Stifle that Cough! Say Carnegie Hall Patrons

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 - 10:18 AM

coughing girl (

In November, the guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas famously dealt with a bronchial audience at a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert by lobbing cough drops into the crowd during Mahler’s Ninth. Earlier that month, pianist Andras Schiff stopped in the middle of an encore in Boston to scold an audience member who had coughed. Less demonstrative performers usually opt to ride it out.

But restraining a cough is not always that simple, say some concertgoers. During Tuesday night's Carnegie Hall Live broadcast by the Boston Symphony, WQXR producer Aaron Dalton confronted several patrons in the hall's lobby to ask: What do you do when you have to cough at a concert?

"If it's during the performance and you can't do anything about it, you put your mouth into your sleeve," said one audience member. Another was more blunt: "I cough when I need to cough." Still another said, "I would like to restrain myself sometimes but there's nothing to be done."

Listen to the responses below and tell us in the comments box: how you manage a cold or cough at concerts?


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Comments [25]

vm2 from CA

Once I was sucking on a hard candy that I was using to keep my throat wet so I wouldn't cough. I choked on the juice of the candy, and for the remaining hour and a half of the concert, I had sweat and tears literally streaming down my face from the exertion of trying not to cough. It was horrible. I've also had instances where an allergy attack happened and despite the precautionary meds I had filled up on, I was unable to stop coughing fits. It's so horrible when it happens. Most people can wait until applause to cough, but sometimes emergencies happen.

May. 01 2014 05:20 AM
Megan from Alberta, Canada

Okay, lets take a moment to ponder this: how many times in a regular day do you actually have to cough? As much as you do at the symphony? I don't think so.

For me, it is zero times a day. Unless I am sick. So I do not have any sympathy or tolerance for people who "think" they "need" to cough during the symphony / opera.

The only exception for me is people who have a legitimate health condition that causes them to cough, or their throat to be dry - resulting in coughing.

But what percentage of the population is that, out of those attending a show on one particular evening?

What do I do if I have to cough? I never do, because it's impossible to have to cough that much in the time span of just a few hours. When I visit a show and I am sick, I have taken adequate amounts of water, taken cough suppressing medications and have pre-unwrapped something for my throat if it gets irritated.

The end.

Apr. 03 2014 04:09 PM
mr carnegie from NYC

Yesterday in the VPO concert was a lady in the balcony who persistently came out with a horrendous cough, especially at the most tender parts of Schubert 8th, ruining it for anybody near her. There was not even an attempt it seems to suppress it, no, it bellowed out - some patrons in the brief break between 1st and 2d movement even yelled she should get out. Why she didn't is beyond me - she was sitting center balcony directly at the stairs, so no issue getting up and out. Never experienced such a inexcusable irrespectfulness.

Mar. 16 2014 05:23 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

Pleased to report that coughing was at a minimum during Michael Feinstein's concert last evening. Sadly, the worst of it came during Laura Osnes' performance. I believe the amplification of the performers also helped conceal noises throughout the house unless you were one of those unfortunates sitting near a repeat offender. Plenty of Ricolas on hand!

Feb. 15 2014 02:57 PM
nebulae from Staten Islans

What the **** happened last night, Feb. 13, at the St.-Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra Carnegie Hall performance?! The noise level was the worst I have heard! Not only half the audience didn't show up because of the snow (what?! I came all the way from Staten Island, on two trains and a ferry, because I respect the Orchestra that is almost as old as this country), but the ones who came coughed incessantly, turned the pages of their booklets and engaged in all sorts of other noise-producing activities!!! The noise was coming from everywhere, but right next to me there were three people that were reading their booklets during the performance (why???), the man breathed with his mouth open, and constantly moved around his booklet. It was excruciating!!! Then something extraordinary happened that made all that 100 times worse: someone burst into laughter! She tries to suppress it but she shortly laughed one more time!!!
Something must be done about this! My Rimsky-Korsakov enjoyment was thoroughly spoiled last night. Thanks, people who don't care about other listeners and the music itself.

Feb. 14 2014 06:22 PM
Reverend Bulworth from Northern Westchester

The real problem is not that somebody occasionally coughs, it's all the copy cats that chime in with the throat clearing in an involuntary response in the same manner that a yawn begets more yawns. When the music is riveting, silence abounds, but during long sleepy passages the coughing and fidgeting really ruins the experience for me. I really think that the small announcement before the concert begins to remind people to silence their cell phones should be expanded to include instructions to PUT AWAY your reading materials as well. I'm sick of people flipping noisily through the pages as a way of telegraphing their boredom. I'm afraid that one day I'm going to have to rise up out of my seat and eject one of these noisy jerks. Also how many times do they drop the programs on the ground as they start to nod out. The musicians probably learn to hate the audience at some point. You would like to think that people mature enough to attend symphony would understand some very basic things about behaving respectfully in a concert hall, but that is not always the case.

