- Historic Sites
How a young New York society matron named Alice Shaw dazzled English royalty with her extraordinary embouchure
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
Even if her “heavenly music” is only a hazy memory, Alice J. Shaw should be remembered as a trailblazer. After her came a succession of notable female whistlers whose strains still enliven the air.
There was Sybil Sanderson Fagan, a young thing out of Springfield, Ohio, who went to New York in 1917 to demonstrate her amazing talent—she could whistle brilliantly with two pinky fingers thrust into her mouth for volume and tone control. Columbia signed her on immediately, and then Edison booked her for a series of road tours as a Tone Test artiste. For the next five years she and the other artistes (singers, violinists, elocutionists) held concerts all over America and Canada under the sponsorship of local Edison dealers. They played to packed houses in theaters, churches, union halls—their only stage prop being Edison’s ultimate phonograph, the Laboratory Model Diamond Disc. The concerts would be interrupted by sudden lightsout and flash-on surprises as the audience gradually realized it couldn’t tell when the performer stopped and the phonograph took over. When she took her final bows and retired from the vaudeville stage in 1931, Sybil Sanderson Fagan had been recorded on hundreds of cylinders and discs for fourteen record companies—more than any other artistic whistler before or since.
While Mrs. Shaw was still fascinating lyceum audiences in the mid-1890s, a young lady graduated from the Detroit Conservatory of Music having done special work in voice and sight reading. She yearned to be an operatic diva but had strained her voice so seriously as a student that she was told she must never sing again. So Agnes Woodward took up the serious study of whistling. In time she perfected a unique system for the teaching of whistling, called the Bird Method, which is in use to this day. Moving to California, Miss Woodward opened a whistling studio to test her theories. By 1909 she had enough students to hire three assistants and found the California School of Artistic Whistling at Los Angeles. Her booklet that was sent to prospective enrollees stated the school’s raison d’être : “There is an art of whistling which belongs to the higher musical accomplishments, and which, in the majority of cases, falls to the lot of the young woman.”
Agnes Woodward held evening musicales to which the public was invited to hear for the first time whistling duets, trios, and quartets. This led to bookings for club programs, weddings, and even funerals; in time Miss Woodward assembled the famous Bird Whistling Chorus, composed of thirty of her most accomplished young ladies. In 1923 she wrote her own textbook, Whistling as an Art , which was published by Carl Fischer in New York and went through several editions. As her students went on to the Chautauqua and vaudeville circuits, the fame of the California School spread. Woodward graduates were heard on radio and went into movie work. By 1926 Brenet’s Dictionnaire de la Musique could state: “In the United States of America whistling has become a real art, and lovers of whistling have arrived at the point of combining in the whistled performance of duos, trios, and classical quartets.”
A student of Agnes Woodward’s—Margaret McKee—even remade Alice Shaw’s one successful record for Victor, in 1919, when it is likely the master record was wearing out. Thus the classical whistling of “In Venice” stayed in the Victor catalog until 1926.
In her original booklet Woodward had announced: “Branches of the School… will be established throughout the United States as rapidly as competent teachers are prepared.” And so they were, in Glendale, California; Seattle and Yakima, Washington; Chicago; Portland, Oregon.
This last school was founded by a young bride who in 1914 saw an ad in the Chautauquan magazine that said, “Learn to Whistle Like a Bird.” She consulted her husband, a traveling salesman who was away from home for long periods, and he said, “Why not?” So Lota Stone sent away for Agnes Woodward’s booklet. She had a strong interest in music and, like her teacher-to-be, a throat condition that prevented singing. For the next ten years Lota Stone studied whistling each winter at the California School of Whistling in Los Angeles. In order to finance her education, she worked tirelessly each summer at gardening, canning, and sewing- then with her hoarded earnings took a coastwise steamer from Portland down to Wilmington and the “electric” into Los Angeles. She studied the half-written textbook, whistled in Agnes Woodward’s big all-girl chorus, and in 1924 she was licensed to teach the Bird Method. The final exam was to write Miss Woodward’s book from memory. Lota, now in her nineties, remembers that she made only one mistake, on the chromatic scale. Back in Portland to stay, she opened her own studio in the Fine Arts Building and soon had all the whistling students she could handle. They were mostly girls. One of the first things she taught was Agnes Woodward’s little poem, a riposte to the old proverb: