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I was watching some videos of classical Indian (Carnatic) vocal concerts recently, and I noticed that from time to time the singers cough or clear their throats in the middle of a piece, even between phrases.

I feel that this would not be appropriate in a comparably virtuosic performance of Western classical vocal music, e.g. a solo aria. However, I am not quite sure as to how much it would be considered a genuine shortcoming (as opposed to an excusable glitch or mishap).

On the same note, would it cause deduction of marks in a singing competition/exam?

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You are correct: I would not be appropriate to cough or clear a throat during a Western classical vocal performance. It is for this reason that many vocalists will carry water out with them and will drink during a break between movements or while resting.

If a vocalist absolutely must cough, it is excusable to cough between movements or songs during a performance of a song cycle, however, the vocalist should take care to turn from the audience, cover their mouth with their elbow, and immediately follow the cough with a drink of water. Running off the stage is not advisable, and it would certainly make the pianist feel very awkward.

That said, sometimes things happen: people cough, cell phones ring, vocalists forget words, instruments break, strings break, mouthpieces fall out, mutes fall out. Things happen. The trick in performing is to minimize as much as possible. If it's not possible, stop, and resume from an appropriate place.

Regarding an exam / competition, it would be best to do any coughing prior/post the exam. Take water, take tea, eat a banana, do a salt gargle; anything to minimize possible tickling before you enter. Even bring water with you if absolutely necessary. If you cough during a performance, you will lose points. If you absolutely must clear your throat before you sing, turn from the judges, muffle your mouth with your elbow, clear your throat, and then proceed.

Hope that helps.

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Every sound during a performance should be intended. This isn't always achieved, but surely it should be the aim?

The marking schemes of musical contests can be weird, wonderful and quite arbritary :-) Maybe they'd overlook a cough, maybe not.

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