When Audience Coughing Spoils the Mood

June 10, 2007 at 05:43 AM · Last night I was at a superb season-ending performance of Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony by the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vanska. The acoustics at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis are among the best - very live.

The 2nd movement of the symphony ends with a lovely run featuring a harp, then a pause, then two very soft pizzicato chords by the strings, with a short pause in between. A magical effect. Near the end of the harp's phrase there was an audible cough from near the front of the hall. Then the pause. Then the first plucked chord, beautifully played pianissimo, but as it died away a quite loud cough from the other side of the front main floor, audible throughout the hall. The spell was broken. Maestro Vanska shook his head from side to side on the podium and then conducted the final pizz chord. Following which, he took out a white handkerchief and without turning around, waved it over his shoulder at the audience. A marvelous response to inconsiderate audience members; it generated some very discreet chuckles in the area in which I sat.

Do others have similar experiences to report? Performer/conductor reactions?

Replies (31)

June 10, 2007 at 08:31 AM · I was at an orchestra rehearsal once, and two teenagers came in and sat down, eating chips from a noisy plastic packet that rustled and rattled everytime they dipped their hands in. This went on for some time and the conductor tried to ignore it. Eventually, his nerve gave out. He stopped the orchestra, eyes blazing, put his baton down, swished the large lock of silver gray hair in front of his eyes to the side, and turned around to face his noisy invaders. Boy, did he give them a firey and fuming verbal assault. He totally rubbed them into the carpet.

June 10, 2007 at 08:51 AM · We had a concert with the Anchorage Symphony this winter. The winter was a tough one for everyone here, and most people were sick. In fact, half of the first violinists were busy spreading the flu to one another during rehearsals.

Our well-educated audience followed the rules of etiquette concerning applause, and considerately refrained after the slow movement we were playing. However, not wanting to spoil the quiet serenity of the music, they had been holding back all kinds of hacks, sneezes, and coughs. Once the movement finished, they let loose. The coughing was so severe that it actually resembled applause, both in dynamics and duration. The conductor waited politely for the ill-provoked accolade to cease, then quickly wiped his nose with his handkerchief and continued.

June 10, 2007 at 01:49 PM · A loud cough during a quiet moment in a performance can be unfortunate, but sometimes it is impossible to muffle well. What I find totally unforgivable are the cell phones that go off during a performance.

June 10, 2007 at 02:45 PM · Coughing is sometimes not to avoid! But can be done very "sotto voce" if practiced at home...LOL. I remember a very funny gesture by Alfred Brendel in a concert in Munich in the late (19- Man I'm OLD!)80's: After a sublime played 2nd mvt. of Schubert's D959, he stood up and threw a handful of peppermint drops in direction of a VERY insistent (& loud BTW...) cougher, who tried very hard to make himself audible...

June 10, 2007 at 02:35 PM · About half of the concerts I go to, if not more, are spoiled at some point by loud coughing. I have a marvelous live recording of the Walton violin concerto; there is a set of double harmonics at the end - very moody - and about three seconds after they died away, a man exploded with a giant cough. It sounded like a stick was being rammed down his throat. Ruined the mood entirely, and also cracked me up, listening to the live recording in the comfort of my own home, where I could sneeze and hack all I wanted without being immortalized in a recording.

I sympathize with the coughers - I'm often sick myself - but I also beg anyone who knows they are sick or have allergies or are likely to cough during the program, to think carefully about going to a particular concert. Or anywhere, really.

But, for the most part, it's one of the few inescapable downsides to the live concert experience, which thankfully has many more pros than cons.

June 10, 2007 at 03:11 PM · What we need to develop is a cough lolly that doesn't come in a wrapper that upon opening is actually louder than the cough itself.

June 10, 2007 at 03:35 PM · Maybe a modern composer should write a piece that actually has places throughout the music to cough as part of the piece. It could be written by Jacques Offencough. Hey, there's weider stuff than that out there with some of this modern atonality crap.

June 10, 2007 at 05:41 PM · Or we could just ignore and tune it out instead of making a big gesture of it. As it is, Osmo Vanska seems to have accented in his conducting that one note, coughing, making it unforgettable for everyone. Would you rather remember a coughing or a Mahler?


