The Window of Tolerance in Practice and Performance
As promised (though not as quickly as promised…sorry!) here is a follow-up to last week’s post in which I introduced the concept of the Window of Tolerance. If you missed it, you can read it here. In this post I want to talk about why I think this can be a helpful concept for musicians in both practice and performance and to offer a few more simple exercises that you can explore to get a feel for your own window of tolerance.
the window of tolerance in music practice
Have you ever engaged in security blanket practicing? This is my term for the kind of practicing we do in response to thoughts such as, “I’m never going to be able to play this passage,” or, “I’m going to bomb my recital,” or, “I will never be a good enough musician.” You can read more about it in this post from a couple of years ago and, although I didn’t call it by that name, this is essentially what I was talking about here when I referred to practicing more or “harder” (whatever that means…) in response to stress or anxiety.
The idea is that sometimes we practice in reaction to how we’re feeling about our playing (or about ourselves as musicians) and not in response to a clear-eared and neutral appraisal of what is actually going on in our playing. This is the difference between, “Huh, I can hear that I’m a little flat on that note” and “Wah!!!!! My intonation suuuuuuucks!!!!.” The first response gives us specific and valuable information about our playing whereas the second buries some non-specific (and therefore not terribly valuable) information about our playing under an avalanche of emotional reactivity. Which do you think is going to give you better results — in terms of both effectiveness and enjoyment — over the long haul? My money is on neutral and specific.
“Sure,” you might be thinking, “mine too. Obviously.” But how do you actually do that???
I get it. For some of us, even a small amount of things-not-going-as-planned — a missed note, a rough passage, a bad tone day — pushes us out of our window of tolerance and into either hyper-arousal (racing thoughts, physical tension, mindless repetition) or hypo-arousal (“I give up.”) It’s important to note, by the way, that security blanket practicing can occur in either of these states. That is, it can have a frantic quality or a resigned quality. Sometimes security blanket practicing even shows up in the guise of tried-and-true practice strategies. It’s less about what we’re actually doing and more about what we’re trying to accomplish. And, while we might say that we’re trying to become better musicians, in the case of security blanket practicing, what we’re really doing in the moment is trying to make ourselves feel better. The unconscious assumption is that once we sound better we’ll feel better, that when we can play it the way we want, we’ll magically go back into our window. And the thing is, this works just well enough for us to keep doing it. We do sometimes feel a little bit better after we’ve wrangled a difficult passage into submission. But…I think it’s backwards. My take is that our playing would get better faster AND we’d be happier, if we got into our windows first, and then practiced. In other words, rather than thinking of being in our window as the reward for having accomplished something, we can think of being in our window — feeling alert, grounded, focused, energized, calm — as a pre-condition for accomplishing something. After all, from the perspective of how we learn best, it kind of is.
Remember, operating in our window of tolerance doesn’t mean that there is no effort or challenge. It doesn’t meant that we never get tired or zone out. It just means that we feel we have the resources to meet the challenges we face and that our energy is balanced and responsive. It’s in this state that we have the cognitive resources to listen to ourselves with discernment and to make good decisions about what to do next based on what we’re hearing (not on how we feel about what we’re hearing).
So, back to the question of how to shift towards a more neutral and curious mindset while practicing. A good first step (well, right after self-compassion) is, I believe, beginning to tune in to the fact that your physiology is responding to life all of the time and is often driving your behaviour. See above re: security blanket practicing. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago in Tuning In but, to briefly recap, we can develop a habit of checking in periodically throughout our day (and especially before we practice!) and asking, “What does it feel like to be me right now?” Our check-in might include things such as energy level, stress level, hunger vs fullness, physical tension vs relaxation, etc. In doing this, we learn to tune into signals coming from inside with greater clarity and accuracy and this gives us an opportunity to respond consciously and even creatively to what is happening in the moment rather than reacting out of habit.
Once you build some awareness of your internal state, you can start playing with shifting that state to better support your learning. At the risk of sounding like a broken record (a risk I take daily, as any of my students will tell you!) I think working with the felt sense through the body can be very effective. I have a few deceptively simple exercises for this that are nonetheless enormously effective when practiced regularly. I put five of my favourites in a handout for a workshop a few months ago and you can download that handout here or from the notes below. In it, I don’t refer explicitly to the window of tolerance (I think I use the term “sweet spot”), but that’s what I’m talking about.
Performance Anxiety and the Window of Tolerance
I think it is also really interesting to consider music performance anxiety in the context of the window of tolerance. My feeling is that many interventions for performance anxiety focus too much on managing responses to a particular performance event and not enough on managing the nervous system’s response to stress more generally. Yes, some people appear to experience what could be termed “focal” performance anxiety, that is, anxiety that arises only in response to a performance situation and does not present in other areas of the performer’s life. However, numerous studies suggest that musicians who experience moderate to severe performance anxiety often suffer from other anxiety disorders and/or exhibit characteristics such as neuroticism, perfectionism, fear of negative evaluation, etc. (Kenny, 2011)
This is certainly true for me. When I look back on some of my own struggles with performance anxiety, I can see that the distress I often felt leading up to and during a performance was probably inevitable given the stress I felt over pretty much everything in my life. Dealing with performance stress as a separate category was only marginally effective in the context of a life lived almost entirely outside the window of tolerance.
There is a saying that I like:
How you do anything is how you do everything.
I think our approach to performance is an expression of the attitudes, values, and habits that we cultivate in the practice room and that who we are in the practice room is, in turn, an expression of the attitudes, values, and habits that we cultivate in every moment of our lives.
That said, yes, live performance is intense. That’s part of what makes it so exhilarating…and so terrifying. I think the practice of noticing when you are outside your window of tolerance and developing some strategies for getting back in can be very helpful in learning to deal with this intensity. It’s also helpful to make your window bigger so that you can tolerate more intensity without being defenestrated, so to speak. That’s coming up next time…
Kenny, Dianna T., The Psychology of Music Performance Anxiety. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Siegel, Daniel J. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. New York: Guilford Press, 1999.