When not to cough

When not to cough


norman lebrecht

October 09, 2017

Jessica Duchen describes an experience shared  at some time or other by every concertgoer: the moment when a tickle in the throat turns into a fear of massive organ failure if you don’t somehow clear the passage.

What to do? And how to do it without being spotted?

Read Jess here.



  • Geoff Cox says:

    has anyone taken medical advice on how best to control a cough once the tickle arrives?!

  • Alexander Hall says:

    I’m surprised Jessica and others like her feel the need to go through all these contortions. The solution is to place lozenges or pastilles or sweets for that matter in the mouth BEFORE the concert begins. Good concert promoters frequently make cough sweets available at the door and patrons should automatically avail themselves of this service. With extra saliva in the mouth there will be no ticklish cough at the back of the throat. Simples.

    • Halldor says:

      Please, do share with us where one can buy these miraculous cough-sweets that last 50 minutes (as long as Ein Heldenleben, say) without dissolving to nothing! I believe a Mr W. Wonka once had something along like that in development but he’s gone a bit quiet lately.

  • Bill says:

    We’re all human and might get an uncontrollable urge to cough. Nevertheless it can be mitigated by the perfectly simple act of facing downwards as far as possible and coughing into a handkerchief or tissue. If it’s too bad you really have to leave at the least disruptive moment.
    What I’d like to know is why do the proms attract such a high proportion of bronchitics and those deeply afflicted with serious lung conditions? Some of this year’s concerts, as in previous years, were ruined by 80 decibel plus hackers who seem to wait till the most beautiful quiet passages before letting rip open-mouthed and no sign of a tissue or even sleeve. Are they seeking their 15 minutes of fame in the live broadcasts?

  • John Borstlap says:

    There exists a special, unique virus, which is only activated during adagios and pianissimos in classical music concerts, and which has evolutionary evolved under the influence of democratic emancipatory processes from the French Revolution onwards. Researchers at the Texas Institute of Technology, who have studied the virus for decennia, suspect that its increasing presence over the last years is related to increasing populist criticism of classical music, which forms a habitat where the virus can develop more aggressive characteristics and resistance to throat pastilles.

    As Dr Fudgerstein of TIT writes in ‘Nature’: “The best remedy for practitioners of classical music would be to avoid both pianissimos and adagios, especially in combination, so that the virus’ necessary stimuli are undercut. As far as audiences are concerned, they simply should avoid concerts altogether which would remove the breeding ground of the virus, and after only some 10 years the virus would have died-out. It is the tenacy of music fanatics who keep the affliction alive.”

  • john f kelly says:

    If you have to cough, do it when the orchestra is in a fortissimo passage and do everything you can to cough into your upper arm (essentially a “silencer”). It’s really not that hard guys and gals.

    Unfortunately it seems counterintuitive/counterinstinctual to cough in loud, exciting, attention grabbing passages and much more likely you will want to cough when the music is quiet (and, let’s be honest, you are bored).

    90%+ of coughing falls into the “elective” category in my experience and opinion, only 5-10% into the category Jessica describes. If we just had to deal with her situation our concerts would be a hell of a lot quieter in the audience.

  • Sue says:

    The great pianist Rubinstein said that in every other country people with a cough go to the doctor but in Israel “they come to my concerts”!!

  • Maria says:

    Stay away from Cage’s “Four minutes, thirty-three seconds” .

    In fact, do so anyway.

  • Bruce says:

    “Did you know that if you stifle a cough in material it helps muffle it, but if you put your hand over your mouth it just amplifies the noise?”

    That’s actual good, useful information. Coughing into the crook of your elbow (if you have long sleeves on) may be not only more hygienic, but also quieter, than coughing into your hand.

    On the other hand, “…if I pick up my handbag and start rustling around for my Vocalzone under the tissues, Oystercard, lipstick, Ghost Variations flyers and change that fell out of my purse, that’ll cause impossible disturbance too…” denotes poor planning. If you know you’re sick (she said she was sick), and you’ve just spent the intermission grumbling about people who cough loudly during concerts (she said she had), then you should have your cough drops in your lap, or sitting out on top of your bag — somewhere where you can reach them. This is like grumbling about cell phones without silencing your own.

