We are drawing towards the close of the most bronchial season in our concert halls – those winter months when, despite heavy colds, blocked sinuses and raging sore throats, devotees of live music valiantly venture forth from their sickbeds to interrupt other people’s enjoyment of the performance….

A concert-going blogger friend of mine coined the phrase “coughing music” after a concert in honour of Steve Reich was replete with much throat-clearing, rasping and hacking between pieces (this was in November, at the height of the coughing music season). And the previous month a concert at the inaugural London Piano Festival was interrupted by much barking in the balcony (the offender refusing to leave the auditorium), so much so that a member of the house staff made an announcement requesting people stifle their coughing before the start of the next part of the concert.

But such behaviour is not entirely confined to the winter months and a number of studies have sought to examine why people cough at concerts. Professor Andreas Wagener from the University of Hannover examined the phenomenon in a study published in 2013, and concluded that it is deliberate, sometimes passive aggressive behaviour (to indicate boredom during a slow section of the performance), or may be intended to “test unwritten boundaries of courtesy, to comment on the performance or simply document one’s presence”. In other words, it may be attention-seeking….. Add to this the fact the many concerts goers are “of a certain age” and may suffer from common complaints and conditions of old age such as hypertension or congestive cardiac failure, one form of medication for which, ACE inhibitors, can have the side effect of a dry cough. Concert halls can also be hot, dry or air-conditioned places – the ideal atmosphere for the dread tickly cough to develop.

Coughing can also be infectious – listen during the break between movements of a symphony or quartet and you’ll hear one person start, then another, then another…..and before long there is a whole cacophony of coughing. Interestingly, people pipe down pretty quickly when the music starts again, which suggests that Professor Wagener may have a point, that such behaviour is not accidental. I also think people can feel tense at a concert: this anxiety stems from a concern to do the right thing at a classical concert, to observe the correct concert etiquette. A friend of mine used to fret so much about the possibility that she might cough during a concert and disturb those around her, that a nervous cough would start almost as soon as the music began.

For the performer, a noisy, coughing audience can be distracting. In her book ‘Sleeping in Temples’, the pianist Susan Tomes notes that performers generally feel sympathetic towards the “necessary cough”, the one that can’t be helped: “It is not nearly as annoying as the uninhibited bark of a cough ringing out from the stalls like a gunshot“. Other performers have felt moved to react to coughing: the pianist Alfred Brendel once warned the audience: “Either you stop coughing or I stop playing,” and I suspect that a command from a musician of such statue would have caused almost immediate silence in the auditorium.

The Wigmore Hall has a sensible approach to coughing which seems to work without making people feel uncomfortable. Boiled sweets are for sale with programmes (sucking a sweet not only moistens the throat but also provides marvellous, if short-lived, distraction from the tickliness) and an announcement is made before the concert, politely requesting audience members “stifle coughing as far as possible”. As soon as this request is made, the hall usually erupts in a storm of throat-clearing and nose-blowing before the audience settles quietly, ready for the performance.

The American avant-garde composer John Cage recognised the audience’s special “interactivity’ – coughing, rustling programmes etc – and used it as a compositional tool in his ground-breaking work 4’33”. Here, the ambient sound of the concert hall – the hum of air-conditioning, people moving or coughing, street sounds from the outside the hall – becomes the “performance”, thereby challenging received notions of what constitutes “a concert” and music itself.
Advice to concert goers
  • If you know in advance that your cough is likely to be disturbing to other concert goers (because you have a cold or virus), stay at home! In addition to the noisy interruption, coughing also spreads germs.
  • Take mints or boiled sweets to eat during a concert (but make sure you unwrap them very quietly, as this can also be irritating to other concert goers!)
  • Take a bottle of water to sip from during the performance. Most venues won’t allow you to take drinks from the bar into the auditorium but a discreet bottle of water is acceptable
  • If your cough becomes really noisy during a performance, leave the hall quietly

Last weekend I gave a concert in a church in Chiswick. The audience was small, but they listened attentively and seemed genuinely engaged by the music. All except one person (someone who is connected to me through marriage – but not, I hasten to add, my husband!) , who talked throughout the entire performance. This was extremely discourteous, not only to me but also to the other members of the audience. Luckily, it didn’t put me off my playing, but I was aware of the talking during the quieter passages of my programme.

Extraneous noise at concerts – coughing, unwrapping sweets, rustling programmes, whistling hearing aids, talking – is the bane of the performer, and the concert-goer. In her latest book Sleeping in Temples, pianist and writer Susan Tomes devotes a whole chapter to the subject of coughing and audience noise in general (she wittily calls the chapter ‘Bullfrogs’) and the blogosphere was alive with exclamations and hand-wringing not long ago when violinist Kyung Wah Chung berated the parents of a young child who coughed during her recent concert at London’s Southbank Centre.

The popularity of smartphones has added another irritant to concerts – people taking photographs, filming and texting during the performance: a couple of years ago, I watched most of the second half of a concert by Yuja Wang through the video app of someone’s iPhone. The illuminated screen can be disturbing to other concert-goers, and if you are texting or browsing the internet during a performance, it suggests you are not concentrating fully on the music, which is just plain discourteous to the musicians who have spent hours upon unpaid hours in rehearsal to bring this wonderful music to you.

