Fifty years ago, whistling was everywhere. Bing Crosby whistled. So did Julie Andrews. Disney's dwarves, mailmen, and even Elvis puckered up. Today it is rare to find whistling in the movies, much less on the street. The skill has, however, not completely disappeared. Every year a group of dedicated whistlers descends on Louisburg , North Carolina , for the five-day International Whistlers Convention, where they whistle popular and classical songs before a panel of judges.

What was once a symbol of simplicity is now a complicated pursuit. Instrumental whistlers imitate instruments such as the flute, oboe, violin or clarinet, while bird whistlers chirp and warble. Hand whistlers cup their hands around their mouths and blow air through their fingers, and roof whistlers let their jaws hang open while they produce sounds from the back of their mouths, like ventriloquists. Ever whistle through your teeth? That's called tongue-and-palate. Then there is the tricky duotone, a two-note harmony produced by whistling out of both sides of the mouth. The most popular whistling technique, however, remains the pucker. “It's lips pursed, like you're giving a kiss,” explained Steve “The Whistler” Herbst, three-time recipient of the IWC Entertainer of the Year award, who sticks to the pucker in most of his performances.

Herbst was drawn to whistling as a boy because it could be done anywhere. He whistled on his way to school, in his bedroom, in the yard and by his teenage years, he had developed a three-octave whistling range. (Most people, he says, have a range of one and half octaves, while some professional whistlers can do four.) He started performing in public incollege, whistling flute parts to accompany the University of Pennsylvania glee club. While practicing, he said, “People would stick their heads in my dorm room and say, ‘What was that?' And I would say, ‘Oh, that was Beethoven's Seventh.”

In 2002, Herbst quit his job as a Manhattan advertising executive to become a full-time professional whistler. He now spends his time shuttling back and forth between media appearances, TV commercial work, and performances. His work is proof that “whistling is an idea whose time has returned,” he said. He recently did a spot for Verizon in which he imitated the sound of a synthesized theremin, a instrument with an eerie, hollow sound. “Nowadays, musicians are being replaced left and right by synthesized instruments,” he said. “So to be hired to replace a synthesized instrument was a nice coup.”

Important whistlers:

Whistlin' Tom:

Geert Chatrou
Terry Rappold
Kimiko Wakiyama