Lead Left Interview – Chris Ullman

This week we chat with Chris Ullman, Managing Director and Director of Global Communications at The Carlyle Group. Prior to Carlyle, Chris was Director of Communications at the US Office of Management and Budget, and before that, Director of Public Affairs for the SEC. He is author of the soon-to-be-published memoir and inspirational book, “Find Your Whistle: Simple Gifts Touch Hearts and Change Lives.

The Lead Left: Chris, it’s a real pleasure speaking with you again. First of all, congratulations on your book, “Find Your Whistle.” For those who don’t know that you are a champion whistler, how did that start?

Chris Ullman: My whistling career started when I was five years old. My father liked to whistle. In fact, he’s 83 and still at it! So I got regular exposure early on. My whistling really developed when I was on my paper route in Long Island as a kid. Riding my Schwinn Stingray I whistled classical music, of all things. I played “120 Masterpieces”, snippets of great classical music all the time on the record player, so I’d whistle songs from that on my route. In those days, it was more volume than quality. My customers would say, “I heard you coming from down the block!”

TLL: I’m sure some of our readers are thinking, “Hey, anybody can whistle. What’s the big deal?” But just take a look at this clip [link]. This is a whole different ballgame.

CU: It’s like any traditional instrument. It’s a matter of picking certain notes and shaping a story. It’s a lot like the written word. Great composers are able to tell compelling stories without words. So I worked a lot on the quality of my whistling when I was young. Then in college I would do whistle improvisations with a jazz band. I was also a big Dead Head, so I whistled a lot of Jerry Garcia back then.

Then in 1987 when I was working in Washington, D.C., I started doing some open mic nights. That led to my first international competition in 1993. I entered nine times over the years, and either won, placed, or showed seven times. My last event was in 2004, when I tied for third. That’s when I decided to retire from active competition.

TLL: I guess it’s a younger man’s game.

CU: It’s also tough when you’re working full-time at Carlyle and have three kids! Anyway, I transitioned to performing. That became more of an application effort. I whistle 400 times a year for birthdays alone! It’s literally a ministry for me.