Chris Ullman has whistled in front of 60,000 people outside the U.S. Capitol, and for President George W. Bush in the Oval Office. He’s performed before NBA games, and at B.B. King’s club in Memphis. He’s been written up by the New York Times, National Journal and The Washington Post. He’s recorded a CD, made multiple appearances with symphony orchestras, been on the “Tonight Show” and CNN, and become a four-time national and international whistling champion.
But the 51-year old father of three from Alexandria had never whistled at a Major League Baseball game before this week. Heck, he had never even attended a game at Nats Park before this week.
Nerves? Oh yeah, there were nerves.
“I definitely can get stage fright, so I have to work very hard to be prepared, and then kind of psyche myself into it,” Ullman said on Tuesday, the morning after he whistled the national anthem at Monday’s Nats-Reds tilt. “I pray, I use a lot of chapstick, I sip my ice water. I have my little rituals to get me in the groove.”
He had support, of course. His wife and kids were at the ballpark. So were about 50 friends and colleagues, clad in supportive shirts. He got to do a soundcheck several hours before the game, which allayed his concerns about an echo inside Nationals Park. And with his performance going well, he decided to take things to another plane of crazy.
“I had never done this version before; I came up with it the day before,” said Ullman, a member of the International Whistling Hall of Fame. “I hit this screaming high note, and people just started cheering. … I was feeling so good about it, and it was going so well. And the crowd just went berserk.”
Ullman — who works a day job as head of global communications for the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm — no longer competes on the international stage, after claiming Grand Champion crowns in 1994, ’96, ’99 and 2000. (“I’ve got three kids and a crazy job, I’m gonna have to pack up the chapstick,” he recalled thinking.)
But he still frequently performs in front of audiences, and over the winter he whistled “Battle Hymn of the Republic” before a local business group that included Mark Lerner.
Ullman had already been introduced to the Nats principal owner before this performance; they had discussed a possible anthem date. After Ullman was finished on stage, “Mark came back, put his card in my hand, and said ‘You’ve got to do this, send me your stuff,’ ” Ullman said.
Which is how the champion whistler wound up on the field before Monday’s game. And while the Ullmans had never been to a game before and aren’t particularly into sports, they had so much fun they’ve already pledged to go back soon. Plus, even before this week, he had already been in touch with the Reds about a possible anthem in Cincinnati this season. This could be the start of something big.
As for this week’s performance, well, it was close to an unqualified success. Ullman’s only regret was closing his eyes too much, because he was so into the groove.
“I just totally rocked it. It went better than I could have expected,” he said. “It was amazing. It’s the coolest experience doing something like this, especially when you’re introducing [people] to an activity they’re generally familiar with but that’s taken to a new level. You’re going from novelty to art. That’s part of my mandate as a champion.”