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There’s a lot made of audience coughing at concerts and their disregard for the musicians or the quiet moments, or any moments at all, for that matter. The general in-between hacking coughs or clearing of throats in the performances of La Traviata I’ve been doing recently made me think we had a whole audience of dying sopranos who all had TB, or who were coming out in sympathy. They all seemed to be competing with each other as to who had the worst cough. Then there’s the audience member who helpfully decides to unwrap a cough sweet in the quiet bits – yes we CAN hear you doing that, thanks.

However, today I’m thinking of the unlucky musician on stage who might own one of those coughs. I’ve had a particularly bad cold, one that, although I feel fine enough to work and would feel a right fraud sitting at home otherwise, now seems to have settled on my chest and caused the most lovely hacking cough. One that seems to arise at the most inopportune moments – in other words, just when I need to be quiet in a concert, and then decides to stick around and just not stop.

Yesterday was one of these occasions. There’s a fine line to be drawn somewhere, and I’ve never been sure where it is. My work ethic says that if I can hold my violin without dropping it, then I should be at work, unless something’s persisting so badly that the only way of getting it shifted once and for all is to take time off and sleep. There’s the rehearsal time to consider – if you’ve been at rehearsal, then a deputy (if one can be found for you at late notice) will have to virtually sightread. There’s your colleagues to think about as well and the fact that, to be blunt, I have a job to do and I get paid for it.

I felt fine, cough aside, and so off I went to work. I came prepared, generally being mortified and forever embarrassed at past coughs ruining lovely solos or quiet moments or soloists concertos; strepsils, lockets, halls soothers (yes all three brands), water, cough mixture, lemsip. I was a veritable pharmacy yesterday; usually, lining up the cough sweets (already unwrapped) and water does the trick. Usually… famous last words.

I was in the rehearsal and we were getting to the beautiful quiet middle movement of the soloist’s concerto; I don’t know whether it’s worrying about the fact that you might cough and completely ruin what somebody is trying to do, but it’s sod’s law. You end up holding your breath, shaking, hoping that you can manage to play and convincing yourself that you can hold your breath for 3 more lines so you don’t have to cough. And then it is always worse when you are forced into it by a body going… no, I want to cough NOW! I ended up leaving the rehearsal for a brief time, but it seemed likely that I’d have to sit out the concert or risk basically coughing straight through it. I don’t mean the odd cough, I was lucky to be lasting a minute between.

Frustrating business, because of course if you stop trying to do anything – play, hold your breath or any other activity, there’s no coughing, and everything settles down. The minute you try and do anything at all, and off it goes again.

In the end, I was rescued by our orchestral manager, who not only recommended a different cough mixture, but went off and got hold of it. Worked like a charm. Didn’t stop it completely but at least allowed me to enjoy a rather wonderful concert without collapsing into a coughing fit, or ruining the audience’s enjoyment or the artistic efforts of the musicians.

As a note to audience members suffering under these ailments… I took a duster and a paper cup with cough mixture onto stage. When I needed to, coughing into the duster muffled it a great deal, especially when timed with a loud passage in the brass! Might not have looked as professional as I’d like, as it wasn’t a black duster; I imagine drinking from a paper cup in between movements isn’t the ideal look either – but this was almost certainly better than the solution some of my colleagues suggested, which was taking the entire bottle onto stage in a brown paper bag and swigging from it…

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