When the Whistle Blows
Private equity exec by day, international whistling champ by night
Washington, D.C.: Chris Ullman, an executive at private equity firm The Carlyle Group, walks into a conference room in downtown D.C. He’s here to introduce Carlyle co-founder David Rubenstein to a select group of finance journalists—including one who moonlights as a travel writer—and the mood in the room is formal, bordering on somber. “David will be here soon,” Ullman announces. “He’s stuck on a call.” A moment later, out of nowhere, he starts to hum Beethoven’s Third Symphony.
Humming isn’t actually Ullman’s forte; he’s more of a whistler. He is, in fact, a virtuoso whistler, a four-time national and international champion who was inducted into the International Whistlers Hall of Fame in 2012. His talent makes for a good conversation piece when, say, an illustrious financier is running late. “Whistling is the great equalizer,” he says. “Everyone can enjoy it, from grandmas to billionaire bosses.” With this, he launches into a rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train.”
Ullman has had tougher audiences. He once pursed his lips for President George W. Bush. He has also whistled with the National Symphony Orchestra and on The Tonight Show. In 2013, he delivered a talk at TEDxMid Atlantic, in which he used whistling as a metaphor for finding your gift and sharing it with the world. “Whistling,” he says, “has brought me more joy than I ever could have imagined.”
As for where the gift came from, Ullman credits his father, who used to whistle around the house. But it takes more than that to make a whistling champion; it takes years of hard work and sacrifice. “I don’t kiss for 24 hours before a performance,” Ullman says. “Championship lips need to be firm, and kissing makes them mushy.”
Rubenstein enters at last and sits down, eliciting a bout of furious note-taking from the assembled guests. Ullman watches in silence, the picture of corporate efficiency, though there is a moment or two when his head seems to bob slightly, as if there might be music somewhere in the room.