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Whistling champ knows the key

 by John Bach

She's a whistler, not a wrestler, and she doesn't really know the theme to "The Andy Griffith Show."

Half the time when Clifton resident Emily Eagen tells people she won a whistling competition, they think she said a "wrestling" competition. It is a typical response since most people have never heard of such a contest. In fact, most people, this editor included, have no idea that anyone's whistler could make the kind of whimsical and fantastic music that spawns international competition.

After hearing Eagen's rendition of Mozart's "Queen of the Night" from "The Magic Flute," I won't soon forget her talent is as artistic as any instrumentalist's, though slightly more portable. Her repertoire includes classical, jazz, folk and pop, all performed with precise pitch, trustworthy tempo and even a little tremolo. It's hard to believe that terms like grace notes, improvisation and crescendo can relate to a talent that many banish to the shower or relegate to calling the dog.

Eagen, who practically grew up in preparatory programs at UC's College Conservatory of Music, often even accompanies her whistling by singing and playing either the piano, violin or guitar.

In April of 2000 Eagen, 24, whistled her way to the women's grand championship of the International Whistling Competition in Louisburg, N.C. Not only was she 10 to 15 years younger than most contestants, she became the first to win the event in her first attempt. The two-day competition required her to whistle in three divisions -- allied arts, classical and pop.

For Eagen, performance whistling began when a friend convinced her to whistle "Ashokan Farewell", the theme to the civil war miniseries, during a talent show in St. Paul, Minn.

"It really worked," she says. "It reverberated through this microphone system throughout the hall and made me think, 'Wow, this is kind of fun,' Then a friend wrote a composition for me that alternated whistling and singing. It became kind of a signature thing."

Eagen first cultivated her musical abilities at UC's College Conservatory of Music. The daughter of a grade school music teacher, she started violin lessons at CCM's Preparatory Program when she was only 3, sang in the CCM Children's Choir from 8 to 12 and performed with the CCM Mini-Mummers drama program throughout high school. Eagen earned her master's degree in music from the University of Wisconsin in 1999 and took part in CCM's Music 2000 program.

Eagen has been researching whistling's history and discovered it was once considered a "vulgar" thing for women to do. So goes the folk saying: "Whistling women and crowing hens will come to no good in the end."

Today, she says, serious whistling is often perceived in a rather trivial manner by most, including the media. After she won the international competition, the Associated Press wrote more about her ability to annoy family members with her talent than her musical abilities. Still, appreciation for her music has spread rapidly.

As the reigning whistling champ, Eagen gets plenty of requests. "I don't really know the Andy Griffith theme song, and I only know a truncated version of 'Sweet Georgia Brown,' " she says. "I've got to get back to pop culture's whistling roots and really get some of the greatest hits down. I think people would enjoy me a little bit more if I did that."

It's just a little hard to snap your fingers or tap your toes to Mozart.