  • Edgar says:

    Cough drops being unwrapped out of their cellophane by someone who wants to minimally disturb the concert by proceeding cautiously, and thus very slowly, produce a sound that drives me nuts. My tip: take cough drops with you, and wrap them in a piece of kitchen towel or a paper kerchief and place them where you can grab them instantly BEFORE leaving home.

  • Stephen says:

    During a performance of “Siegfried” at Covent Garden in 1966 there was a man with a hacking cough in the front row of the stalls. Solti was upset and threw him a cough sweet after the first interval. The man dropped it then went on hacking. By the next interval Solti was really upset and refused to go on until his secretary, Enid Blech, offered the man her box seat, which earned her a round of applause – at least from those in the front stalls.


    A slug of WATER much more effective than sweets, I have found

  • Rodelinda says:

    One Fisherman’s Friend inside your cheek and allowed to dissolve of its own accord can last 45′ thus until the interval of most concerts and will keep the throat lubricated. NB it might need to be hurried up for the flavour to subside sufficiently not to compromise the interval glass of sauvignon blanc.
    As a backup, a small supply of still water, easily accessible. I actually have a mini hip flask that I use for this purpose.
    If more management than that is required I tend stay at home.
    How is it that performers vary rarely seem to cough when they are on stage?

    • Bruce says:

      “How is it that performers vary rarely seem to cough when they are on stage?”

      Audience members are sitting passively (at least in a physical sense) and often don’t breathe deeply for long stretches. When you do this and finally take a deep breath, it’s natural to cough to clear the buildup of mucus that is naturally secreted by the lining of the trachea & pharynx to keep things moist. If you’re breathing actively, this will usually not happen unless you’re sick (in which case you’d better have lozenges and a handkerchief/ sleeve ready). Performers — all of them, not just wind players — are taking deep breaths all the time.

      The same thing happens with patients in a hospital. That’s why pneumonia (the collecting of gunk in the lungs) is always a risk with prolonged bed rest. When patients first get up, they always, always cough.

  • Nick says:

    The answer is quite simple and used to be printed at the front of LSO programmes in the early 1970s. Place a handkerchief on your knee. When you feel a cough coming on, it takes little more than a second and you can then cough virtually as you wish. The handkerchief will muffle the sound extremely effectively. I realise many people use tissues nowadays but they can have more or less the same effect If a few have been readied in advance.

    In the same advice note, it was pointed out that a full throated cough has the same effect as a French horn playing fortissimo – presumably in a quieter passage.

    I think most of us have experience of sudden coughs. Trying just to muffle them by not coughing usually results in much greater disruption. Why more concert-goers do not make reasonable precautions to avoid disturbing others beats me!

  • Andrew Condon says:

    Its probably even worse for performers. A few years ago I was playing in a concert that included Sibelius 4 and the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I had been suffering with a cold for over a week so took a bottle of water on stage – but that really only helped between movements. Suffice it to say that at the most sublime moments of the Beethoven – after the first movement cadenza, 2nd subject of the slow movement – when you know you really need to keep quiet, my cough got to me, made all the worse by trying to suppress it. Amongst a load of other junk, I now carry cough sweets in my violin case!

  • James says:

    I have two solutions. One is that I always, always have water with me and usually cough sweets somewhere as well, and that helps when you feel the first stirrings of a tickly cough. But the other – and again you have to do this the minute you feel it coming on – is to open your hand and hold it flat against the middle of your chest. This warms the area and somehow gradually the feeling subsides. It works for me, anyway. A lot of the time a tickly cough in a concert hall comes from air conditioning/cooling systems and I think this warming of the chest somehow relaxes everything again. Hope that helps!

  • ChiLynne says:

    Sometimes, pinching a tender area of the wrist helps. Brain focuses on the pinch rather than the tickle. And, yes, fortissimo passages are good for desperation coughs.

    • John Borstlap says:

      One of such moments is the tutti in bars 315-325, at the end of the slow movement of Mahler IV (Vorwärts! Luftpause! Poco piu mosso! and then the very loud [redacted]). This passage clears any throat for weeks.