Friday, November 14, 2008


I've had a cold this week along with the resulting cough. Fortunately I don't have tickets to any musical or theater events this weekend. Not that I would skip them, but sucking on all the Halls to keep from coughing usually makes me feel worse than ever.

I was happy to read that the musicians aren't as upset by the coughing in the audience as I assumed they were. Sam Bergman, a violinist for the Minnesota Orchestra, blogs that he was skimming the symphony management meeting summary for the last few weeks and:

... the meeting summaries have taken note of a sharp uptick in audience complaints regarding... coughing. Yes, people do actually bother to call or write to us about their fellow patrons coughing in the middle of a performance, and every one of those complaints gets carefully logged and sent up the chain. ... This tends to happen most years around this time, because... well, you know why. We're all coming down with the winter's first salvo of The Crud, that's why. If half the audience is afflicted with Martian Death Flu, or whatever we're calling it this year, there are gonna be more than a few involuntary expulsions during the slow movement, and there's not much anyone can do about it.

But that doesn't stop our more sensitive concertgoers from getting up in arms about it, and I can understand that, I guess, although I have a hard time taking offense myself, unless the offender is well and truly hacking up a lung and refusing to leave the hall to deal with it. And at the moment, I'm truly sympathetic to the coughers, because I'm battling a serious chest cold myself, and truth be told, I was narrowly saved from hacking my way through this morning's first half by the fact that fellow violist Ken Freed happened to have a spare Halls to hand me. (Note to anyone planning to attend a concert with a cold: Halls are the way to go. I'm not saying they're the best cough drops in the world, just that they're the ones that come in soft, pliable, silent wrappers. All those little hard candies in crinkly cellophane? Those are from the devil.)
I was truly surprised to hear this. I always assumed that the musicians found the coughing just as annoying as people in the audience did. But on giving it some thought I guess I can see why they wouldn't. Playing (or conducting or singing) a piece of music is a combination of a physical and an auditory experience. Sure, the musician is listening to hear how his or her playing (or singing) is sounding and how it is blending with the others, but they are also concentrating very hard on the physical nature of creating the sound. (Plus, if you've ever sat on the stage in or near a group of classical musicians, it's hard to hear anything BUT the music.)

The audience on the other hand is there for a purely auditory experience, which can very much be ruined if the person next to you is coughing away.

What was also interesting about Sam's post is that he can consider coughs a feedback on the performance:

I've always divided concert hall coughers into two groups - sick coughers and bored coughers - and their presence signals two very different realities for those of us onstage. (You can tell the difference because, if your hall is full of sick coughers, you can just hear the phlegm behind it. Bored coughers sound like they're trying to alert you to the fact that the person you're saying mean things about is walking up behind you.) The sick coughers signal that winter has arrived, or is still here, or is dragging on into April. The bored coughers signal that something has gone wrong with the performance: either the conductor's interpretation is failing to engage, or the orchestra doesn't seem believable enough in its commitment to the music. Either way, the audience has lost (or failed to ever achieve) the rapt attention we're hoping to inspire. And that's a lot more our fault than theirs.
I don't think I've ever given a bored cough. But now that I know ... hmmm.

Excuse me. I need to go cough some more.