What to do with a cougher in the front row

A new book by Edward Dusinberre, first violinist of the Takacs Quartet, opens with a familiar situation:

No sooner do I play my opening notes in Beethoven’s late string quuartet, opus 131, than a man in the front row of London’s Wigmore Hall coughs ominously.

A teacher once suggested to me that coughing in an audience is inspired only by a boring performance. If that is so, this particular verdict has been reached swiftly. I wonder why the man doesn’t escape from his seat. Perhaps he knows that there are no breaks between the seven movements of opus 131 – if he gets up now the ushers may not allow him to re-enter the hall. Hopefully, both boredom and phlegm will dissipate.

A familiar situation, as we said. What should Edward have done?

1 Stop playing til the man settles down?

2 Glare?

3 Invite the unruly fellow to step outside and settle it with knotted hankies?

4 Collapse in a paroxysm of his own?

5 Ask if there are any BDS in the hall who can outshout the tubercular bugger?

6 Hiss at him, ‘I know where you live’?

7 Offer him a cigarette?

You decide. The author of the most original and practical suggestion will win a copy of Edward’s book, Beethoven for a Later Age: Journey of a String Quartet, published by Faber and University of Chicago Press in January.

 

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  • None of the above! If the first violinist would be truly secure, concentrated and totally into his music, the coughing spell by the man in the front row, while audible and undesirable, would be like water on a duck’s back and not such a big deal.
    Classical music, its musicians and its audiences need to learn to be able to enjoy the music in a human setting, not only in an austere clinical laboratory environment. Yes, sadly, humans do cough at times, involuntarily, and they also move in their seats from time to time, they may also be flatulent and tap their feet when aroused. If a performer seeks to perform publicly under the exact same conditions under which they rehearsed, in a silent room, with no human presence, other than the musicians themselves, then they should limit themselves to streaming their concerts. If they want human dialogue with their audience, then they must be able to tune out signs and sounds of human life in the hall during a performance, much like a loving spouse learns to get a good night sleep, in spite of being in the same bed with a sometimes snoring, tossing and turning partner who at times speaks in his dreams. Music is an expression of life and made to be experienced within the human context, not in an antiseptic surgical suite where any and all traces of beating hearts and irritated throats are condemned and banished.

    • I agree with Constance from Cornwall. While one cannot help but notice a cough, for me there’s no dilemma: one should focus on the music, accepting the particular nature and variety of human interactions that occur in a concert. From p9 of my book: ‘ The man in the front row has stopped coughing and I risk a grateful glance in his direction. I shouldn’t allow myself to be distracted but the stage is small and the first row of seats directly below it…’ Repeating phone alarms occasionally warrant a different response, but it’s so much better to get on with the music when at all possible, even if this response won’t win me a free copy of my book. Thanks Norman and here’s to live audiences and concerts!

    • There is much wisdom in your comments. I suggest to young apprentice musicians to busk: it does wonders for your concentration. Some people will listen to you playing; most won’t. Whatever happens, you learn to remain focused and play to the best of your ability. It’s actually easier to play music in a noisy environment than it is to listen to it.

    • I trust by your comments that you are a performer and have experienced such a scenario when playing? You must pass on your tip[s for not being distracted as a performer. With the best will in the world and with the best players and singers there, it is very hard. And equally hard to avoid the lights from people’s mobile phones and ipads, who decide to follow the score in the audience – or just do their emails as I have witnessed.

      • In response to Una, my tip is precisely playing in adverse circumstances in order to toughen up one’s ability to concentrate no matter what. If you get used to playing before demented elderly people in an old people’s home, before the autistic, before prisoners or in the corridors of a noisy underground, it will take more than somebody coughing or a door slamming to make your concentration derail.

  • Offer him a cough sweet! That’s what Sir Georg Solti did to a persistent cougher after Act I of “Siegfried” at Covent Garden in 1966. The man dropped it and continued to cough. In the interval after Act II Solti was so upset he said he couldn’t continue. His secretary, Enid Blech, saved the day by offering the cougher her seat further back in the house.

  • I don’t think anyone coughs intentionally and certainly not in the hallowed Wigmore Hall. If there was ever an audience who appreciate chamber music then it’s this one. Of course, there seems to be a correlation between the importance of not coughing and the overwhelming ability to do so!

    I think that good manners will always win the day so acting in an aggressive way will just make EVERYONE feel uncomfortable so just accept that coughing is part of being human. And what is Beethoven’s music if not a celebration of what it is to be human?

    • While I also disagree with the aggressive and demeaning approach, many people could do a bit more to muffle their cough.
      As you say, coughing is part of being human, I feel compelled to point out two things; firstly, musicians are humans too and secondly, regardless of season or weather, I’ve never seen/heard musicians (not even Bernstein with emphysema) suffer cough-attacks like some of their respective audiences.

  • When the coughing occurs right at the beginning of the piece I think there is a very strong case for stopping, waiting for silence, and beginning again. I was recently at a performance of the Sibelius violin concerto, the opening of which must be one of the easiest works to ruin with unwanted noise. No sooner had the muted violins begun to play than somebody in one of the boxes coughed very loudly. There are only three and a half bars before the solo violin enters, and the atmosphere was ruined. I really wondered why the conductor didn’t just say quietly to the orchestra, “Let’s have a moment of silence and begin again.” It would have added perhaps ten seconds to the length of the concert. Of course, once the work is well under way it’s a very different matter, but I also feel that interruptions later in the work have a less devastating impact than interruptions within the first few moments. There’s no need to identify the cougher or even to mention that the cough was the reason for starting again. The cougher will probably realise, but only his or her immediate neighbours will know who it was, and some people will assume that the conductor/leader (in the case of a chamber ensemble) wanted to begin again for some other reason.

