to denote any number of musical effects-- tremolo, trill, vibrato, and/or flutter-- through any number of articulation techniques, such as laterale*, nodale**, uvulare***, and/or portamento. Thus there are almost as many definitions of "warbling" as there are whistlers who use the term (some may even spell it "wharbling," instead).

To further complicate matters, the old Woodward School (see above) used the term "yodel" to describe what some might call a type of warbling/wharbling, though Agnes Woodward herself (1923) limits the term to mean laterale*.

In short, "warble" or "wharble" has no meaning in terms of music.

* i.e., lateral articulation; the effect which is generated by touching the roof of the mouth with the tongue as in pronouncing the sound of the letter "L" in most languages.
** Nodale is node-crossing, or alternation between two notes belonging to different modal (or "harmonic") registers.
*** Uvulare denotes uvular fricative, used for flutter in most wind instruments, though in artwhistling it has additional possibilities.



"The Whistler's Middle C Myth"

"I can whistle a Middle C!" One hears this claim countless times; and countless times, I've seen the claim retracted when confronted with evidence.

Both non-musicians and musicians, without adequate inspection, are prone to mistake human whistling tones for being an octave lower than they actually are. This is an easy mistake, since the human whistle's pure sine wave emits no overtones, in contrast to the rich overtones of the piano and other instruments.

Notes/Pitches and their frequencies:

c3 (1046.50 Hz)

c2 (523.25 Hz)

c1 (261.63 Hz) "Middle C"

c3-c1 descending C major scale (down to "Middle C")

Thus, by checking any sound frequency metre (found on most electronic metronomes) or by experimenting with the above sound samples, one will quickly discover that a "Middle C" among whistlers is in fact a much rarer phenomenon than many seem to believe. The point here is that whistlers play in the piccolo range (at 8va), not the flute range.

(Note: Scientists do not use musicians' standard pitch nomenclature, preferring instead a system where c1 is notated as C4, c2 as C5, etc. for mathematical reasons).




"Pucker" is a vulgar term most frequently associated with osculation. It is sometimes also used to describe the most common form of embouchure employed in human whistling-- i.e., the common linguistic phenomenon of lip rounding (as when pronouncing oo in "too"). Most lip rounding also involves lip protrusion (sporgendo), although a minority of rounding whistlers use little or no sporgendo.



Human Whistling as "Vocal"

Any activity in which the vocal cords do not vibrate is by definition not vocal. Although whistlers in the last century have heavily borrowed from vocal literature and emulated singing (see "History," above), instruments are of course classified according to the mechanism by which the periodic vibration of air molecules is set in motion. Both the human whistle and the human voice belong to separate subcategories of the wind instrument family: the voice forms its own unique subcategory, while the human whistle is a type of duct flute (see above).




There are many modes of human whistling, in which the tone is produced by various different means. A few are briefly described here; there are of course still others.



The Common Mode (Sporgendo)

As mentioned, the most common mode of whistling is that in which the lips are rounded as when pronouncing oo in school. Minor variants of this mode are semi- or non-sporgendo, where the sound is produced by the same means, but the lips are less protrudred or not protruded at all. The degree of sporgendo may vary.




A not uncommon mode of whistling is that in which the sound is produced by the tip of the tongue against the roof of the mouth; air is allowed to escape and a tone is formed from the hissing sound (a voiceless apico-alveolar fricative or sibilant). In this mode, the degree of roundedness may be used to help control the pitch.




Often used for fortissimo effects (which are usually associated with the non-musical, semaphoric function of commanding attention), there are many varieties of finger whistling, including yubibue, which enjoys enormous popularity in Japan (this term is also sometimes directly translated from Japanese to English, yielding the confusing term "finger flute").

All finger modes of whistling involve inserting one or more fingers into the mouth. The volume is usually loud but can be harnessed for musical purposes.



Handwhistling (Hand Ocarina)

This mode of human whistling is a Helmholtz resonator-- an ocarina formed with nothing but the player's hands. It is acoustically fuller and more powerful, but much less agile (developed range: 2 octaves or more; prestissimo, multiphonics, and other specialised techniques are not possible).



