MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College sophomore Yuki Takeda might seem just like any other student, whistling as he walks across campus.
But listen closely, and you may notice that his whistling is more ornate than most: Earlier this month, Takeda took third place in the adult male grand champion competition at the 39th International Whistlers Convention in North Carolina.
Takeda, 20, began competing in the prestigious whistling contests in 2010. In both 2010 and 2011, he snagged the top spot in the teenage grand champion category (though last year, he was the only male who competed).
Takeda said his first year competing in the adult category presented a new challenge — in past years he’s been up against just a few others in the teenage category, but this year he faced 25 competitors.
“It was totally different,” he said.
Takeda picked up his instrument of choice six years ago, when he accompanied his mother to Holland on a research trip. He was unable to enroll in a school for two months, so instead, he spent his time Googling “whistling,” sounding out higher and lower notes and trying out new techniques.
The following year, said Takeda, he was back home in Tokyo, Japan, and a Japanese delegation to the International Whistlers Convention swept up top spots in most categories.
“Whistling suddenly became a huge thing in Japan,” he said.
There, said Takeda, whistling isn’t so much an unconscious part of daily life as it is in the United States.
“Here, everyone just whistles,” he said. “In Japan, it’s more of a hobby.”
Watching the champions perform on TV inspired Takeda to think of the next level for his own whistling.
“I thought, ‘I can do this,’” he said.
The convention moved from North Carolina to Japan just for 2008, the first year Takeda attended. He said the event brings people from across the world, and features beginner and expert lessons, shows put on by previous winners and professional whistlers and many jam sessions.
For this year’s competition, Takeda competed in both the classical and popular categories — both categories are required in order to qualify for the grand championship.
For classical, he picked an oboe sonata, “Saint-Saëns,” for the initial round and a flute sonata, “Poulenc,” for the final. For the popular category, he picked two jazz standards — Charlie Parker’s “Dewey Square” and “On a Clear Day” by Burton Lane.
Practicing tunes is as simple as going about a daily routine for Takeda, but he said he also spends dedicated time checking his pitch and arranging songs for whistling — in competition, songs are judged in part on technicality, so Takeda works to find the most intricate arrangements.
Becoming a world-class whistler does take an understanding of basic musical theory and concepts.
“Think of it as an instrument,” he said. “You have to think about pitch, expressions like vibrato … and it has to be pleasant.”
When he’s not competing, Takeda performs at talent shows on campus and with his jazz quintet. There, he switches between whistling and the saxophone.
He said the two instruments are complementary, and that his practice whistling has helped him learn to improvise on the saxophone.
“What I think comes out directly, as opposed to the (saxophone), where I have to translate it to my fingers,” Takeda said.
Next year, Takeda won’t be attending the International Whistlers Competition — he’ll be studying abroad in Cameroon.
But he’ll still be whistling.
Check out a recording of Takeda’s whistling below!
Autumn Leaves, performed by Yuki Takeda
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.