Monday, 14 January 2013


Usher Hall - home of the world's great coughs
A persistent hacking cough has forced Fantasy Bob to seek medical advice.  He sat in the waiting room Kleenex in hand ready to stifle any outburst.  He need not have been so concerned.  It was a cougherama - as coughs and wheezes exploded on all sides.

Surely it reminded him of something.   FB closed his eyes.  Yes, that was it.  The only place that FB has heard such a cacophony is in the Usher Hall during the Edinburgh Festival.  For a moment he wondered whether the Festival Friends had sponsored a special event at the surgery.

FB has long failed to understand how a concert audience is incapable of suppressing its various coughs and wheezes until the music has stopped.  Performers coming to Edinburgh at the height of the summer must think that Edinburgh is the global epicentre of bronchial disorder.

Many times FB has expectantly watched the orchestra assemble, seen and heard it tune up as the audience gathers.  Heard the sussuration of whispering go down as the lights dim.  Applauded the eminent conductor onto the podium.  Watched him shake hands with the leader, bow to the audience, turn the page on his score, lift his hands ready for that all important first chord.

He holds the moment.  The audience is on the edge of the seat.  It is only then - in that moment of transcendent silence - that the soloist for the evening starts.  A loud cough comes.  The conductor's shoulders sag.  He tenses. He has a choice.  Like an oversensitive golfer distracted by the buzz of a bee a hundred yards away, he could break off.  He could start his routine again.  But he knows that if he did so, another cough would interrupt again in exactly the same moment.  He could be here all night.  He is on a knife edge.  So he tenses a bit more.  He closes his eyes and hopes.  He brings his baton down.  The audience expresses its pleasure by coughing in unison, cleverly matching its contribution with the quieter parts of the score.

Jon Vickers - tough on coughs........
FB has often wondered what it must be like to be a performer fighting against such odds.  The great American tenor Jon Vickers once famously let it get the better of him and in mid performance of Tristan and Isolde told the audience very loudly to shut up with their coughing.  Inevitably, the audience took that as a compliment and redoubled their efforts.  You can hear this episode on this link .

Nowadays mobile phones add to the opportunity for the audience to participate in the concert.  These are more of an irritant to performers, since many ring tones are in direct antithesis the music coming from the platform.  A recital of Schubert Impromptus is rarely improved by a short rendering of the theme tune from Hawaii Five-0.  Performers regularly stop, sometimes storm off, but sometimes respond with a quip.  The best that FB has heard may be apocryphal, but concerns the performer who hearing the loud ring tone, stopped mid bar, turned his head to the audience and said 'If that is my agent, tell him I'm working..............'

Members of the Usher Hall audience are well on top of technology so that they can use technology to reduce their own performance anxiety.  By installing the chesty cough ring tone on their mobile, they will ensure that they are able to deliver the right cough whenever the music desires.

Silence was golden.
While a well placed cough at the top of an opponent's back swing can have a significant impact on the golf course, the cricketer may not be so susceptible.  At one time cricket crowds were respectfully silent when the ball was being bowled, cheering or clapping only when the shot is played (or not).  Nowadays the approach of England's Barmy Army ensures that there is a constant noise with the bowler's run up often being accompanied by chants and trumpet voluntaries.  Players seem to have adapted.  Nevertheless unexpected sounds from the close field can distract, although a batsman can step away.  FB's long experience has taught him how to deal with the risk of such distractions.  He empties his mind of everything.  This is not a long process.  However it does bring mixed results.  Having emptied his mind, he finds that it is unable to determine that the ball coming towards him is a straight one.  The inevitable happens.  Perhaps the risk of a cough from slip would be preferable after all.

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