How many competitions did you have to win to become the ‘world champion whistler’?
I got into whistling competitions when I was 11, and continued to compete right up to college. Every year [the major event] was held at a different place, and competitors came from all over the world. It really is an international affair, because whistling knows no language. I think I competed in five of these competitions.
What are the competitions like?
It’s a filtering process: there are different categories of whistling and you have to win across all categories. There is pop, classical and jazz. If they decide they want to do something bluegrass or salsa, you have to go with the flow. It can also be interpretive whistling.
So you don’t prepare the songs?
[Yes,] you have to choose your own songs. [And] the right song can make or break your whistling performance – it can really show your range, and the technique of the whistling tends to be better.
Which songs do you usually perform?
Classical was what I loved the most, and studied. Mozart actually [lends itself] very well to whistling. A lot of children also love Mozart, because they are able to capture something that’s very sprightly. I whistled the aria from The Magic Flute – there are a lot of high notes that help [children] distinguish the whistling for all the characters. Anything that has a lot of high notes also seems to impress the judges.
Do you feel that children can relate to whistled tunes?
I think whistling is something that almost anyone can do. I know I whistled before I could play the piano – I was three, and was inspired by my pet canary, and the magic of having [my] first pet. I think birds are really smart, and they are like people in a way – they have personalities.
How do you practise for competitions?
I used to whistle, [and Sunshine] my canary would join in – he would think of his own melodies. We wrote them down. I still remember some of them to this day, though unfortunately canaries don’t have the longest lifespan. I would have to harmonise with him – he did his own thing. Now I have an African grey parrot that has no sense of pitch or melody [laughs]. She just goes and it’s actually quite loud.
Any whistler’s tricks or secrets you can reveal? Are hand movements essential in whistling, à la Mariah Carey?
No, I’ve never used the hands for whistling. Some people can whistle with [their] fingers in their mouths. I’ve never tried. For me, it’s the position of the lips and the tongue.
Can you describe your technique?
The tongue presses against the bottom row of teeth, and then you just blow air out. Make sure that no air comes out of the nose. To adjust the pitch, adjust the tightness of the ‘O’-shaped pursed lips – the smaller the hole, the higher the frequency. If your face muscles feel very tight after whistling, open your mouth really wide and shake out the tension.
So whistling is not an innate ability?
No, it’s definitely something that can be worked on. Like singing, it uses a muscle, and the more you exercise it, the bigger the improvement. Like any skill in life, some people have more aptitude for it than others. I can’t snap my fingers and I’m terrible at tennis, but my facial muscles are [well developed].
You don’t have to possess big lungs?
Well, it all depends on the kind of whistling. In 3rd and Bird [the BBC show Barimo is involved in], there’s a wide range of characters – it ranges from a very innocent little whistle to a virtuosic whistle that requires a lot of lung power.
So you do all the whistling on 3rd & Bird?
Yes. It’s really the best job a whistler could have. The show creators are very adamant about keeping it organic – they don’t use any synthesizers or adults doing the children’s voices – they use real children. And they really want to make it more of a pure musical experience for children, because there is so much noise that kids are exposed to, whether it’s Pokémon, or just loud sounds and violence. With this [show], kids can have a little break – a simpler, but more rewarding experience while watching television. In my opinion, it’s a really noble call.
Who do you like performing for more, children or adults?
It’s hard to say. You know, I write songs, I sing them. That’s one of the facets of my career I’ve been developing a lot lately. I dream of coming to Singapore one day and performing. [Pop music aside,] it’s nice to go back and perform for the children because there are so many things I don’t have to worry about. Children are a very pure audience. They’re not going to judge, you know, the fashion of your pants. It’s truly just about the love of music.
Do you think it helps to inspire or develop a love for music, in children?
Music, and the appreciation of it, stay with you to the end of your life. When kids learn to appreciate that, it also enriches their brains, and I’m sure their studies [too]. The more kids can be exposed to quality music, which I think is really one of the missions of 3rd & Bird, then that’s all the better.
3rd & Bird will soon be broadcast in Singapore. What can we expect from the show?
It has the most beautiful saturated visuals – the colours are so intense, and to me it’s like looking at an Indian painting. The detail that goes into the animation is so specific, and then they have the music there. There’s very little actual dialogue – a lot of the information’s conveyed through the songs.
You studied Italian literature and anthropology at Columbia College in Vancouver. Did your education help you to interact with your audience better?
Yes, [anthropology] helps me appreciate interacting with kids, interpret stories and understand a lot of the human experience, [and] Italian is a very physical language.
What was it like being the first person to whistle at [New York’s] Carnegie Hall?
It was really incredible and humbling, [especially since] whistling is something a lot of people may not take seriously. It meant that at least [whistling] was getting recognition as an artistic pursuit – not just a gimmick or a silly trick, but something that requires a lot of preparation and care.
You’ve worked with bigwigs like Andrea Bocelli.
[Yes, he is] completely inspiring, one of the most magical people I’ve ever interacted with. He has the most amazing voice, and sensitive artistry, as well as a good heart. I’m inspired when I think about my experience working for him.
Did you ever whistle with him?
No, I haven’t heard him whistle yet [laughs]. I’ve asked him about it. Maybe he’s shy [laughs]. An unknown fact is that he plays the flute very well. So, close to whistling.
If you could work with absolutely anyone, who would it be?
Someone like Shakira. Her music sounds Middle Eastern, it sounds Latin, and she always has such great orchestration.
Any words of encouragement for aspiring whistlers?
Absolutely. First of all, if you’re a child and you can’t whistle, don’t worry. You might still be able to whistle because your lips will [change]. When I started, I couldn’t whistle very well. Just keep trying. The other thing is, to listen to nature. Listen to the sounds around you, let them colour your whistling, and it’ll make [whistling] much more interesting.
And any advice on becoming a professional whistler?
Just keep practising and stay inspired – [those are] the number one things.
3rd & Bird airs daily on CBeebies (StarHub Channel 303) at 6.50am (repeated at 2.50pm) from 7 July.