There’s been a lot in the press recently about coughing in classical concerts, and whether it’s acceptable or not. We classical musicians (and listeners) tend to get upset about performances being marred by loud coughing. However, compared with some musicians, I realise we are very lucky when it comes to the kind of background noise we’re expected to tolerate.
An excellent jazz pianist of my acquaintance – someone I’ve paid good money to hear in concert – was telling me he’d been booked to play for a corporate Christmas dinner at a big hotel. He was the special guest performer, hired to play for two hours. As soon as the dinner began, guests began blowing up and letting off balloons, which flew haphazardly around the room, belching noisily and obliterating the music. ‘At first I thought, this can’t last more than five minutes’, said my pianist friend. ‘But it did. It went on for the whole two hours. First it was one table, then it was another, and finally the whole lot of them seemed to be competing to make the most noise with as many balloons as possible and a lot of shrieking as they flew round overhead. It was unbelievable. I told myself to keep my head down and keep going until the time we’d agreed. I just played for myself really.’
When I hear this kind of thing I feel grateful that I belong to a corner of the music profession where most people do listen quietly – whether by choice or because they feel that the atmosphere requires it. No audience of mine would ever spend two hours using balloons competitively as noise weapons. Maybe they’d like to, but they feel they can’t, for which I confess I am grateful. I don’t think I would have the stamina of my jazz pianist friend, just to ‘keep my head down, keep going and play for myself’ against a background of buzzing projectiles.