Feb. 14 2014 10:58 AM
Ronald Melichar

The concert halls should make it easier for patrons who are sick to come another evening rather than maintain a policy of "no refunds or exchanges for any circumstance or reason." I imagine the concert halls will maintain that patrons "will call in sick" when they are not really sick. The concert halls should at least give this a try. They might be surprised to find that most people are honest. I hold the concert halls responsible for this problem. Ticket prices have risen so high that no one wants to forgo a concert, even when they are sick. Coughing could be reduced significantly if patrons were given the opportunity to get either a full refund or to exchange a seat for another performance--any performance where there is availability. The more liberal the policy, the quieter the halls will be during a performance! The exchange/refund should be available even (and especially) upto a few hours before the performance. The concert halls would still have the opportunity to resell the tickets on the day of the performance and it should be worth it for whatever loss is incurred to make the performances more enjoyable for everyone by reducing the coughing incidences.
be worth

Feb. 14 2014 08:29 AM
k from New York, NY

Every now and then, it is necessary to cough. So cough into your sleeve. If you go into a hacking fit--and you know who you are--get up and get out. Certainly you're not hearing the music anymore the anyone else around you. Accept your fate, leave the hall, calm your throat in the lobby, and return to your seat at the earliest convenience. You are not at a screaming pop fest, and believe it or not, it's not about you. Respect concert hall tradition--you'll have more fun.

Feb. 13 2014 06:16 PM

My worst experience was at BAM when I thought I was over my cold. Not. The auditorium was extremely dry and I was upfront. People were turning around and looking daggers at me. I like the idea of a small bottle of water. Cough drops are not always the answer because, depending on what cold germ has attacked you, cough drops can dry your throat and not solve your coughing problem. I am sure some people are rude and don't care, but most of us are mortified to be causing a disturbance.

Feb. 13 2014 03:34 PM
Alison Clark from New York, NY

Bring cough drops with quiet wrappers, and obviously don't go if you're ill. Stay home and rest.

But let's stop the shaming of people who can't repress their coughs. Coughing can happen when you're not sick, and that's just a fact of human life. I hate to think that someone might not feel welcome at a classical music event because they feel self-conscious because y'know, they might cough. (No wonder attendance is down.)

I go to classical music events in NYC all the time, and have certainly coughed. I try to do so in a controlled manner, but it has happened. For those of you wringing your hands about this--you're telling me that you've NEVER COUGHED during a performance? I'm not sure I believe you. I have also been to many classical music events in Europe, and I assure you that Europeans cough as well. We all have lungs, and no one is without sniffles in Berlin in mid-February. Let he who has never coughed in a concert cast the first cough drop!

Let's talk about the music, and not about how our fellow concert-goers either fail or don't fail to meet our vaunted expectations.

Feb. 13 2014 02:47 PM
Joan from Upper West Side

I am a music lover who has a chronic lung condition, and often need to cough at concerts. I do my very best not to, but if I must cough I try hard to keep the cough quiet, for one thing by not using the voice with the cough. Sips from a small bottle of water help. Cough drops don't always work (and unwrapping them bothers some people) but a quiet clearing of the throat during forte passages sometimes helps to avoid later coughing.

Feb. 13 2014 12:24 PM
Jane van S from NYC

Many think coughing is because of illness. Yet, although I test negative for allergies, I have arrived at a concert to find something has set off a "sensitivity" reaction - spring blooms, or a cleaning agent in the theater or restroom. It's not like I cough on purpose-and always leave if I can't get it under control with cough drops. But venues could do more to provide dust-free environments and non-scented cleaning materials. Audiences need to understand that 20% of the population are sensitive to dust, which is present in even the best seating area.

Feb. 13 2014 12:02 PM
Madeleine from New York

I'm a firm believer in no matter how much the tickets cost or how rare something is, Don't go. I've had bronchitis for the past month and miss the performance of Rusalka on my Met subscription, and am still coughing and will just have to miss the run. I stayed home last Saturday and coughed through 3 1/2 hours of listening to it on the radio. Hopefully I'll catch it on some live in HD encore in the next months.

Feb. 13 2014 11:46 AM
Pat C. from NJ

I think Fisherman's Friend makes the best cough drops, and you can get them out silently -- just carry the soft little bag that comes inside the cardboard box. An 8 oz. water bottle fits in pocket or purse. Clap both hands over your mouth even if you turn purple. Sometimes nothing works. Unfortunately, if you leave the auditorium you can't return before intermission, at least at the Met. Good reasons for that, but a disincentive to be considerate and leave.

Feb. 13 2014 11:33 AM
Joanne from NYC

I was getting over the flu, had conquered the cough part of it and had a VERY COSTLY ticket for a rare performance of "The Last Five Years" at Second City. So looking forward to this show! Theater tickets are costly, you don't expect to get a flu,life happens. Was fully prepared and dosed with every medication known to mankind for cough! To no avail, in the middle of the show, a coughing fit, I couldn't leave the theater fast enough(not always an easy task)as I knew how disturbing this was. Well, the ushers couldn't have been nicer, so understanding, they had water at the ready, etc. I went outside the theater, coughed it out, and missed about 12 minutes of the show. What are your options? Should you really throw a costly ticket away? I made it thru 95% of the show silently!

