Duane played electric organ, and Michele filled in when he took a break. That’s how it was at the clubs in Oklahoma City back in the ’80s. She kept the tips from her part of the program, most of them going towards her growing transformer collection. The father-daughter duo played soft rock and country. “My father could pick up almost any instrument and play it, although he wasn’t formally trained,” said Michele Zehr. She was not quite that accomplished yet in those days, but then again, she was only 7.
Several decades later Michele, like her father, can usually figure out what to do with almost anything that makes music, be it woodwind, string or percussion. In the past couple of years, she’s developed a routine that includes the ukulele, bass drum and foot tambourine—a feat not so unusual in a multi-instrumentalist act, but she adds a new twist, playing them all at the same time. The drum’s on her right foot, tambourine on her left, and the ukulele occupies her hands.
That’s not all. Michele is a “musical whistler,” shaping the melodies of jazz standards, old hymns, original compositions and folk ballads through pursed lips. Three years ago, she didn’t even know there was such a thing as musical whistling, but once she discovered it in 2019, she competed in the Masters of Musical Whistling International Festival and Competition in Pasadena. She was astonished to find out that not everyone can whistle, a skill that came to her as easily as breathing. “I thought it was just a silly little thing that I could always do,” she said. Although more than a hundred people applied for the competition, only 60 people from 11 countries were chosen to compete.
She was a beginner, but mustered up all her courage to whistle an original composition with the same ukulele-drum-tambourine arrangement she uses today. Her prize, the first-ever honorable mention, was invented on the spot, awarded to her, and she was hooked.
Although Zehr has a beautiful singing voice, she’s elevated the humble whistle to a true art form, adding all the nuances and poignancy of a conventional vocalist to demanding classics like Schubert’s Ave Maria, and Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise in E minor, both performed at a November concert backed by the Nelson County Community Orchestra. She’s a member of the fledgling International Whistlers Guild, and currently holds the rank of 15th best whistler in the world.
A lot of life happened between Zehr’s childhood performances and her current success as a novelty performer. She joined the Marine Corps as a young woman and played clarinet and saxophone for the Marine Corps band. In 2000, she left. “I was burnt out,” she said. “I was exhausted from all those marches.” She took a break from music for 14 years, concentrating on non-profit work and spiritual growth.
Along the way, she was also an auto mechanic. “I’d always wanted to fix my own car,” she said. Her satisfaction in learning that skill inspired her to create a curriculum for auto repair at Oklahoma State University.
Her desire to find spirituality in nature took her to the Mohave Desert, where she camped alone for four days and four nights. “I was interested in nature-based living,” she said. Fasting in the desert sharpened her senses and fed her sense of wonder at the universe. She was able to hear two owls calling back and forth and resolved to remember their haunting notes. “I had a pencil and paper and notated the rhythm of their calls,” she said. The ancient song of the owls became her first written music.
Meanwhile, she was finishing her college degree, a pursuit that was interrupted when she became convinced she should walk the Appalachian Trail. “I had never heard of it before, but when I did, I somehow knew I had to do it,” she said. She’d never backpacked, but she set out in 2007, starting from Springer Mountain in Georgia, walking mostly in solitude. It changed her life, she said: “I met the woman I really am.” She recognized the Blue Ridge Mountains as her home, moved to Charlottesville and later to Roseland in Nelson County.
Music is not Zehr’s only passion. She’s worked for years with those traumatized by violence, committed to helping suffering people find comfort and inspiration in nature. She founded a non-profit, the Center for Earth-Based Healing, in 2015 and offers her healing programs on 106 acres in Schuyler in partnership with Schuyler Springs at Hebron Hill.
She recognizes that there are challenges in everything she does. She still gets a little stage fright before musical performances and is always worried that the muscles in her face will tremble, throwing her whistling off. And the power of woods, water and mountains as healing forces is well understood but little appreciated in these days of growing estrangement from the natural world. Still, she sees the common thread in what’s been an unusual life, she said: “Everything so far has helped me to bring joy to people, and to myself.”
Find Michele Zehr whistling Christmas carols, popular music, jazz, original compositions and classical favorites on YouTube, (Michele Zehr) or Facebook (Michele the Whistling Musician).