How Not to Whistle: A Love Story in 5 Parts
An ode to everyone who failed to teach me how to whistle, but gave me other gifts instead
I began learning how not to whistle when I was starring in the first grade class play, Snow White Thinks Twice. A progressive twist on the classic fairy tale, the play featured a Snow White who knew better than to take food from strangers and so never had to be rescued by the prince.
I had gotten the lead because I was quick at memorizing lines, and, it turned out, I was also quick at learning songs. The only thing I needed to do for my part that did not come naturally was to whistle. Not just one, but two of my songs had solos that required whistling: “Whistle While You Work,” from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” from the musical The King and I.
My parents tried to teach me how to whistle at the dinner table. My sister, who was five, got it almost right away. The way I remember it, even my three-year-old brother got it. I was the only one who continued to make soft, pathetic little whistle-wheezes through her front teeth. My mom told me to practice in front of the mirror, which I did, in the bathroom, in my room, everywhere I felt alone.
It was all in vain. No matter how I contorted my face or how diligently I practiced, I never managed to produce anything remotely close to a satisfactory whistle. Luckily, enough of my classmates got the whistling thing that with some artful choreography, they could more or less cover up the fact that the lead actress was whistle-syncing.
The play was a hit. I loved being on stage. The best part was that my teacher told my parents I absolutely must be enrolled in piano lessons, which was something I had wanted since before I could remember. So, the first time I learned how not to whistle, I gained a ticket to one of my greatest loves in life: the piano.
The second time I learned how not to whistle was at a piano camp in Indiana eight years later. I had made friends with a boy who was a year older than me. Both of us were from small towns where we didn’t have much exposure to the larger world of classical music. We felt ourselves outsiders at…