One of the tasks of a singer is to figure out how much to challenge a developing voice with difficult repertoire: which songs to sing, how much and when. There is a little bit of a discussion going on right now on the New Forum for Classical Singers about how safe to play it for vocal health while one is a younger singer. The posters are responding to a young singer who told everyone that she had been pushing herself to sing repertoire that was too difficult for her, against her teacher's advice, which can be a way to grow, but perhaps pushing herself too much and to the detriment of her voice.
They are also responding to the fact that the girl feels her teacher may be in some way responsible for her having overdone it, by not communicating specifically and well enough why this might lead to harm. Or perhaps that her teacher had not given her good enough technique to withstand the rigors of pushing one's self to further vocal heights.
My first real voice teacher was very protective of vocal health. She was concerned about the tendency in today's singers to push the voice, and would point out singers who were experiencing vocal strain. She was a mature singer, and her voice was in excellent condition, so I took her admonitions to heart about being willing to wait for the voice to develop, to proceed with healthy habits, and to value vocal health.
But in some ways, this was not good for me. I played it too safe, and I did not stimulate myself to grow. I kept myself, afraid of pushing and afraid of being too impatient for results, in a comfortable zone, and didn't dare stress or push my voice for fear of injuring it. In a way I was too good. I treated my voice like it a special bird in a cage that I had to be very gentle with. I began to think of it as being a fragile thing that could be broken so easily.
As a result, however, I did not grow and develop my voice for years and years. I was waiting patiently for this growth to occur, but I did not challenge myself in the ways I needed to in order to produce that growth. I had a fear of high notes. I had this picture of my vocal cords just tearing into little shreds if I went for a high note with too much gusto. I had a fear of what I called my "chest voice," which was the production of the heavy vocal mechanism, and which was actually a great asset of mine, and began to think that this voice was dangerous and would destroy me as a singer if I gave it too much freedom. What made this even more insidious is that I didn't completely recognize that I even had this fear, nor where it came from. I thought I was vocally virtuous. And so I waited and waited and waited patiently for vocal progress that never came. (Also did not realize exactly how long it was I was supposed to be waiting.)
In a way, I was like my son, who learned the lessons I tried to teach him to be safe a little too well. I wanted him to develop good hand washing habits and thought I was being so smart teaching him about germs and what they do. But I produced fear, and he didn't want to touch things with germs. As a parent, trying to teach a child, my primary worry was that my child would not listen and take me seriously about germs, and I was so focused on this aspect that I never saw the other danger of his taking me too seriously, and hampering his ability to be free and enjoy himself in the world and not worry too much about germs.
Yes, the muscles that operate phonation are small, but they are not so puny and fragile as all that. On top of it all, I am finding out now, late in life, that I as an individual have particularly sturdy vocal cords with a great deal of stamina and the potential for longevity. How I wish I had known that! Can I blame my "overprotective" teacher. I'm not sure. She could not see into my soul and understand the conclusions I was coming to and which I did not think to articulate to her.
For the moment, as I discuss this I'm going to leave out the important and primary aspect of technique and form and assume that proper technique and balanced phonation has been set in place and it is okay to proceed with challenging the instrument. Like any athlete, a singer needs to figure out how much to stress the voice to stimulate vocal growth, and how much to protect the voice to avoid injury. A singer, like an athlete, needs to learn how to recognize which "pains" and strains are normal little discomforts from challenging one's self, and which ones to pay attention to that may end up as full fledged incapacitating injuries.
One of the things that makes this even more complicated is that the set rules don't apply across the board. There are different body types and different voices. What is too strenuous for one body and what would cause damage to that one is almost nothing to another.
I think it's a very difficult thing for a teacher and a student to understand. How do you know if another person is overdoing it or not? How does an inexperienced/beginner athlete/singer know what is too much or too little or not? It is an ongoing process and a separate art in and of itself to figure out an individual's precise level of training and growth.
In a book I have just finished, God on the Starting Line; The Triumph of a Catholic School Running Team and it's Jewish Coach, by Marc Bloom, the coach has the task of training a group of adolescent boys to run as a cross country team together as well as learn to run their personal bests. One of the students continually resists the coaches admonition to hold back in the beginning of the race. For whatever reason, this particular student felt that he must not follow the coach's advice and pushes ahead of the other runners because they are going too slow for him, and because of his hunger for a personal victory over them. It isn't until he experiences the consequence of the failure of his own strategy that he finally hears and believes what the coach had tried to tell him.
A lot of times the way we learn about ourselves is by the results. The singer on the message board, like me when I think about my years with the protective voice teacher, learned a lot from her results. She learned that the communication in the relationship needed to be a lot better. Assumptions were being made on both parts of teacher and student which never came to light. What makes communication even harder is that we are not even always aware of what we assume. It is only after the fact, like when examining a broken relationship, that the light is shed on how we had been thinking.
How can anyone really be blamed when we are all learning? Trial and error, mistakes and injuries; They all teach us about ourselves and how our voices and bodies work. Eventually we will become smart singers who know and recognize the teacher who is going to be good for us. And the teachers are growing and learning in their own art as well.