Feb. 13 2014 10:38 AM
Emily from Brooklyn

My recipe for quiet is to take a strong decongestant before the concert and prepare ricolas for the performance. If you know the piece you can time your unwrapping for the louder parts in order to quiet your cough during the quiet sections.

Feb. 13 2014 09:02 AM
William Zucker from Brooklyn, NY

I try my best to control my coughing, especially during a work which is absorbing to the point that requires intense concentration. But at times, it does get the better of me. How do I handle it without disturbing others, and incidentally, myself as well? Very simple - a rule of thumb which I wish others would follow - I cough into my sleeve or arm, and I don't cough with full force. This allows me to cough (quietly and restrainedly) as much as I need to. Nobody hears it, nobody is bothered by it, I barely hear it myself. By so doing, when the music gets to a legitimate break, between movements, when I and anybody else can cough unrestrainedly, I often no longer have the need, having already taken care of that in my silent, well muffled manner, still releasing everything that needs to be released. That is all very well, but a loud cough at a moment where the music stops momentarily within a movement would be intolerable. I hope those reading this are picking this up.

It does seem at times that a loud cougher is delivering in a manner much more disturbingly than needs to be the case. Anyone seized with the need to cough in that manner should promptly leave the hall out of consideration for others.

Sometimes I suck on Ricola drops before a concert, but these do not always work for me if I had something already there before the concert that the drops in themselves would not clear up. I simply cough in the manner I indicated above, and though I would not wish to be a distraction in any manner or form, at the same time I would hope to set an example for others by the manner I am handling my cough.

Feb. 13 2014 08:55 AM
Beverly Joy from Cambridge

Common sense says bring cough drops and tissues with you 'just in case'. Possibly we need to be 'reminded' when being seated, and if found lacking, be supplied with same.

That said, I fear most coughs we hear during those important 'quiet' times in a work, are expelled on purpose as a passive-aggressive attention-seeking ploy.

Feb. 13 2014 08:27 AM
Tim Casey from NYC

We are becoming a nation of babies with no manners. Coughing, cell phones and other devices, food, talking. An American audience has no clue how to behave anywhere. This is the future, and we are doomed.

Feb. 13 2014 07:04 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

I have an anecdote about the effect a cough on this listener while preserved for posterity on a recording. Taken from a radio broadcast in 1949, Toscanini and the NBC Symphony's performance of Schumann's "Rhenish" Symphony, (RCA Victor LM-2048), there's a cough at the end of the Third Movement (Nicht schnell) in the second from the last bar when the last eighth note of the third beat is played by the first violins. The cough happens to last exactly the same duration as the eighth note! Every time I hear this symphony ... gratefully, without the cough ... I can't help but think something's missing, though I know better.

Feb. 13 2014 06:30 AM
MB Flynn from Brooklyn

On our way to our seats at Carnegie, my husband and I stuff our pockets with their generously provided Ricola drops and then I make sure to have a couple in hand for emergencies. And ditto the tissues. We use the extras at Lincoln Center since they are not so forward-thinking about providing cough drops.And, if either of us have a cold, we don't go to a concert. That is just basic common sense, no?

Feb. 12 2014 08:28 PM
Frederick from New Jersey

I once had the misfortune to experience the need to cough while I was onstage as a member of the ensemble. While playing I was fine, but during a long rest I felt I was surely turning purple in my attempts to suppress the cough. No hard candy or cough drops for wind players. I'd love to hear any tricks for dealing with this situation.

Feb. 12 2014 06:05 PM
Leslie from Belfast, Maine

The first thing I do after sitting down in my seat is to get out a few cough drops, and tissues. Then I'm ready. If they don't work, I'll leave the hall.

Earlier this month I was at the MET for La Boheme. At the beginning of the last act, where we are all there to dissolve in tears, someone began coughing. LOUDLY! VERY LOUDLY! This person in the middle of the Family Circle continued to cough throughout the whole act. LOUDLY!

Didn't anyone have a cough drop? Couldn't that person leave? UGH!

Alfred Brendel, the pianist has a fabulous poem about the coughers. It seems funny, but he is deadly serious.

Feb. 12 2014 05:25 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York

As it happened, I attended the performance last night at Carnegie. I was struck by how quiet this audience was when compared to most of those I encounter. Carnegie Hall very thoughtfully provides Ricola drops to suppress coughs and soothe throats. They have the added virtue of being wrapped in wax paper which can be opened almost noiselessly if you pull on the two sides quickly. What was exasperating last night was the one audience member who tried for literally five minutes to wrestle open a hard candy whose plastic covering was stuck to it. Half of the section I was in squirmed anxiously.The noise completely broke the spell of Murray Perahia's beautiful playing. All the more frustrating because the person making all that noise could have had a Ricola.

Feb. 12 2014 02:05 PM
sevans from Ossining

Frankly, if you are coughing that badly, stay home. Nobody else wants your germs and the fact that the coughing is going to disrupt the performers, the performance and everyone else in the hall is just selfish. (I am a musician - I know where of I speak).

Feb. 12 2014 11:10 AM

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