Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Francesco Bonifazi brings the puccalo to the public

by Cory Robertson

"Whistle while you work" may be what the seven dwarves did, but world-champion whistler Francesco Bonifazi has a different message. He sees whistling -- or "puccalo," a professional term derived from the words "piccolo" and "pucker" -- as an art form in and of itself. To him, and to many others who are part of what he calls a "worldwide movement," whistling is plenty of work on its own. This Sunday, Bonifazi and the Old Town School of Folk Music bring you the basic tools to become a whistling whiz yourself -- or just to press your lips together and blow.

"The first thing is we'll get that first note," says Bonifazi, as he begins to describe the learning process that takes place in his whistling workshop. This is not the first such workshop he's led, and he knows just how whistling should take form in a beginner.

Each student begins with a single note, an unpredictable tone dependent upon personal characteristics. "It's based on the physics of their mouth," says Bonifazi. "It's a chamber of sound that is going to vibrate depending on their shape and how hard they push with their lungs."

Once a given student has established that initial pure tone, he or she will soon be ready to navigate simple tunes like "Eensy Weensy Spider" or "If I Had a Hammer."

Bonifazi will play records by whistling greats in hopes of inspiring students, perhaps striking a chord with some of them the way old-school whistling star Ronald McCroby's performance on The Tonight Show once hit a nerve of inspiration within Bonifazi himself. But Bonifazi will expose students to more than just whistlers -- he'll also encourage them to imitate other instruments, like the tuba or the electric guitar. "Itzhak Perlman listens to other instruments -- he doesn't just listen to violin players," says Bonifazi, indicating just the level of veneration he places on his chosen art form.

Bonifazi does, in fact, view the puccalo as equal to any other instrument. After all, he is a jazz flutist and saxophone player as well as a whistler, and usually accompanies his whistling on guitar or collaborates with renowned pianist Mark Sloniker. Bonifazi even goes so far as to compose his own music for the puccalo, sometimes using electronic effects like octave generators or looping to achieve an often ethereal quality. His album, Air Play, encompasses a multitude of styles and reveals a breadth of possibility many may not have imagined possible for a hobby often relegated to the realm of skipping stones or turning cartwheels.

Once students have begun to master the basic musical elements of whistling, like tone, pitch control, vibrato and intonation, Bonifazi hopes they might be ready for a little harmonizing. Just as a choir of vocalists perform complementary parts according to vocal range, so can whistlers be classified by traditional roles such as soprano or alto. In fact, just one such choir, hailing from Vassar College, performed at this year's International Whistling Convention, where Bonifazi won first place in the popular music category in 2003.

Whether you dream of international fame or simply hope to remedy the toneless puff of air issuing forth from your puckered lips, Bonifazi is prepared to provide you with the needed instruction. You'll walk away from his workshop armed with instructional materials and, likely, a whistling mentor. Sunday's workshop will feature a healthy dose of philosophizing on the subject of whistling, and among the participants will be a master's student writing her thesis on the history of whistling -- proof that there is much more to whistling than you may have ever imagined.

The Whistling Workshop takes place Sunday, Dec. 16 at Old Town School of Folk Music (4544 N. Lincoln, 773/728-6000) from 3 to 4:50 p.m. Cost is $30; register at, by phone or in person. Bring a recording device, water and chapstick.