June 10, 2007 at 06:23 PM · I think, based on Mr. Godfrey's account, that the coughs would have been remembered instead of Mahler even if Mr. Vanksa hadn't responded.

I do agree about the cough drop wrappers.

June 10, 2007 at 07:45 PM · Would it have left as strong an impression if he didn't react the way he did? I understand his frustration but can't help feeling his approach didn't help the matter. Besides, only one out of hundres/thousands of people coughed at that unfortunate moment. How does he justify snubbing everyone in the audience? Shouldn't he have tried salvage what he can for non-offending members of audience? Wasn't he glad people came to listen when they could have gone anywhere to spend their money as most do?


June 10, 2007 at 07:51 PM · I like coughing. Milstein's "Last Recital" album doesn't have one glint of audience noise in it anywhere an it makes me suspicious.

Next time you're in a large quiet room full of people, cough quietly and at least two or three people will cough in response to you. I used to pass the time in my soc 101 class with about a thousand people in it doing that. The worst audience noise is when someone is trying to help and snorts on the upbeat as you start, and it throws the start off. I've seen it.

June 10, 2007 at 09:53 PM · I recently attended a recital by Sarah Chang at Carnegie Hall. I wasn't ill. However, toward the middle of the first half, during a particularly quiet portion of the program, I found myself disturbed with the impulse to cough. Not wanting to bother anyone, or Ms. Chang (who was a mere three rows away from me) I resisted the urge to cough.

I just basically sat there and held my mouth shut, but the itch -- or whatever it was, these thousand feathers working their evil magic in my throat -- wouldn't go away.

In fact the overwhelming urge only grew worse. I could feel my face flooding red and hot. The pressure was increasingly intense. I thought I was going to burst.

I tried to swallow. I thought perhaps I might lubricate the itch. Nothing doing. The insane urge just kept on mercilessly.

I became increasingly desperate. I considered a mad dash out of the hall -- but, no, too many people to climb over, and too close to Ms. Chang. My solution would have been worse than simply giving in to the itch.

What to do?

The impulse, the need to cough, was as strong -- stronger -- than ever. I now tried to relax my entire body. I closed my eyes and waited, hoping for the end of the movement, or at least a more rousing section, but not a chance. This was pristine, quiet and beautiful music. I loved it. I hated it -- the tears sprang to my eyes, and began to run down my face. I imagined Ms. Chang looking on, and thinking I was moved by her gorgeous music making. If only! I was in absolute agony. Time slowed. Somehow I held on.

Eventually, I felt myself passing into another zone altogether, where I seemed to be observing the moment, intrigued by my ability to withstand the cough agony, even while my face blurred with unbidden tears.

At long last, a louder moment came, and I managed to lean over and release this crazy monster of a cough unobtrusively into my coat. I even got a second cough in without serious disturbance.

Crisis averted.

I'm thinking ricola on standby next time. Unwrapped, of course.

June 11, 2007 at 01:31 AM · I was at one of my daughter's teachers recitals. At the time, which I didn't find out for a month, I had walking pnemonia which had a terrible hacking cough. I wasn't alone, in front of me sat two members under the same situation. We even joked about swaping cough drops.

I remembered that I had some tic tacs in my purse and took them out and laid them on the pew beside me (it was in a church) so not to rattle the bottle.... I survived on about 10 tic tacs!

The previous post, I can totally relate to... it is distressful knowing that you would possibly ruin a recital or concert especially if you know it is taped.

Other peoples coughs don't seem to bother me as much as other peoples uncontrolled children at a recital.. but that is another thread : )

June 11, 2007 at 01:42 AM · Jodi, when I play in church, I line up 7-8 Tic Tacs on the stand, just in case. The fun part is when I bump the stand, and the Tic Tacs go scattering all over the wooden floor!

June 12, 2007 at 02:18 AM · Coughing is sometimes unavoidable. If I have to cough, I wait for a loud section of the music. I think it's a lot less obtrusive that way.

June 12, 2007 at 04:28 AM · Greetings,

that`s why it`s called Tchaicoughsky,



June 12, 2007 at 10:21 AM · There's always Coughalevsky.

Seriously though, the worst time to cough is at a quiet spot. And it seems to me that most people almost save up their coughs just so they can be heard when it gets really quiet.

