When Steve Herbst was a young boy living
in Flatbush he whistled all the way to school. After school,
he shut his door and whistled along to the sounds of Sergei Prokofiev’s
"Peter and the Wolf" blaring from his record player
while imitating the various instruments representative of different
Amazingly, Herbst’s family did not know about the magnitude of his whistling talent until just a few years ago, when he officially became Steve "The Whistler" Herbst, International Grand Champion of Whistling.
Now, at age 58, he lives his life much the same as he did when he was a boy, practicing what he calls the "lost art" of whistling while walking his dogs or on long car rides in the country. (His license plate reads "WHISTLR.")
Only today, Herbst’s rare skill has attracted a following; he gets fan letters from across the globe. He has whistled background music in television commercials and performed with guitar great Les Paul and his trio as well as with the Little Orchestra Society at Avery Fisher Hall.
Make no mistake about it, Steve "The Whistler" Herbst is serious about his whistling. So serious that he refuses to share the name of the brand of "secret" lip balm he uses to protect his lips from chapping or drying.
"Lip balm is essential to [their] protection," Herbst told GO Brooklyn in a recent phone interview. "It isn’t just for skiers."
On this particular afternoon, in which the temperature barely reached 21 degrees Fahrenheit, Herbst took extra precautions while walking his dogs and visiting the doctor - using lip balm and zipping the collar of his parka up to his nose.
"Without my lips, I’m out of business," added Herbst.
Although he enjoys Chinese food, he has to watch the degree of spiciness with which it is made. Herbst recalled one occasion when he indulged in too much extra-spicy food, causing his lips to numb. Herbst says that he then had to use lots of cold water to revive them.
"I learned that it’s not good to go near spicy food when I have to perform," Herbst said.
So Herbst monitors everything he does, including his hobbies. Although he is a black belt in tae kwon do, he tries his best to avoid physical contact. Instead he works on perfecting his form and practicing self defense to avoid touching others. After all, a blow to the face could set his whistling schedule back for days.
Herbst is also very serious about his whistling as an art form. He doesn’t joke about it, except for an improvisational one-liner or two during a performance.
"If it’s a 45-minute concert, I’ll have a bottle of water on stage," Herbst said. "When necessary, I’ll pause between songs for a sip of water, informing the audience, ’You’ll have to excuse me while I wet my whistle,’" he said with a chuckle.
But whistling is a serious business for Herbst. In the past couple of years, he has worked on commercials for Rockaway Bedding, Verizon DSL and Eight O’Clock Coffee.
"Verizon hired me to replace the sounds of the Theremin they had been using, because they thought my whistle was eerier," Herbst said.
The Theremin is an electronic instrument often used for high tremolo effects in horror films, so it seems that Herbst’s talent is remarkably versatile. Unfortunately, he doesn’t ever use that popular eerie whistle to spook his wife of 15 years, Melinda.
He doesn’t perform often with other whistlers because "it’s hard to be compatible and can often be cacophonous." He does, however, have a list of musicians and orchestras with whom he’d like to perform including Bobby McFerrin ("Don’t Worry, Be Happy"), the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Mandy Patinkin, Linda Eder, Carly Simon and the New York Philharmonic.
Like the aforementioned performers, Herbst’s musicianship has garnered him several awards. At the 2002 International Whistlers Competition in Louisburg, N.C. (at the International Whistlers Museum, of course), Herbst won the International Grand Champion award in the adult male category. In both 2003 and 2004, Herbst won the International Whistling Entertainer of the Year award.
Part of Herbst’s success stems from his artistic family. Before he died, Herbst’s father painted, sculpted, sang and played many instruments. Herbst says that his brother David mastered 10 instruments by high school. Although his father whistled on car rides, no other family member mastered it quite like Herbst. Without even realizing it, those early days with "Peter and the Wolf" helped him to develop sonorities and today he proudly boasts that he can whistle in a three-octave range.
In this range, Herbst whistles rhythm and blues, Irish, Italian, classical, jazz, and Broadway show tunes throughout the United States as well as in local venues like the Iridium jazz club in Manhattan, the Cotton Club in Harlem, and Galapagos in Williamsburg.
"I like to perform songs that stand the test of time," Herbst said.
Some of his favorites include George Gershwin’s "Summertime" from the opera "Porgy and Bess" and Claude Debussy’s "Clair de lune." This past March, Herbst performed his "signature" tune, "Oh Danny Boy," at a special St. Patrick’s Day pre-parade breakfast for Gov. George Pataki and other guests.
On a regular basis, Herbst makes phone calls, schedules performances, promotes his whistling, and sometimes coaches aspiring whistlers. He also answers fan mail.
"People ask for advice and I encourage them to keep practicing," Herbst said.
He has many admirers that share his passion for whistling and seek some inspiration of their own in a world where whistling has slipped away from the spotlight. Some purchase his CD, "Broadway and Beyond," for gifts, while others for personal enjoyment - parrots included.
"One woman told me that before she touches the play button on her CD player, her parrot leads in song," Herbst said. "Another fan has a parrot that now whistles ’Maria’ from ’West Side Story’ when she comes home."
According to Herbst, his CDs were even carried by two Manhattan bird shops. (He does not, however, perform with parrots.)
While Polly might want a cracker, Herbst does not. When asked if he’s ever attempted a daredevil stunt such as eating crackers and attempting to whistle, he scoffed at an interviewer’s lack of understanding and compassion for the art.
"I avoid anything that will interfere with my whistling," Herbst said.
Whistling became Herbst’s full-time profession less than a year ago, when he retired from a 35-year career in advertising. His only goal now is to fully embrace his art.
"I’m always doing it for my own fun and gratification," Herbst said. "I haven’t lost the pleasure in it for the last 50 years."
From the sound of it, he never will.
"Broadway and Beyond" by Steve
"The Whistler" Herbst is available for $17. For more
information about his upcoming performances, and how to purchase
his music, visit www.stevet