A curious dichotomy exists in the world of live classical music concerts. Tradition and concert etiquette dictate that we sit in hushed reverence during the performance, stifle coughing and generally attempt to be extremely quiet. This enables us to concentrate on the music and avoids unnecessary distractions for the performers. Yet, as John Cage proved in his work 4’33”, in a concert hall there is no such thing as “absolute silence” – for people are living, breathing, moving….. For performers, the sound of the audience can be extremely helpful, and most of us who perform actively enjoy the sound of the audience listening and engaging with the music (I also really like that “collective sigh” that seems to come at the end of a fine performance, before the applause, almost like a giant cat uncurling and stretching). It undoubtedly adds to the excitement of a live performance and reminds us that the music we play is intended to be shared with others. I love being at, or giving a concert where one has a strong sense of the the audience listening very carefully, that sense of combined concentration.

Of course, people can’t help coughing (go to a concert in London in the winter, and there is often a veritable cacophony of raucous coughing and nose-blowing), or moving in their seats, or turning the pages of the programme, but whispering and talking, tapping away or filming on a smartphone, or fidgeting is just plain rude in my opinion.

Returning to the badly behaved talker at my concert, my page-turner, who also noticed it, told me afterwards that when not concentrating on the music, she fixed the person in question with a basilisk stare.

Audiences behaving badly

Susan Tomes on the subject of coughing

Coughing and the Art of Concert Etiquette

How we behave at classical music concerts, as performers and audience members, has been in the news again lately, following a recent speech by Max Hole, CEO of Universal Music, in which he called on orchestras and conductors to “loosen up”  and shed their elitist image in order to attract more people to concerts.

Those of us who go to concerts regularly are perhaps a little puzzled by Mr Hole’s comments which do not chime with our concert experiences (popular programmes, sold out concerts, enthusiastic and committed audiences). Music journalist, blogger and novellist Jessica Duchen has written a sensible blog post in response to Mr Hole’s comments, summing up succinctly what most of us “regulars” feel about classical concerts.

And now, as if this wasn’t enough, Andreas Wagener, a professor from the university of Hannover, has published a learned paper on the “economics of concert etiquette” in which he examines the extent of coughing in concert halls and what is behind the phenomenon.

When I first heard about this via Radio 4’s Today programme, I roared with laughter – because a 32 page document on this subject does suggest an academic who’s got too much time on his hands. But to show willing, I downloaded the text and read a bit of it with my breakfast. I was listening to Radio 3 by this time and Professor Wagener’s paper was causing quite a stir on the ariwaves, with listeners suggesting – via all forms of social media available to them – reasons as to why people cough at concerts. In his paper, the learned Prof suggests that it is deliberate and subversive, a form of civil disobedience. Eh?

Coughing at concerts can be irritating: I was at a Beethoven recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last spring, given by the French pianist François-Fréderic Guy. The coughing started fairly early on in the proceedings and reached a crescendo during the iconic opening movement of the Op 27/2, so much so that the pianist actually turned and stared at the audience for a moment, clearly disturbed by the cacophony of coughing. But I have to say this is the first time I’ve ever seen a performer react to coughing (the pianist Alfred Brendel once warned his audience: “Either you stop coughing or I stop playing!”).

A professional pianist colleague of mine told me he likes to hear the noise of the audience, a reminder that the event is “live” – and there are plenty of other noises that can be far more distracting: phones going off (turn it OFF, not to ‘silent’, FFS!), someone trying (and failing) to extract cough sweets (oh the irony!) from a foil blister pack, the woman who emptied the entire contents of her handbag on the floor at the Wigmore (and then picked everything up and replaced it), the man who fossicked around in a selection of very crunchy plastic bags during an encore, hearing aids whistling (common at the Wigmore). Not to mention the hummers….. Some years ago I attended a rather special recital at the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands in Surrey, at which the pianist performed music by Chopin on a Pleyel piano, thought to have been owned by Chopin himself. Throughout the recital, the man to my right hummed, loudly and lustily, but at no point was he ever in tune with the music!

I don’t know why people cough at concerts. It is probable more noticeable in the concert hall than elsewhere because we are all sitting in concentrated silence. The atmosphere in concert halls can be dry and/or hot, which can provoke a coughing fit. A friend of mine gets so anxious about not coughing in a concert that she inevitably coughs, and I think anxiety is a common cause of coughing at concerts. Another friend, and regular concert companion, has special “concert sweets” which she passes around before the performance begins. Sucking a sweet is often enough of a distraction to prevent the dread tickle in the throat, and many concert venues sell boiled sweets in the foyer. One tip from a regular, though – don’t come to a concert if you have a cold, chest infection, sore throat. It can be miserable trying to blow your nose/stifle a coughing fit during a concert: if you’re ill, you should probably stay at home and listen to the concert on Radio 3.

A well-prepared performer should not be overly troubled by coughing and other “living” noises from the audience. When we prepare for performance, we train ourselves to concentrate, to be “in the zone”, and this ability to shut oneself off from extraneous noise is a key part of practice and performance (Glenn Gould famously practiced while his mother vacuumed around him, or with the radio playing).

I suspect that one of the most common reasons why fellow-audience members get annoyed by coughers is that they are listening for tiny changes and variations from their favourite recording, a peril of listening to music in the age of high-quality recordings. I will be examining this subject in more detail in a separate article.

So, let’s try not to get too worked up about coughing, or what the conductor wears, or whether the female soloist’s dress was on or off the shoulder (if you’re focusing too much on her outfit, you’re probably not listening to what she’s playing!). If you’ve got a bad cold/cough, it’s probably best to stay at home; if not, come out and enjoy the fantastic classical music that is on offer, every night of the year, all around the world.

More “faff” about concert etiquette here

And more good advice on concert going here