Throat whistling

I am often asked about "throat whistling," also known as "throat singing" or "overtone singing." Because of the way in which the sound is produced (see "III. Introducing the Instrument. Classification," above), this is a mode of singing, not whistling.




-- my humble opinions


Artwhistling vs. Whistling

Human whistling during the last one hundred years or so has belonged almost exclusively to the realm of personal enjoyment or light entertainment. Artwhistling, however, is ground-breaking in that it is human whistling adapted specifically for the performance of serious concert repertoire.

Musicians who have so far taken up artwhistling, it seems to me, have found their chief concerns to be 1) overcoming the natural and technical shortcomings of the instrument, such that performances comparable to those of any orchestral instrument are possible; 2) establishing the distinction between whistling and artwhistling, so that the practice can be received and assessed without prior bias; and 3) reaching artistically informed audiences as opposed to wide audiences or the general public who are simply interested in novelty.

Although at this early stage it may be tempting to capatalise on the novelty of our instrument, lasting success in the art world is never achieved by promoting some strange new instrument in lieu of good music. Novelty eventually wears off, so as musicians we must be realistic and honestly face the many shortcomings of this instrument. The music world does not care about "what can be done for whistling?" but rather "what can whistling do for music?"



On Voice Emulation

Modern performance whistling, though rarely heard, has been associated almost exclusively with solo vocal music-- for which the human whistle is very well-suited, and which all serious students of artwhistling, too, should include in their repertoire.

But again, one must always be realistic. Whistling is not only textless, but also very few people (except whistling enthusiasts themselves) consider the sound of whistling superior or equal to that of the human voice. Used only as an alternative to the human voice, performance whistling offers very little advantage other than novelty; and I believe this is why even during its zenith, voice-emulative whistling has always remained in the shadow of singing.



On Bird Emulation

This lack of advantage, in fact, seems to be what ultimately drove the introduction of bird-emulative techniques into certain performances of musical whistling in the late 19th century. In certain entertainment circles this "bird/musical whistling" gained a few practitioners some degree of popularity; however such whistling styles have never been embraced as a regular element in serious music. This is because, not surprisingly, "birdsong" despite its name has always been more well-received among bird enthusiasts than among music aficionados. This is reflected by the fact that non-musical, pure bird mimicry, has had more success than hybrid bird-musical forms.

The general public still retains a very strong mental association of all human whistling with bird mimicry. This is partly because of the past popularity of bird-emulative whistling, but also because many people have a natural whistling range which extends into the register of birds. This common imagery continues to be a difficult imagery-obstacle for artwhistlers.

But that is all we need say about "birdwhistling" at this point, for here lies an important distinction betweem whistling enthusiasts, who are interested in all applications of the human whistle, and musicians, whose sole agenda is music.

None of this is to suggest that any one type of performance whistling is "superior" to any other, but it is vital that audiences be made aware of the important distinctions, so that all whistlers have a chance to be heard before they are pre-judged on the basis of any one specific group.



On Technique and Musicality

We have seen that the human whistle is indeed capable of much more than human voice or bird emulation, though its instrumental potential is usually unknown and sometimes even brushed aside. Nowadays some whistlers have begun to tackle the technically more challenging instrumental literature, yet I have on several occasions heard comments, though not directed at myself, characterising these efforts as "showy trickery" which detracts from "true music."

Admittedly these accusations are not groundless, but they are neither new nor unique to whistlers. In every musical discipline, regardless of instrument, both performers and listeners alike have emphasised technical display at the expense of musicality.

However I think few people would condemn Jascha Heifetz or Chopin for their technical mastery. In fact every accomplished musician has always been renowned not for technique or musicality alone, but for how well they can combine the two. Technique and musicality are not mutually exclusive, therefore all musicians should try to master both types of repertoire. To do anything less is ignoring the full musical possibilities of the instrument-- like attempting to master the trumpet while refusing to accept double-tonguing, or violin without double-stopping. These are techniques, not tricks (so long as they have musical applications, of course). And with modern kunstpfeifen still in its earliest stage of development, the instrument's entire range of possibilities remain unknown; therefore it is vitally important that we keep an open mind to learning and exploring new techniques.



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