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HOOKED ON CLASSICS ‌ Hackers

Of fistfights and flying mucus

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As the air chills and phlegm levels rise, also rising is an issue of some interest to classical music: coughing.

Anyone who's been to his share of concerts has surely felt that tickle in the back of the throat and realized he was about to add a surprise percussive element to a quiet adagio.

So you finally succumb and cough. As your cheeks flush with shame, you reassure yourself that it's uncontrollable and everyone does it and no one really cares that much.

Nope. Stick with the shame instinct. Musicians hate it.

Enrique Graf, the College of Charleston's world-renowned concert pianist, has so many hundreds of performances that he says he's generally learned to tune out disruptions. But then again...

"As a performer, when the audience is quiet, you think 'Wow.' There's this communion between everybody," Graf says. "But when it's noisy and people are coughing and dropping things, you think it's because they don't like your playing ... You find yourself thinking 'Why is this going on?'"

The websites of symphonies from Melbourne to Missoula offer guidelines on coughing, often extensive. Tips run from the practical, like unwrapping lozenges before the show, to the Zen-like. "The more you are absorbed in what's going on, the less likely you are to cough," says the American Symphony Orchestra League.

Pianist Keith Jarrett, a legend who played with Miles Davis and is also a serious classical performer, has been known to walk off the stage due to excessive coughing. At a show back in 1980, a few coughs barked out and Jarrett, a renowned improviser (and eccentric) stopped and asked everyone to participate in a group cough, which he then tried (without success) to incorporate into his music.

A reviewer from the Los Angeles Times, after a 2005 concert in Tokyo, claimed the Japanese suppress coughs "with an impressive vengeance." (Graf, headed to East Asia next month, has never played Japan, and couldn't back it up.)

Apparently even the mighty Soviet Empire couldn't quell the phlegm uprising. Several Amazon.com reviews of a 1960 Leningrad Symphony Orchestra Shostakovich recording refer to a "world-record for coughing."

"It seems to be a social thing," one reviewer writes, "if one cougher starts, others will follow. But in my view, this behavior is comparable with putting snot and other disgusting things on famous paintings in an art gallery ... Next time I sit next to a cougher during a concert, I'll smash that cougher's nose!"

Yes! Fistfights and flying mucus! Perhaps coughing is just the thing to spark an audience's passion for classical music, take us back to the days of the Rite of Spring riots.

Even here in our usually unflappable fair city, a coed from the College of Charleston wrote to the Post and Courier last week, snipping about retirees sucking on cough drops and other rudenesses at classical concerts. If complaining about the elderly in the P&C op-ed pages isn't a revolution, I don't know what is.

Graf admits that, while he's often amazed at the lack of even mouth-covering, he did see a woman during a recent Monday Night Concert at CofC struggle to hold her hacking until a loud part. That's another tip coughing guides give, as well as just stepping out for a minute.

"Sometimes people get up and walk out," Graf says, "and they're so embarrassed, they feel like they need to cough louder as they go, so people will know that's why they're leaving."

Yeah, I would totally do that.

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