  • I have never understood why this is such a problem. It is easy to cough with the mouth closed–self-muffling and much more effective then a handkerchief (and containing the cause to the individual, spreading nothing). We all do this all of the time. Why don’t concert goers know this?!

    • Of course you are right, except for your assumption that “we all do this all of the time”. There are plenty of people who will do this never ever.

  • Didn’t Michael Tilson Thomas once throw cough sweets at the offending audience member from the podium? Failing that, one might try to kill with kindness, i.e. expressing a sickly-sweet smile which gradually consumes the whole face and then remains focused on whoever had the temerity to cough in the first place.

    • Loriot was rightly voted the greatest German humorist of all time. For those sufficiently bilingual I recommend his TV series ‘Loriot’, all available on YouTube.

  • Have these people who cough ever heard of common courtesy? How about getting up and walking to the back of the hall? You say they might not be let back in to their seats? Tough. Why should a thousand people suffer because of one coughing fool.

  • There’s a way to stifle coughing and sneezing using both hands to cover mouth and nose while not vocalizing which adds to the sound. Unfortunately, most audience members neither seem to know nor care.

  • There used to be smoking compartments in trains. Why not coughing compartments in concert-halls where people could cough to their hearts’ content and enjoy the company of other coughers?

  • Get up, give him a Propoleo coughdrop, pat him on the back, give him a Kleenex to expectorate into, smile at him and tell him it’s ok, and then go up to the stage to continue when he quiets down.

  • I avoid the danger of my coughing, sneezing or otherwise causing a disturbance to performers and sensitive aesthetes by never, ever going to concerts. 100% effective, too!

  • I would suggest that musicians and audiences realize that concerts are not being performed in heaven, that the music does not come from the supernatural realm, and that some allowance be made for that universal phenomenon known as sickness.
    After all, it was Wagner, of all people, who created the lifeless, rigid format of the modern concert hall.
    I’m not saying that attendees be allow to spit on the floor, carry on loud conversations with the musicians taking a break on the stage, or consume coffee and pastries, but such things were not uncommon in London in Handel’s day.
    A concert is also not a class in some prep school, where everyone except the teacher is supposed to shut up, and, yes, not derange the teacher by God forbid!BEING SICK!

    • I don’t think annoyance at coughing or noisy disturbances is limited to musicians, concertgoers or “sensitive aesthetes”, as Mr. Hlatky put it.
      While so called “concert etiquette” can be laced with a certain haughtiness, the above mentioned annoyance can be found to the same degree at a cinema or even watching a movie at home in ones own four walls.

    • It all depends if you want to LISTEN to the music being played that has taken hours of preparation, or just hear it. For some people, coughing is a habit. For others they are genuinely suffering from the remnants of a cold or something else all the year round. It is possible to ask, as I have found out certainly in England, that if you ask the ushers they won’t mind you being near where you can get out. Or ask someone if you can sit at the end of the row. Also get the sweet into your mouth before the concert starts, not unwrapping it during the concert as well, and yes, as someone said, get a hankie to muffle the sound or cough into your arm. Same for sneezing! Good old Bryn Turfel when he got to the second song in his recital at Carnegie Hall, and got fed up of the incessant coughing and said, ‘Oh, we are coughing well tonight’. They soon shut up then!

  • Alfred Brendel, once in a similar situation, is said to have paused his playing, adressing the surprised interruptor
    ‘I can hear you – can you hear me?’

  • The larger the auditorium, the greater the likelihood of someone behaving badly and getting away with it. Small is beautiful when it comes to classical performance venues. Let’s return to more intimate venues and leave the vast barns to ludicrously over-amplified rock bands.

  • I’ve heard prominent musicians complain of people who intentionally cough at attention-getting moments, like the pp ending of Liebestod in Tristan.

  • Solution:
    Create an a cappella work based entirely on the human cough.
    With the full range from soprano to baritone accommodated, the voiced glottal fricative will at last be free to bark out its statement of the congested human condition.
    Sublimely phlegmatic.
    Call it Les Contes de Coughmen.
    The perceived problem becomes mere audience participation.

  • The Coughers of Cologne
    have joined forces with the Cologne Clappers
    and established the Cough and Clap Society
    a non-profit-making organization
    whose aim it is
    to guarantee each concert-goer’s right
    to cough and applaud
    Attempts by unfeeling artists or impresarios
    to question such privileges
    have led to a Coughers and Clappers initiative
    Members are required to applaud
    immediately after sublime codas
    and cough distinctly
    during expressive silences
    Distinct coughing is of paramount importance
    to stifle or muffle it
    forbidden on pain of expulsion
    Coughs of outstanding tenacity
    are awarded the Coughing Rhinemaiden
    a handsome if slightly baroque appendage
    to be worn dangling from the neck
    The C&C’s recent merger
    with the New York Sneezers
    and the London Whistlers
    raises high hopes
    for Cologne’s musical future

    Alfred Brendel

  • We have been exhaustive and exhausting in dealing with coughers. Now, let us go on to snorers! An usher at the Salle Pleyel once told me that every time the Orchestre de Paris played a Bruckner symphony, she was compelled to stay until the end of the concert in order to wake up all of the people that had fallen asleep and risked spending the night there. Snorers are noisier and even more annoying than coughers. They also disturb the double-bass players who think the snoring is actually a section-mate playing out of tune.

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