Army Field Band Soldier-Musician wins Entertainer of the Year

By Jonathan E. Agee
The United States Army Field Band

News story photo
Photo credit: Jonathan E. Agee
Staff Sgt. Michael Bravin, trombonist with The United States Army Field Band’s Jazz Ambassadors, won Whistling Entertainer of the Year at the International Whistlers Convention April 18-22.
FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. -- He is the Entertainer of the Year – for whistling. Yes, that’s a thing, and for Staff Sgt. Michael Bravin it’s something he has worked toward most of his life.

Bravin is a trombonist with The United States Army Field Band’s Jazz Ambassadors. He has been whistling since the age of five, and has taken his musical expertise and applied it to whistling in a way that separates him from the average whistler of Dixie.

Unbeknownst to Bravin, a fellow Soldier-Musician nominated him for the Whistling Entertainer of the Year. Sgt. Maj. Kevin Watt, Jazz Ambassadors’ assistant director, said part of the nomination involved describing why Bravin deserved the award.

“I described how Bravin had been a featured soloist on the Jazz Ambassadors' Fall 2011 Tour, whistling on a Brazilian tune and a Dizzy Gillespie bebop jazz standard almost every night at a total of 28 concerts before more than 30,000 audience members throughout the North East,” said Watt. “I included details on his technique like impeccable intonation, melodic phrasing, rhythmic accuracy, and inventive improvisations. Most importantly, I included in the nomination what an impact Bravin had on our audiences and what a tremendous job he did representing the Army to the American public – we received many letters and comments after our performances and nearly all of them mentioned how much they enjoyed Bravin's whistling!”

Bravin was officially recognized during the 39th Annual International Whistlers Convention April 18-22. Winning the award is quite an honor for Bravin, but he recognizes that his talent is not always welcomed with open ears. “I’ve always kind of known what I could do was uncommon,” said Bravin. “But the truth of the matter is, most people are just annoyed by it. I get far more requests to stop than I do requests to whistle.”

Much of the time, he doesn’t realize he’s whistling. For Bravin, whistling is as automatic as breathing. But as a member of the Jazz Ambassadors, he is on the road with fellow musicians for more than 100 days a year. It’s no surprise to learn that after a few days on a bus, some of his peers want a break from his talent.

“I'd have to say that I run into just about every emotion you can think of whenever I hear Mike whistle,” said Master Sgt. Andrew Layton, one of the Jazz Ambassadors’ saxophonists. “After a couple of weeks on the bus while on tour, Mike's whistling can be more annoying than you can imagine. He does it constantly! In fact, I'm not even sure he knows he's doing it half of the time. However, at the same time, you'll hear him whistle something insanely impossible, and you're impressed beyond belief.”

Bravin’s wife, Joy, explains how it allows her to relax and sleep knowing that all is right on the road. During long cross-country drives, whistling is an indicator that Bravin is awake and focused on driving. But, “all the alarms go off in my head when it stops because I know he is starting to fall asleep and I wake up in a hurry,” said Joy.

What is it about Bravin’s whistling that is different from the average cab hailer? According to Bravin, it is his ability to control his whistling in the fashion of an instrument.

“I can produce distinct and accurate pitches in a rhythmic context,” said Bravin. “And I have enough range and speed to be able to use this instrument in common music. Something I figured out that I haven’t seen in many other whistlers is whistling two pitches at once, or multiphonics. I can control an interval ranging from a second to a fifth.”

Becoming an award-winning whistler didn’t happen overnight. Bravin has been practicing his craft since childhood when he first heard his father whistling. “My father is a phenomenal whistler,” said Bravin. “When I was young, it annoyed me that he could whistle and I couldn’t, so I figured out how… And how to mimic things I heard. Since whistling is a pretty isolated solo practice, you don’t have people telling you what is and what isn’t possible. So sometimes you accidently end up pushing the limits.”

There was another person in Bravin’s career that thought of pushing the limits and taking Bravin to new heights. Retired Chief Warrant Officer 4 Kevin Laird, former Jazz Ambassadors’ officer in charge, was the first person to included Bravin’s whistling in a formal Jazz Ambassadors’ performance. On many occasions he would have Bravin whistle the piccolo solo on “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Audiences across the country were in awe at Bravin’s whistling, and the tradition continued as new officers took charge of the Jazz Ambassadors.

“I was amazed by the crowd reaction to his skill when we featured him on tour” said Sgt. 1st Class Howie Smith, audio engineer and Bravin’s roommate on tour. “People loved it, and most people were in shock that he could do it for that length of time. I am in the audience, so I get to hear people talking around me and different reactions. People absolutely loved his part of the show, and most were hoping we would come back and do an encore.”

It is the combination of musical expertise and dedication to his craft that has Bravin holding the title, “Whistling Entertainer of the Year.” Although Bravin is thankful to receive the award, he also has a sense of humor about his accomplishment.

“Whistling has never saved the day,” said Bravin. “I never whistled a child out of a burning building or anything like that. It is just something I do that I got recognized for, and I’m grateful for that.”

**See Bravin performing at the 2011 International Whistling Competition: http://youtu.be/Sxl8usX4uVg

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