In April, whistlers from around the world head for Louisburg, N.C., to show off their talent at the International Whistler's Convention.
Emily Eagen has twice been among them. Like most great whistlers, she started early. One day when she was 7 and riding in the car with her father, he whistled the theme from a TV show, and Emily joined in with her own rendition.
She admits that when she was a kid she sometimes whistled just to be annoying, but now she puckers up for the pure joy of it. Her favorite place to whistle is in a big, hollow space, such as a stairwell. Large, tiled bathrooms work nicely, too.
Whistling is mainly a solo skill practiced on walks, indoors, or while driving around. But what many good whistlers discover is that some day, if they're good enough, someone will talk them into performing.
Ms. Eagen's friends encouraged her to go onstage the first time for a talent show when she was in college. She was so nervous that she covered her eyes and most of her face with a baseball cap. "I knew if I looked at the audience, I would laugh," she says, so she kept her eyes closed and whistled a haunting melody called "Ashokan Farewell" into the microphone. The crowd was amazed.
A few years later, when she was 24 years old, she became an International Grand Champion, and won the title again the following year.
Her whistle is high, like a piccolo. She likes to whistle what she calls "sparkly pieces" – music with lots of highs, lows, and trills. One of her favorites is "When You Wish Upon a Star" from "Pinocchio."
"It's a wonderful piece to whistle because it's dreamy and drifts waaay up high," she says, noting that she feels a little like Jiminy Cricket when she whistles it.
Of course, there are people who don't find whistling much fun at all. Sailors are sometimes superstitious that whistling on board ship can bring on a storm.
Even people who like whistling can get annoyed if they have to listen to it in a car or elevator. But ask a whistler, and many will say it brings them a feeling of well-being and self-confidence. Think of the Seven Dwarfs swinging their lunch pails, shouldering their tools, and heading home after work, whistling, "Heigh, ho, heigh, ho, it's home from work we go" or "Whistle While You Work," and it's hard not to smile.
Most of the time, whistling doesn't get the respect it deserves. But in April each year that changes. That's when the annual International Whistler's Convention takes over the historic town of Louisburg, which calls itself the "whistling capital of the world." The town of 3,000 nearly doubles in size during the event.
Contestants flock to Louisburg to size up the competition and mingle with others who share their unusual talent. Teachers, scientists, sailors, and salespeople come from as far away as Hawaii and China to perform. In fact, so many registered this year that the judging started early in the morning to accommodate them all.
It all began in 1974, when a contestant at the local folk festival asked if he could whistle his original tune instead of singing it. When he returned the next year, he stirred interest in a separate whistling event. Now in its 34th year, the convention is a magnet for performers from around the world. The best of the best will walk away with a trophy, a cash prize, and the title of International Grand Champion in one of four divisions: men, women, teenagers, and children.
On the day of the contest, people line up backstage, waiting for their turn at the microphone. They step forward and whistle like birds, making flutelike sounds. Some whistle so flawlessly they sound like machines. Most use the pucker-up technique. Some whistle with an open mouth, moving their cheeks in and out. Others whistle from the throat with their mouth wide open, like a hungry baby bird. Some whistle into cupped hands, and others whistle loudly, with two fingers.
The whistlers pour out tunes full of trills, warbles, and bell tones. The cascading notes fill the auditorium and a hush falls over the audience. Their mouths are open, too, but no sound is coming out. That's what happens when you hear someone whistle a complex piece, such as the "The Flight of the Bumblebee." You stare at the whistler's mouth, see the microphone, and still it's hard to believe your ears.
To keep a tune flowing, it helps to whistle while taking in air as well as letting it out. But some people whistle only while taking air in.
All that blowing can dry your lips, and that's not good, because the air makes better sounds when it moves over a wet surface. Whistlers go through a lot of lip balm and a mysterious mixture called "canned spit."
It's all part of the strange and wonderful world of whistling. Most of all, it's fun.
"When I whistle," says Ms. Eagen, "I get to look up and see people smile."
She enjoys doing whistling demonstrations for elementary schoolchildren, thrilling them with notes that float and soar and with wacky ones that loop around and glide back down.
She winds up with familiar tunes – "Three Blind Mice." The children whistle along, with varying success. "Some mostly hum," she says, "and that's fine, too."