Kevin’s Whistle

My nephew, Kevin playing the original slide whistle.

My brother Alan , his wife Vicki and my twin nephews Kevin and Tim came for Christmas this past week. The food was good, the company was great and it managed to snow over three full feet of snow while they were here. Needless to say, I spent the past five days moving snow from the driveway and yard. Then we had an ice storm and another foot of snow and 35 mph wind before the weather cleared up and the temperature dropped off to ten below zero for New Years Day. A couple of years ago, Kevin’s sister Dawna Marie
go married and I went out to Pawnee, Illinois for the wedding. My brother had just got back from Ireland and had brought the boys tin whistles as a souvenir of the trip. While the wedding guests were visiting, Tim brought out his whistle and asked if I would play a bit of music and show him some tips on playing his new instrument. I played a few songs that everyone knew and not thinking , I asked Kevin if he liked his whistle and if he had tried playing it. Kevin said he liked it, but how was he going to play
it? I have never felt as bad about a question as I did at that exact moment. I had never considered Kevin to be handicapped at anything. He plays all kinds of sports, does all the things everyone else does and never has a complaint about anything. But you need two hands to play a whistle and Kevin was born with only one. That makes a whistle as useless as a fork without any tines. So I made Kevin a promise that I would make him a whistle that he could play with his brother Tim. After working on the idea for several
months in my head, I decided to make a slide whistle that would attach to his wrist with a Velcro closure strap like a watchband.

There are several slide whistles on the market, but they tend to be either too heavy to play with the strap idea or the whistle plays with too much tension on the slide. I built several prototypes that were promising and played okay, bu definition for individual notes was too vague and the slide was not as easy to use as I thought it should be. To play the slide whistle with any consistency and not make it sound like a group of sound effects turned out to be a bit of a puzzle. When I talked to Kevin or his Dad,
they would ask how the whistle was coming and I could only say that I was working on it and had solved some of the problems on making it right. Lots of other whistle stuff got in the way and two years passed and I still didn’t have it right and everyone was coming for Christmas and still no completed whistle that worked.

Sometimes you just try too hard and get off on the wrong path when you are reinventing your original idea for the thirty third time. You need to go back to the basics of solving your problem and do five things.

1. Stop making up RULES to follow while working on your invention.

2. Use COMMON MATERIALS that are rugged enough to do the job and are available locally.

3.EXPLORE every way you can assemble the parts necessary to make the design work.

4. DON’T THROW AWAY ANY IDEAS and take notes on what you do when making all the pieces of the project.


The two days before Christmas , I spent all my time trying to devise a slide piston that felt right and get the sound of the whistle to be mellow and have better volume. My wife, Nadiene just let me go at it and told me that I would get it right eventually…” How can you fail at anything when you get such great support from your wife? When Kevin arrived, I had just put the slide knob on and tested the whistle. No strap yet, but Alan and I got that straightened out (after a couple of tries) the next morning .
Kevin gave the whistle a test drive and after a bit of break in and a few adjustments he announced that ” the whistle worked just fine”. And to make the story complete, he just kept on playing until like Santa Claus he drove out of sight on the way back to Pawnee, Illinois. Kevin’s going to test out whistle number 34 and let me know if it needs any changes and I’m sure he’ll know if it’s absolutely right because, it is Kevin’s Whistle.

The slide whistle has been around for a long time and there are a lot of folks who play the instrument and know a lot about it’s history. I can remember “Hold that Tiger” and Spike Jones on the radio when I was a kid and all the sound effects that utilized the slide whistle on the evening shows. Folks that have a fair ear for a tune can play music on this instrument right out of the box. However, there are a lot of applications like Kevin’s that a bit of help might be in order. Persons with missing fingers, tips
of fingers, no fingers, crippled hands from arthritis and injury, carpal tunnel, tendon injuries and so on down a very long list of possible users. Rethinking the slide whistle and building it lighter instrument, incorporating some new materials to keep cost down, and having the appliances available so the instrument can be held and played easily are all areas that need some new exploration. I think most of the answers are already available in various parts of the Whistlesmith workshop and are just waiting to
be noticed and used in a different way on this project.

After watching Kevin playing the slide whistle , I believe a new technique for starting beginners should also be written. I can see that younger people and older folks don’t approach playing a tune in the same way. I think people who are older and started out learning songs that you knew the words, tune and could sing to, play quickly and have an idea of what they want to do with the instrument. If you have listened to heavy metal and rap and have a musical experience that is not able to be sung, hummed or whistled,
then you need to start out very differently. It is not a matter of liking or not caring for any particular kind of music, it is a matter of knowing a tune well enough to find a starting note and play it from memory.

I’m sure all these details will be worked out shortly and I invite anyone with ideas and input to e-mail or call. If you are interested in playing the slide whistle and would like to be part of the group of people testing the instrument , just e-mail your name, address and any personal information you would like to include for developing this project. Prototype whistles will be going out for appraisal in March and are based on the original concept whistles.