June 12, 2007 at 11:12 AM · Terri, it's not that, I don't think anyway. It may be the extra pressure not to cough at a soft passage that brings it out. Or one needs a loud distraction to get one's mind off from coughing?

Most people do wait to cough. If anyone takes the survey on when people cough at a concert, I am sure chances of anyone coughing at a soft passage is smaller than "getting struck by a lightning".


June 12, 2007 at 02:22 PM · Perhaps this is what caused the throw down that happened at the Boston Pops concert recently???lol

June 12, 2007 at 02:49 PM · I wonder if they're NSF funding for something like this. Someone please feel free to steal my research idea. ;)

Seems to me that the reason people cough at the end is they're waiting for the piece to end. Then they think everyone is going to clap and they can cough and no one will be able to tell. So they save it up, and in anticipation of coughing, and in anticipation of the piece ending..."cough cough cough!"

Sometimes people cough in a quiet spot because they "think" the piece is going to end and it doesn't...

And perhaps some people cough because of the pressure...

Or because they're sociopathic. (okay, maybe not that)

But if you cough when all the brass are blaring away in a Wagner symphony, will anyone really care?

If there is a cough in a forest and no one hears it, was there really a cough?!?!?

June 12, 2007 at 03:00 PM · Terry, I am sorry to offend you in any way. I still don't believe people choose to cough at a quiet passage.


June 12, 2007 at 05:12 PM · I think we just need to learn to play through noise because there are always distractions especially at an outside concert. One time we had a person with a hiccuping problem come to our concert. You can not blame that person for wanting to live out his or her life despite that problem. We as musicians were there to please so we had to play through it.

June 12, 2007 at 05:26 PM · So Tschaicoughsky? For me, only w/ Leonid Koughan...Unwrapped, pliz!

June 12, 2007 at 06:00 PM · No offense taken Ihnsouk. None at all. I actually agree with you. It may not be intentional but there tends to be more coughing in quiet passages.

June 12, 2007 at 08:25 PM · I think the situation with the Boston Pops was that someone was talking during the concert and the other person tried to quiet them.

Which I don't blame them at all... if I am going to pay 30 dollars or so for a symphony concert, I really don't want to hear two older ladies talk about their recent surgeries or ailments... ugh. At the last recital I went to.. two older women said out loud... after tuning "I think this is tape recorded"

There should be a book on concert/recital behaviour.

June 13, 2007 at 04:30 PM · Yes, there should be such a book...And if I look around me nowadays, I would hope the players would read it very carefully also...

June 13, 2007 at 06:05 PM · coughing is an involuntary response, for someone to clear the airway for oxygenation. i say, go for it. after all, this is someone who has bought the ticket to support the show, and try to get some air to stay for the rest of the show.

if you think coughing bothers the mood of the playing, you are taking this whole thing, cough cough, way too seriously.

chuckles, however discreet, in response to the coughing, is a different story. chuckles are suppressible.

June 13, 2007 at 05:13 PM · As irritating as coughs, sneezes, snickers, rustles, sighs, etc may be, they are simply a fact of life in the concert hall. Best is for everybody simply to deal with it, and get on with the performance. I do wonder though, if the halls could be better ventilated or oxygen added to the air, whether this would reduce incidences of people coughing, sleeping (snoring), wheezing, whatever.

June 13, 2007 at 05:57 PM · Might I encourage everyone to listen to (or play) PDQ Bach's Fanfare for the Common Cold...

June 13, 2007 at 10:33 PM · Greetings,

funny no one has mentioned farting.



June 13, 2007 at 11:25 PM · Coughing, farting, burbing, talking and any other unvoluntary sound making shell be absolutely excluded from the concert environment, and those who feel that they "couldn't help themselves" shell stay at home until they can!

Concert halls are often restricting the entry to evening performances with young children "to avoid the disruptions" but would never refuse vigorous cougher: is it because the cougher paid his $300 for a seat, while a child would be comfy on his/her parents lap?

If I have to accept some noise, I would rather have young child beating the rhythm or 'conducting' along with the music, then an grown-up pig chewging gum, ckacking nackles, scratching head, texting or talking on mobile, crumbeling food scrappers and when reminded of manners loudly responding: "Lady, what did I do?"

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