As winter turns to spring, I hope we’re nearing the end of coughing season.
I attend a lot of classical concerts, most often performances by the Lansing Symphony Orchestra and by faculty and students in the College of Music at Michigan State University. And many a sublime musical moment has been spoiled for me by coughing in the audience. Coughing bothers performing musicians and orchestra conductors, too. Sometimes they take steps to manage it:
Baritone Thomas Quasthoff once instructed his audience, “Do not cough until the concert is ended. Because I love this music so much.”
A January 2014 New York Times article reported that “… the guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas dealt with a bronchial audience at a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert by tossing cough lozenges into the crowd between movements of Mahler’s Ninth.”
The article goes on to mention how conductor Simon Rattle addressed a fit of coughing after the opening movement of Mahler’s Ninth: “This piece starts with silence and returns to silence,” he told the crowd at Carnegie Hall. “The audience can help to create the piece by remaining silent.”
Conductor George Szell was more direct. He once halted a Cleveland Orchestra performance of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, turned to the audience and said, “I’ll give you 5 minutes to clear your throats,” and walked offstage. Exactly 5 minutes later, he returned and said, “We are trying to do our best. Won’t you try to do likewise and exercise a little self-control and refrain from disturbing the performance?” With that, he restarted the concert.
Pianist Alfred Brendel, too, favors a direct approach. He once warned his audience: “Either you stop coughing or I stop playing.”
In 2012, Andreas Wagener from the School of Economics and Management, University of Hannover, Germany, published a scholarly paper about coughing in concerts. He cites studies showing that people cough twice as much in concerts as they do in everyday life. Why?
Some say it’s because the air in the hall is dry. Or maybe people are bored during slow, soft passages. Wagener has a different explanation. He writes, “… coughing is one of few acceptable ways of active participation within strict concert etiquette. It permits to make oneself heard in the anonymous crowd of concertgoers, to test unwritten boundaries of courtesy, to comment on the performance or to simply document one’s presence.” That last reason really got my attention. Wagener asserts that people use coughing to say, “Hey, don’t forget about me. Look, here I am. I’m at the concert.”
Minimalist composer John Cage believed that coughing and other audience noise is its own kind of music. His 1952 composition 4’33” is scored for any instrument or any combination of instruments. Doesn’t matter, because the entire piece—which lasts exactly 4 minutes and 33 seconds—is marked tacet. That’s Latin for “it is silent.” The musicians do not play a single note. The ambient sounds of the concert hall become the “music”: the air conditioning, the audience shifting in their seats, rustling their programs, and, of course, coughing. Okay, I agree that those things are sounds, but I wouldn’t call them music. Yet there’s actually a score for 4’33” (you can find out more here).
So, John Cage didn’t mind coughing at concerts, but I do. I understand it’s sometimes unavoidable. Still, coughing can be muffled with a sleeve or a handkerchief, or perhaps prevented with a cough drop or hard candy.
My plea to the concert coughers out there: If you must cough during the music, try to cough quietly. Very quietly. Pianissimo.
Paulette Bochnig Sharkey