The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: How do the flu and classical music mix? What can be done now that the flu season is peaking here and in the concert hall. How should musicians and presenters deal with a sick and coughing audience? | January 15, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

As I remarked in blog posts of the past three days, the winter intermission is coming to an end with a recital at Arbco housing by the Madison-based Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Kitt Reuter-Foss, with a concert this coming Friday by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and with performances of Medieval and Renaissance English music by Eliza’s Toyes on Saturday and Sunday .

So it is undeniable: The second half of the concert season is picking up.

So, unfortunately, is the flu season, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Here is a link to a report on NBC-TV about how many states gave started to report serious cases of flu, including deaths, in the majority of states. And there is no sign of a let up. In fact, predictions are for it to get worse — including right here in Wisconsin.

So when you add in a major spike in flu cases to public events held in public spaces — like, say, concerts – you have a volatile and even dangerous risky mix.

BDDS Playhouse audience

Even in healthy times, The Ear finds it bad enough to sit next or near a chronic cougher — whether from allergies, sinus problems or illness — who simply will not leave the hall to hack but prefers instead to fight it out in the hall and ruin much of the music for others.

Coughers at concerts

But right now those same people are not just annoying. They pose public health risks.

One obvious solution is for people who feel ill to stay home. PLEASE. But that may be hard to do when you pay out big money for tickets and don’t want to lose out on the investment or the beauty of the music.

Some presenters offer free cough drops, which some audience members love to unwrap during the slow movement. But a lot of listeners apparently don’t avail themselves of them — or of taking cough medicine before the concert and during intermission.

Perhaps the YouTube video at the bottom about how to use how you breathe to stop coughing can help.

It might also be good if more performing arts organizations offered rebates or switches on tickets for people who need to cancel to protect their own health and the health of others – including, let us not forget, the musicians or performers themselves.

I wonder how realistic that solution is and how many presenters do offer or would offer such a deal for th eska elf public health. If they don’t, they should.

Recently, The New York Times ran a combined story-column, part humorous and self-deprecating and part serious, by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim about how musicians deal with coughing. Her examples included famous conductors (such as Michael Tilson Thomas, below top, when he conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and instrumentalists (including pianist Andras Schiff, below bottom in a photo by Robert Torres, when he performed a monster concert of Johann Sebastian Bach‘s “Goldberg” Variations and Ludwig van Beethoven‘s “Diabelli” Variations back-to-back in Boston and then went on to play an encore) dealt with coughers in the audience.

Michael Tilson Thomas Hiroyuki Ito for NY TImes

Andras Schiff. Credit Robert Torres

I remember a concert years ago at the Wisconsin Union Theater during which pianist Alfred Brendel suddenly stopped playing and chastised the audience for spoiling his music with coughing and noise. He then started over again and – miracle of miracles – the audience was indeed quieter.

If many coughers can keep quiet when asked, why can’t they do so on their own? Silence is part of good concert etiquette.

Anyway here is the amusing yet totally serious Times story about how the performers themselves deal with coughing audiences:

Is there more than can be done?

One world-famous musician thinks so.

And so does The Ear.

Tune in tomorrow.


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  1. Jacob, I will never forget a beautiful recital sung by
    Elizabeth Schwarzkopf in the Union Theatre in the 1950s. Must have been coughing season. Finishing a group of songs, Ms. Schwarzkopf stepped forward to the edge of the stage and asked if we could hear her.
    The audience nodded heads and said yes, to which she replied, “Well, I can certainly hear YOU!” There was not another cough nor rustle the rest of the recital.

    Margaret Ingraham

    Comment by Margaret Ingraham — January 15, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

  2. I checked out a CDC site, wondering how long a person with flu remains infectious:
    “Most healthy adults may be able to infect other people beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick. Children may pass the virus for longer than 7 days. Symptoms start 1 to 4 days after the virus enters the body. That means that you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick. Some people can be infected with the flu virus but have no symptoms. During this time, those persons may still spread the virus to others”.
    Not encouraging, but at least if you’ve had flu for over a week, you’re probably not passing on the virus if you’re still coughing.

