“Mummy, why is everybody coughing?”
The entire audience seemed to have been gripped by a bout of uncontrollable coughing after the slow movement of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, and it was then that I heard the young voice pipe up from the row seated behind me.
In the time-honoured way of parents faced with a child’s question to which the answer is either not known or too complicated to give, I heard Mummy say “shhh”, and with that the Symphony continued. But it was a good question and one which deserves an answer; even if the child who posed it will not only have forgotten the question but will never in a Month of Sundays read this blog.
There are two reasons why audiences cough so profusely, and neither has anything to do with smoking, weather, air-conditioning, dust or simple ill-health.
The first is simply that it is the perfectly natural release of air after the suspension of normal breathing which affects everyone who finds themselves entranced by something very special. Without being aware of it, we tend to suspend normal breathing practices when listening to a quiet and moving piece of music such as the slow movement from the “New World” Symphony. When we find ourselves entranced by such music we become terrified of breaking the spell by making any sort of noise. Since our own breathing seems unconscionably loud to us when our ears are straining to catch every nuance of the music, we simply hold our breaths. And as soon as the spell is broken, and the music fades away, such is our relaxation, that we expel the held in air in a burst which, as often as not, catches in the throat which we then clear by coughing. And few things are quite so contagious as coughing, so when others around us cough, we start to do the same as if in sympathy. I teach my own students that when they are performing, an outbreak of coughing after a particularly moving section is, far from a distraction, a priceless indicator of approval. I tell them that their aim should be to inspire uncontrollable coughing from the entire audience – that way they show that they have managed to get the musical message across effectively.
The second reason is rather more complicated and stems back to the change in audience attitudes which came about in the early 20th century around the same time as the gramophone record became the universal medium by which music was disseminated. Applause was no longer used as an indicator of general approval but as a badge of respectability; Richard Strauss was one of the first to note this change in behaviour and to object to it. We don’t applaud music because we like the performance, we applaud it because it shows that we understand it. How else can you explain why audiences no longer applaud spontaneously but only at pre-determined moments in a concert when, perhaps (as at the end of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony), it would seem wholly inappropriate?
You see it at the Proms in London, you see it at the Esplanade in Singapore, you see it wherever audiences like to show off their collective musical knowledge and create that very obvious barrier between the experienced concert-goer and the shame-faced newbie. Spontaneous applause between movements of a multi-movement work is so often quickly suppressed by a barrage of “ssshhs” or a forest of glowering eyes turned in the direction of the nearest applauder, that few have the courage to continue no matter how inspiring the performance has been. I read critics getting into a lather over what they, in their total ignorance, perceive as “misplaced applause”, and I see music students, scores on laps and knowing looks in their eyes, turn with ersatz-horror on those who have committed the ultimate solecism of showing appreciation for a fine performance while it is still in progress. The golden rule seems to be, Don’t Show Appreciation, Show Knowledge!
Few of the great works in musical history were ever intended to be heard in silence. The first performance of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony was notable for the rapturous applause which greeted every movement. We read of how public attending rehearsals interrupted movements with their applause. All of this thrilled Dvořák. What would he have thought had he attended the concert where a Singaporean audience sat in apparent utter disinterest as his music was playing, only to burst into applause long after all his good ideas had been worked dry?
Music intended to engender a response from an audience has a certain feel to it that positively encourages some audience reaction when the work is still in mid-flow. Indoctrinated by the ignorant “know-it-all’s” who castigate spontaneous applause, audiences have to find other means of registering their approval; and nothing is more effective than the clearing of the throat, or a sustained bout of coughing. Trombonist Kevin Thompson has pointed out to me in the past the obvious contradiction between a beautiful musical moment and a few hundred people slamming their hands together in a violent, percussive manner, so perhaps coughing is a more effective and appropriate means of showing appreciation. However, the Concert Etiquette Police are getting wise to this, and now insist on pre-concert announcements which tell people to smother their coughs with handkerchiefs. Indeed, so ingrained is this anti-appreciation mentality amongst Singaporean concert audiences that the pre-concert announcements which give this message are more roundly and robustly applauded than the entry of the concert-master or conductor. In Singapore we have become a society where enjoying a concert seems bad manners.
So to answer our young questioner. People are coughing because they like the music. Singaporeans and others should throw out those cough sweets and those Fishermen’s Friends, the unwrapping of which has so often disturbed concert-goers, and cough away to your heart’s content before that, too, gets banned. It’s about the only way we have left of letting the musicians on stage know that we appreciate them and the music they are playing for us.