It's funny what sticks with you, things that were perhaps said off-hand or in a conversation about something else entirely. Some of the best advice and insight I've gotten from other musicians has come at unexpected moments. For instance, when I was doing my second masters degree (Collaborative Piano), I had to take a couple semesters of a class called Diction for Singers. For those of you who don't know, diction is the art of pronunciation in singing. In such a class you learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and how to apply it to the four major language of the vocal repertoire: Italian, French, German and English. The idea is to convince your audience that singing in those languages is natural for you, even if it's not. It's certainly helpful to have studied all those language, even if you are not fluent. People who take classes in vocal diction are voice students and collaborative pianists - in other words, singers and the pianists who accompany them.
It is an absolute requirement that every person taking the class, pianists included, sing at least one song in each major language. In front of everyone.
When I took the diction classes, they were taught by a member of the voice faculty who had a substantial career singing professionally in opera houses abroad, mostly in Germany and Austria, for more than a decade. We will call her J. J is a very kind and warm person, which certainly helped along those of us who were decidedly not comfortable singing in front of the class. Of course, we knew we were being evaluated on our ability to demonstrate good diction, not execute flawless vocal technique, but even so, standing up in front of everyone and squawking through simple Schubert songs and the like was no cup of tea.
The first time I sang in front of the diction class, I had my shoulders hunched and my hands in the pockets of my jeans the entire time. She made me do it again with better posture, and it went much better the second time.
At some point in the semester - and now I don't remember if it was that day I sang with my hands in my pockets, or a different day featuring several awkward vocal performances by people who weren't really singers - J made a little speech about performing well. She said that when a performer lets his or her self-consciousness get in the way of the performance, that person is being too self-centered. Why? Because then the performance event is all about how the performer is doing and how she or he is feeling and not about the music. It should always be about the music itself, and communicating the music to the audience as completely and artistically as possible.
That little impromptu speech has really stuck with me (and I bet she has NO idea what impact it made!) I have been thinking about it a lot over the past couple weeks. I've been preparing some difficult pieces with a violinist, and I am pressed for time. Some things are going very well, but I wish we had more time to prepare (isn't that always the case?) and many of my feelings of insecurity and self-consciousness and self-doubt have been clouding my ability to just get the job done. I will pull this off, and I have to believe I can do it well. But beyond that, it's not about me, is it? It's about the music. I have to remember that, and I have J to thank for that nugget of wisdom to pull me through.