The calm of an afternoon music class in a four-story building in Tokyo’s central Yutenji district is ever so slightly disturbed by the noise of cars on the street outside. But the five students there appear entirely unconcerned as they keenly strain their ears to the sparkling melodies of “Edelweiss” performed . . . by whistling.
Kimiko Wakiyama whistles to a ukulele accompaniment, using vibrato and dynamics as freely as if her lips were a violin and her tongue its bow. But Wakiyama, the instructor of the whistling class, is no mere playful oral puckerer; in fact she was women’s champion at this year’s International Whistlers Convention in April in North Carolina.
“We start by practicing breathing,” she says after the demonstration, as she moves toward the mirror wall. Students stand there, look at their reflections, and learn how to breathe by closely observing their bodies — especially their lower abdomens. To produce a long and beautifully modulated whistling tune, having deep “abdominal breathing” is a key, Wakiyama explains — as Peter Bjorn And John’s “Young Folks” provides BGM.
In fact, helped by the popularity of the Swedish band’s song with its whistled intro, whistling as a serious musical form has become more popular in Japan of late. Nonetheless, few may realize that the country boasts a champion.
A range of three octaves
“I’ve been whistling since I was a kid, like many other people,” Wakiyama said in an interview with The Japan Times. “Then I thought that if I can whistle the musical scale accurately, and I practice rhythm and vibrato, then I would be able to whistle as if I were playing a musical instrument.”
Now, after untold hours of practice, Wakiyama can whistle across a range of three octaves, which means almost all vocal music is within her scope.
But Wakiyama’s passion for whistling comes not only from her love of music. She also whistles because she loves birds.
“Oh, today in the street I heard this bird’s song,” she said during the class before imitating how it sounded. “Does anybody know what kind of bird this is?” she asked — prompting an earnest discussion among her students.
“I try to speak to birds and enjoy their reactions, sometimes in the street and sometimes in friends’ homes where they have parakeets,” she said. “I want to chat with them. It is just like if you want to chat with somebody you like.”
Wakiyama, who majored in vocal music and piano at university, got a job teaching piano after she graduated — while occasionally giving whistling performances to a piano accompaniment.
But now, at age 34, Wakiyama — who played Debussy’s “Arabesque” and the jazz standard “On the Sunny Side of the Street” in her überwhistle in America — is top of the global tree in her chosen musical form — to the amazement of many who had never before taken whistling seriously.
“I often whistle but I’d never thought there are people who whistle as a musical performance in front of audience,” said Kuniko Fukai, who is in her 60s, and is one of the students in Wakiyama’s class. “I was surprised to hear about the international whistling competition, but then I came here to learn whistling from the world’s number one.”
Currently, Wakiyama holds whistling classes in two locations in Tokyo where people of all ages come to learn how to transform their sonic exhalations into musical performances.
“Before, men dominated the classrooms and I was often asked why I was so good at whistling even though I am a woman,” Wakiyama says. “But recently I have had more women students.”
Tightly puckered lips
Modestly, though, Wakiyama says that anyone can whistle beautifully if they practice properly. One of the keys to whistling wonderfully is to pucker up your lips very tightly using the muscles around your mouth. “If you use those muscles, you can control the strength of your whistling sound very well to play music,” she says.
It may take time to become a maestro on your own airwaves, Wakiyama concedes, but the possibilities of whistling are endless, she says. If you can span three octaves with your breathy expulsions, she notes, you can play not only most of the world’s vocal music, but also many instrumental pieces if you can also enlist your sonic inhalations, too.
“Basically, you can whistle more beautifully when you exhale, but you can try and whistle when you inhale — which makes it possible to play many more types of music,” she says.
What drives Wakiyama, though, isn’t just a quest for personal acclaim — but an ambition to change the image of whistling from something people do in the bath or while walking down long winding roads alone, to a performance art. It’s that, she says, that motivates her to take her art to the highest level she can.
But she has yet to realize her real dream, she says. “My ultimate ambition is to duet with a large parrot,” she says. “But it is not that easy. I have to train the parrot to sing the song in the right tune first. Then I will have to whistle in duet with the bird. We need time and practice.”