Why I Love to Whistle: A History

Barefoot Prodigy by Martha Moore                                (Barefoot Prodigy by Martha Moore)

Most people came from musical families; I knew this was fact when I was a child. They were my neighbors, schoolmates and friends. I was just one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students in my Midwest town’s public education music program. It encouraged students who tested well on standardized music tests in the fourth grade to take up an instrument. My father developed and oversaw the program, so I was glad I passed. I looked forward to participating in school and learning at home.

I was the last of five children to coach. I had tried violin before kindergarten. Though I liked it, I wanted to play what my sisters played: the cello. It just sounded better than any other instrument I had heard, except for the trumpet with its sparkling cheer or melancholic sweep of sounds. Since dad was known as “a string man” I surmised the trumpet would not be the best choice. I considered the French horn, as well, but never mentioned it; it seemed too formal somehow. The trumpet appealed to the dreaminess of a properly raised child straining to be free (and later jazz drew me like honey draws bees). I must have heard it played in that style on the few records of big band music we listened to occasionally. Dad had played lots of instrument as a younger man, including the saxophone and clarinet–he liked reed instruments. Brass seemed less favored; the violin and viola were his chosen instruments.

As I worked at learning piano as well (I sought minimal skills, enough to I could justify making up songs on the baby grand), I took up the commanding cello. I fell in love with its stirring elasticity, its resonant notes responding to the briefest pressure from my bow and fingers. Its power startled me. Sometimes I felt it took over, leaving me breathless, anxious to catch up–to what? What did all that music mean? It was a mystery what could happen with practice and critical feedback and more sweating over tedious exercises that led me to sonatas and concertos. The years brought private lessons, innumerable performances in orchestras, solos at concerts and competitions, summer music camps. I played the harp for a year or two, but I wanted to do with the cello what my oldest sister did. She would go on to become a professional cellist (as a female cousin did, as well) though I had a suspicion by fifteen it was not to be. My middle sister had ditched cello for bassoon; it was the perfect choice for her. My brothers? They played violin, viola, clarinet, oboe, flute, saxophone between them. Everyone sang, but have patience with me on that one. They became paid musicians as well, eventually.

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But ambitions aside, music just belonged to me, and I, to it. All of us lived our lives imbued with its powerful force as well as a responsibility of making music and making it well. The family DNA supplied musical scores and an impulse to master instruments. We were the proverbial ducks born to swim, submerged at birth then quickly floating our way through music-making, music history, music theory. Except for my mother. She championed us all, hummed along, played a bit here and there on the piano. Her pleasure in our music and the applause of audiences offset my father’s critical analyses. It took all this to do well, then excel.

But although the cello found, loved me, even let me romance it back, all this time I was also doing something else, in private and on stages. I was singing. There you have it: three words I spent over five hundred words not writing. I have thought about this post ever since I mentioned elsewhere that when I write poetry it feels as though I am writing songs. It took me back to all this music business, the singing issue.

Try to imagine that singing is speech: you open your mouth and songs slip out as the native language. To give any other a whirl feels unfamiliar, even clumsy. Life is not a musical, exactly, but it is clearly something to be sung about. I wanted to sing all day long, in school, on the ice rink, in the pool, at the desk where there was homework waiting. Of course I sang at church but also while riding my bike, walking on the street. I needed to sing past bedtime when mother called up the stairs to turn out the light. I didn’t want to obey, could not. Songs were happening and they were not done with me. They were musical poems that lingered, danced, crested on words, a language that sang out, and my body and soul were the instruments. I would whisper the melodies if needed. And in the morning when I awakened, the song awaited me like a lovely puzzle, a tantalizing desire. A blessing. Sometimes I would take it to the piano when all the house was empty or strum my guitar. And singing on stage felt no different from singing from our maple’s treetop. It gave me profound joy like little else, opened up the universe, connected me to life’s deep soulfulness. It felt natural.

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But it ended, which brings us closer to the whistling part.

