The cough reflex is a sudden, often repetitively occurring protective reflex which helps to clear the large breathing passages from fluids, irritants, foreign particles and microbes. It has three phases: an inhalation, a forced exhalation against a closed glottis, and a violent release of air from the lungs following opening of the glottis, usually accompanied by a distinctive sound.
This “distinctive sound” can range from a gentle, barely audible throat-clearing, to a fortissimo no-holds-barred let-it-all-out bark that would drown out a jet engine.
In January, the great Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, during his recital of all the Bach Cello Suites in Mumbai last month, paused only to make a polite if pointed remark about the incessant coughing in the audience.
He offered those who were feeling uneasy the option to leave. A few did leave at that point. He then requested at everyone collectively clear their throats with a loud cough, along with him, as if to get all the coughing out of our system.
There was nervous laughter and applause; but although the coughing initially abated in both volume and frequency, it soon crept back up again.
Even before Yo-Yo Ma made his point so dramatically, I had found it disturbing enough to try and count in my head how many bars of music I could listen to before a cough emanated from some section of the audience. The score (if you will pardon the pun)? About two or three. But one learns to tune out such sounds, and just listen.
This is not to say that I’ve never myself felt the overwhelming urge to cough at concerts. But it’s like this: if the cause of my cough impulse is an upper respiratory tract infection, or even recovering from one, I have the good sense to stay away from the event, out of consideration for others. And if it’s something more innocuous, like just a little throat irritation, over time, I’ve learnt to suppress it. It can be done, trust me.
The number of performers that have expressed their displeasure at coughing at concerts is legion. The virtuoso Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia would often “take out his handkerchief, cover his mouth and cough soundlessly into it to offer a hint to the insensitive.”
Sir Simon Rattle did the same handkerchief mime in 2007 to a Carnegie Hall audience, and then said: “This piece [Mahler’s Ninth Symphony] starts with silence and returns to silence. The audience can help to create the piece by remaining silent.”
The great Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel could be equally critical of coughers. During one performance in Hamburg, he warned his audience: “Either you stop coughing or I stop playing!” The threat evidently had the desired effect there, but poor Ma had no such luck in Mumbai.
Brendel also lets off steam through his poetry. In his tongue-firmly-in-cheek poem ‘Cologne’, he writes of the tendency of the Coughers of Cologne to “cough distinctly during expressive silences”, and cynically recommends that “coughs of outstanding tenacity” be awarded “the coughing Rhinemaiden.”
Many London concert venues have flavoured cough drops in crinkle-free wrappers, gratis, in the foyer, in a bid to combat this menace.
So, why do people cough at concerts? A study on the subject in 2013 has made some uncomfortable observations. In his paper titled “Why Do People (Not) Cough in Concerts? The Economics of Concert Etiquette”, Andreas Wagener of the School of Economics and Management at the University of Hannover examined the extent of coughing in concert halls and what is behind the phenomenon.
He found that the average concertgoer coughs at 0.025 times a minute, which would work out at 36 coughs on average a day, double the normal average. “If coughing were purely accidental, it should occur evenly distributed over the concert, which is not the case.”
Apparently, the volume of coughing tends to increase in slow, quiet moments of the performance or during unfamiliar or complex pieces. Also –get this: “Coughs in concerts are mysteriously contagious”. He described it as “coughing avalanches”.
He cites Brendel’s Hamburg experience (“Either you stop coughing or I stop playing!”) to argue the case that coughing in concerts can be “switched off”.
Wagener’s conclusions seem to chime in with the observations of James W. Pennebaker of the University of Texas, Austin TX. In his paper “Perceptual and Environmental Determinants of Coughing” published in ‘Basic and Applied Social Psychology’ journal [1(1): 83-91, March 1980], he reported that (1) the larger the group, the more coughs per person; (2) people are more likely to cough if they hear others cough; (3) the closer a person is to a cougher, the greater the probability that they will also emit a cough; (4) coughing varies as a function of external stimulus demands (i.e., subjects were more likely to cough during the ‘uninteresting portions’.
All of these points were borne out at the Yo-Yo Ma concert. The seating capacity of the NCPA Tata Theatre is 1109, and given that Ma is such a big draw at any concert anywhere in the world, it was a packed auditorium. In any case, the age demographic that attends classical music concerts tends to be “of a certain age”, who are more prone to ailments and illnesses.
But with BookMyShow hosting the event and managing ticket sales, it brought in a very different audience demographic to that seen at most Mumbai concerts. This is a good thing, of course. The more newcomers one attracts to a classical music concert, the better. But in the defence of that same audience, I felt it was a little unrealistic to expect a new audience to sit in rapt attention for two-and-a-half hours, with no interval, to a recital of the Bach Cello Suites, no matter how formidably great the performer. When a lone unamplified, stringed instrument is pitted against a 1100-strong audience, and even a few feel the urge to cough during what they perceive as ‘uninteresting portions’, you can imagine how often it would have snowballed into a ‘coughing avalanche’.
However, some other assertions by Prof. Wagener from Hannover ought to make us squirm a little. He feels that coughing at concerts can be deliberate, sometimes passive aggressive behaviour (to indicate boredom during a slow or ‘uninteresting’ 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, coughing at concerts may be an attention-seeking ploy.
The Anti-Cough police can go to the opposite extreme as well: in February 2019, Olympic hockey star Samatha Quek was sent to opera ‘detention’ for coughing during a performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Vienna Staatsoper. She was escorted out and made to watch the rest of the opera on a screen in another room.
But a little common-sense wouldn’t be amiss: If one is unwell, it’s better to stay home; you’ll not really enjoy the concert, you’ll disturb others, and spread germs. Mints/boiled sweets/cough drops can help, but only if unwrapped quietly. If all else fails, it’s best to have the good grace to leave the concert venue.
(An edited version of this article was published on 23 June 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)