    Comment by Ann Boyer — January 15, 2014 @ 8:46 am

    • Hi Ann,
      Thank you for reading and replying with another insightful answer that carries the arguments to another level.
      From the timings that you found on the CDC site, I would bet that people remain infectious for longer than many or even most of them suspect they they do.
      The CDC talks about “healthy” adults having the virus; but not about less-than-healthy adults — say those with compromised or weaker immune systems — who might be infected or be more susceptible for a longer period of time or at a lower level of contagion. Curious, no?
      But I will have more to say about prevention — not just concert etiquette or social considerations — on the post tomorrow.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 15, 2014 @ 9:07 am

  3. Wall of text to follow. The short version:

    Coughing happens. We’d save a lot of breath if we just accepted it as a fact of life and stopped excoriating the poor folks (and we’ve all been there) who can’t help it. It only ruins the concert if you let it.

    My theater director in high school, Paul Milisch, once told us that good art was measured by a performer’s ability to keep an audience from coughing for prolonged periods of time. It’s a funny way of looking at it, but it does evoke the spellbinding power of a good performance in which the audience is held rapt for whole phrase, or movement, or scene. However, I am inclined to think that we put entirely too much emphasis culturally on suppressing and stigmatizing a natural and unavoidable bodily function in the name of art, rather than simply figuring out that we can enjoy good art whether or not someone coughs.

    Yeah, it’s annoying when someone hacks through the end of Mahler 9, but does it have to mean you can’t enjoy the performance? God, I hope not – what would that mean about all of the perfectly good performances I’ve managed to enjoy irrespective of the presence of coughing audience members? Would it invalidate my enjoyment (or theirs, for that matter)?

    Overture Hall in the winter can be dry as a bone. I’ve sat through MSO concerts where I could feel my throat drying out and pinching shut as I listened. Now, maybe I was allergic to my neighbor’s perfume – not the point. Nor did I have any idea I’d feel that way when I walked in: most concerts are fine, and I don’t notice until the concerto or so. The point being: it’s horribly selfish to assume that my coughing is worse for you, as a fellow listener, than it is for me trying to suppress the coughing, the discomfort that caused it, and the ingrained shame at being unable to control it – and trying to enjoy the music at the same time.

    Save yourself the effort! Just listen to the show, and give the poor coughing folks a break.

    Oh, and if venues – I’m looking at you, Overture Center – would just let us bring water bottles into the hall, rather than confiscating them at the door, we could save a lot of time in the arts world squabbling over something so thoroughly insignificant as coughing.

    (Final addendum: the breathing trick in the video, in my experience, is absolutely worthless if you have a dry cough.)

    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — January 15, 2014 @ 12:22 am

    • Hi Mikko,
      I think you make very good points, as you usually do.
      You are right; We have all been there.
      But we don’t all react the same way.
      But I don’t agree that we should just overlook ALL coughing.
      The context matters. A loud orchestral concert, for example, is a different setting than, say, chamber music or a song recital.
      Sure, a short cough or even couple of coughs is only human and can be tolerated or overlooked.
      But I remember one recent concert where a person near me just kept hacking and hacking, and very loudly, when the polite and considerate thing would have been to go to the lobby until the coughing fit subsided sand then return to his seat. This was a militant cougher, whether consciously so or not. That is a rather selfish position to adopt.
      I agree with you that they should hold allow people to bring water into the hall, though I expect the ban has to do with wanting to sell refreshments and also avoid spills during the concert, which can be their own distraction and problem. Still, I am with you overall: Let us hydrate, especially when it is so dry.
      But I do not think we should overlook all coughing, especially during the flu and cold season when coughing can threaten other listeners sitting nearby.
      It is a predicament or problem that both presenters and audience members must address and solve cooperatively.
      I wil be anxious to see what other readers and audience members have to say, and especially what performers (whose concentration an defocus can be interrupted) and presenters have to say.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 15, 2014 @ 9:01 am

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