It was a gradual separation that began in earnest after sexual and other assaults were survived, substances used to endure the fall-out. Finally and also importantly, time constraints developed along with unexpected choices. I grew up and married at twenty, but not to a musician–that happened much later. I attended college, studied art, psychology, sociology and writing, not music. Not being fully engaged with my passion, it became neglected. Or I neglected it because it was too close to what mattered most, so far from my reach I felt it leaving me daily. It all resulted in a terrible ache, a longing for something that felt no longer possible to recapture, refine. Rather than feel as though I was a walking wound again, I left music. It was that or try to find it in fragments, in random pieces of time and space. I have a practical streak. I turned away, went on with my life.

I did continue to play my cello off and on when alone but my now-untried skills failed to uphold what my ear needed to hear. I sang to myself, to the babies that were rocked with lullabies, who danced to music made up together. It was there, the music, all that time, like a fragrance that pervades the atmosphere but faintly. Occasionally I harmonized softly with my second husband, in the privacy of home. But it had changed, and my voice had been transformed from soprano to alto from having too many cigarettes and drinks. Life can challenge dreams; we all have them, often change or lose them. For much of my family, the music played on. For me, it quieted, then was finally silenced in one regard: I could no longer sing. This is reality. I don’t kid myself even though I do let my voice out for a phrase or two in church. Even joined a couple choirs years back and found it physically and emotionally taxing to create the necessary sounds. I put it back in a secret place where it hibernates, having forgotten what it used to do.

But wait, there is still music that surfaces. I could and can whistle. No  other other animal can do it though there must be approximations. Whistling is undervalued and overlooked. Its wordlessness makes a case for relationship to instrumental music, my opinion. I have heard people whistle from exuberance or sorrow, offer an aria or a pop tune or something that makes no sense at all but is catchy, at least for the whistler. It can be as impressive an art as any other. There are competitions for whistlers, I have found. But kids can do it in time. I am no expert, but I can still purse my lips and blow as though on, say, a trumpet’s mouthpiece, yet the instrument is my own body. Like singing, yes? The notes are created by altering the shape of the mouth inside and out, by regulating the air from diaphragm to chest to throat and sinus cavities then out. A cinch. Before long, I may be working up a C major or D minor scale, then catching the drift of a tune, resilient, sweeping across space. Whistling may be cheap, even proletarian entertainment, but it is its own reward and then some. It makes people happy, including me.

The whistler’s music, for me, can be a generous smattering of auditory star dust that glimmers and rises on a whim. Islands of notes erupting from a landscape that feels like home. Sun dapples and rain splatters of sound that make me smile, remember. When whistling, I know I have forgotten nothing of what music means to me–I’m not talking about my taste preferences or how it relates to my philosophical or spiritual ideologies–but what it means to my innermost being. What I cannot sing today, I can whistle with precision and subtlety, a dash of friskiness. Maybe one day it will be a prelude to something that can flower with more attention. Nobody’s testing me for virtuosity. I don’t have to win a prize anymore.

article-new_ehow_images_a01_uq_ce_teach-child-whistle-800x800Classical? Modern jazz? The old standards? A favorite number from musicals or a pop tune? Try me! But it is likely you will have to catch me unaware. I don’t perform for anyone but myself and that’s finally good enough for me.

(Note: A print of the painting at the top of this post hung in my childhood bedroom and, later, in my parents’ den.)

Bonnie and Me

I recently was gifted with a ticket to a Bonnie Raitt concert. It came from one of my closest friends, who has treated me a few times over the years for no reason in particular that I can tell, except that I am lucky to be her friend. We always have nearly front row seats. This venue was Edgefield, just outside of Portland, so we enjoyed the embrace of sky and sun, with gusty winds out of the Columbia Gorge to enhance our experience. The moon showed up bold and bright halfway through and cast a benevolent glow.

We didn’t need anything else to improve our mood, although lots of people were enjoying beer and wine, and smoking pot only a bit surreptitiously. Likely a lot of other substances were involved, from the looks of the exuberant women and keen-eyed men. My friend and I haven’t had a drink or drug in over twenty years. We had long ago partied our way in and out of concert halls and music festivals and only remembered about half of them. So we were missing out on nothing this night.

What we had tickets for was the promise of inspiration, joyful sass and a low down bluesy melancholy that only Bonnie Raitt can do the way she does, with her slide guitar finesse and her panoramic voice. When she lets loose an edgey crescendo, you stand up and cheer. When she lifts a tender note from the bitter depths, you weep or nearly so. As love moves into the limelight the cadence of desire builds longing. And when she struts across the stage, shakes that mane of red hair and teases the audience with a still-smoldering playfulness, you realize how long and winding a road it has been for her, and for you.

