Steve Herbst is the world's most entertaining whistler. He's also the narrator of Pucker Up: The Fine Art of Whistling, a documentary showing at the Seattle International Film Festival (4 p.m. Monday, May 30, and 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 31, at Broadway Performance Hall, 1625 Broadway Ave.; 206-324-9996, www.seattlefilm.com), and a three-time recipient of the International Whistling Entertainer of the Year award. Herbst has lent his well-honed talent to a number of national television ads, and he recently contributed to the TV series Malcolm in the Middle. The charismatic whistling legend spoke with Seattle Weekly last week from his home in New York City.
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Seattle Weekly: What drew you to whistling when you were young?
Steve Herbst: My dad whistled, and I thought it was neat. Of all the things that he did, the two that struck my fancy were singing and whistling. And I just determined as a little fellow to see if I couldn't master whistling.
So you're self-taught?
Yes. Most whistlers are self-taught.
What's the difference between being an International Grand Champion and being Whistling Entertainer of the Year?
The International Grand Champion is determined by adjudicated competition. In other words, you have to compete in classical and popular categories, and the one who has the highest aggregate score of classical and popular selections becomes the International Grand Champion. The International Whistling Entertainer of the Year is determined by a nomination-and-ratification process.
What distinguishes your particular style of whistling from others?
For starters, you have two basic styles of whistling. Bird whistling is where the whistler tries to sound like a bird doing a song. The other style is what we call instrumental whistling. Instrumental whistling is where the whistler looks to sound like a musical instrument of some sort, being more faithful, perhaps, to the intention of the composer.
So a flute, for example?
Exactly. I get compared to flutes, trumpets, violins, oboes, clarinets, musical saws, and even a theremin.
How many hours do you practice every day?
You know, I don't really quantify 'em. I do practice every day—I whistle all the time. I whistle in the shower. I whistle when I'm walking my dogs. I whistle when I'm walking down the street. If you add it all up, it's probably one to two hours a day.
I know you're introducing Pucker Up at SIFF. Are you in it?
I'm in it. I'm also the narrator.
How did that come to be?
Well, the filmmakers [Kate Davis and David Heilbroner] did some research and found out about the International Whistlers Convention in [Louisburg] North Carolina, and they called down there and said: "We're looking to make this film, can you steer us to some whistlers?" And they were based in New York, so of course, they were referred to me. How I became the narrator was accidental. They were interviewing me and asking me: "Why isn't whistling as popular as it used to be? What happened?" I gave them a lot of information, and they felt what I had to say was so useful and articulate that they found archival footage that would depict what I was talking about.
Will people with no prior interest in whistling enjoy the film?
Yes. Obviously, [people] who are into whistling will flip out. I mean, they'll go crazy for it. People who are interested in this piece of Americana, and whistling is a piece of American folk art. . . . And people who are interested in the historical aspect, or people who are into music. All kinds of people will love this movie.