Her songs have likely chronicled many lives–hers, the other songwriters’, and ours. Mine, for certain. Her music has carried me and cleared my vision; it has offered me relief. When things failed, Bonnie’s music undid the ruin for at least a few moments. She wound me up and let me down easy and it was all because she sang what mattered most.

I remember first listening to her in the mid-seventies. I would have sought her out sooner but I was a late bloomer. I had been trained in and raised on classical music, so when I decided to act up and venture into the musical hinterlands, I fiercely attached myself to Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and Gordon Lightfoot to name a few, with a smattering of Moody Blues, Cream and Chicago thrown in. My older sister, living in Washington after a few years in exotic California, exposed me to a new variety of musicians, and Bonnie Raitt was one.

Despite having bought a couple of earlier albums, Bonnie’s songs are actually cemented in my memory druing the year 1979. I had come to the conclusion my first marriage was ending, despite hanging on to the last shred of hope. There seemed so little I could do to make sense of it. But I was a writer and writing it out was what I did whenever the kids were in bed, after the sun vanished. I would listen to the deer snuffling outside, eating our beautiful corn, drink wine and write poetry that illuminated too little. And I played music softly, hoping for a small miracle of one sort or another.

By then I had very limited emotional space within me for music. Complicated situations wherein I had given up the pursuit and pleasures of music had left me unable to hear most of it, as it caused vivid pain. But sometimes I gave in to my increasing hunger for music and listened to classical artists and symphonies and a few other carefully chosen musicians. Bonnie Raitt was one of the few who spoke to me, and enabled me to speak back. Alone in the house at times, I would sing with her. It felt alright even when it hurt. In fact, it finally felt like a healing when I listened to, then learned the song “Two Lives”. What I couldn’t quite say, the chorus said:

“Some said time would ease the pain, two lives love has torn apart;

I believe whoever wrote that song, never had a broken heart.”

Bonnie Raitt’s music helped me find the strength to grieve and move on. I played her albums The Glow and Sweet Forgiveness over and over that year. They got me through along with Bach cello suites (some of which I attempted to play on my beloved cello), and a few other treasures.

There were many other songs that reflected, cushioned or celebrated events over the next four decades of my life. “The Glow” was an ode to the terrible comfort of a drink when there seemed nothing else. “Nick of Time” speaks to our mortality and the surprising love that is found along the way. “Silver Lining” is sort of a hymn to me: despite madmen and fools, despite all that we fight for and against, we need to take the light and shine it all around, as “the light don’t sleep”. She sings: “The only things worth living for are innocence and magic, amen.” And she makes her  message perfectly clear in “I Will Not Be Broken.”

She probably sings about love the best, all the varieties, whether it triumphs or crashes and burns. And for me that is a good thing, as although I am as fascinated by love as anyone else, it has been a confounding part of my life, full of flash and bite, heat and shadows, and the long still points of no return. If there is one thing I have tried to write about and felt I have missed the mark too often, it is the mystery and mastery of love. But not Bonnie Raitt or her fabulous songwriters. Just play “Love Sneakin’ Up On You”, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “Wherever You May Be.” The list gets very long. I have heard them all by now, many times.

But the September concert with my dear friend is one that will stay with me. We have shared a lot over the years, including a love for this music. And, like Bonnie, I think,  we are both fighters who have learned when to stand up and when to step away; we have found some peace.  When dancing rises up in our bones and blood it may be with a sigh as well as a shout these days. We have done and witnessed some things hard to forget, had our lives hijacked and taken them back. We’ve found happiness easier to create than to wait for, and we laugh a lot.

So, we sit up–or stand–close at Bonnie Raitt’s concerts and hear about risking it all for love but not the loss of our souls. Being revolutionary in our everyday lives by having mercy and not giving up, by being fully present and accountable. Finding the silver inside the blues. And having fun for no good reason.

So I hang out with Bonnie just as much as I used in my twenties. She sings my tunes. And I still sing her songs in moments of solitude. And when the music comes–it roars awake as it always did, after all these years–I feel right at home again. So, thanks, Bonnie. I’ll be up front whenever you come to town again.