Uselessness Is Next to Saintliness

Fear, hunger, sex, and aggression are widely acknowledged, but one of the most destructive human impulses passes without notice: the urge to be useful. The wisest man I ever knew used to instruct his doctoral students to insert errors and infelicities in their dissertations – he was bound to assert his usefulness by changing something, he said, and if the dissertation came to him perfect, anything he changed would only mar it, and he would be unable to help himself. I used to follow this principle with my editor at the Village Voice, with considerable success. If there was an odd locution I wanted to get away with, I would insert a more badly-phrased one somewhere else, and he’d make the change there and leave my idiosyncratic sentence alone.

I thought of this the other day upon hearing a piece by a student composer that was just about perfect, without a note one could add or subtract. I was relieved that he wasn’t studying with me, because I would have wanted to change something, and there was nothing to be profitably changed. Professors dearly like to feel they are doing some good in the world, and the student who shows up with a perfect piece is almost an affront. Even if a piece isn’t perfect, it is sometimes evident that a student is following a process that he or she needs to go through, and no advice from outside will do any good. Usually the student is frustrated about the piece progressing too slowly, or not coming out the way desired; less often, the student is deluding himself about the effect he’s creating, and needs a dose of reality. In those cases, advice and intervention are certainly called for. But 15, 20, 30 percent of the time the compositional process is simply following its necessary course, and no professorial interference can do any good. Sometimes the student even insists on advice and interference, and wants to be taught the kind of lesson that, ultimately, one can only learn for oneself. It takes a disciplined kind of austerity for the professor to stand down and not give advice when it won’t be helpful. I get the impression that some composition teachers don’t believe such moments exist.

It’s not only the student/teacher relationship in which the satanic desire to be helpful intervenes. A faculty member will submit an appropriate, reasonable initiative, that then goes through committee for approval – and every damned member of that committee will feel it necessary to justify his or her existence by altering the original plan in some detail, until it turns into a nightmare of compromises, and gets deservedly scuttled, when the original plan would have benefitted everyone. (Never mind what recent events bring this to mind.) God bless the rare professional secure enough in his own ego that he can sit back and allow a proposal to proceed without making his own mark on it. And let’s wonder why no biologist has yet embarked on any drug to suppress the compulsive urge to be useful.


  1. says

    This was a fairly interesting article for sure, since half the time I’m not really sure what goes on in some of my professor’s minds when they critique my work.

    Though I have had some of those instances where I felt as if though some interference (as you call it) might have been useful. Some of my professors have been fairly harsh, but if their advice was actually helpful then in the long run I had come to respect their opinion. I don’t think it hurts to make the student at least try to justify what they’re doing, even if its only in relation to their own intent.

    Speaking from a serious student’s point of view, with paying all that money to receive an education comes with the expectation that the professors are going to push the students toward doing better work. I’ve gone into composition lessons where some have said “yeah that’s good” but it makes me feel that the school is wasting my time and money…and I know that I’m not really the only one who thinks this way.

    Suggestions are suggestions, after all…so if the student sees no reason to change what they’re doing they will probably ignore the advice anyway. But if the advice is genuinely helpful, then it can take the work in a different direction never before seen, and these are often very rewarding.

    I’m not sure if your committee proposal analogy is apt — bureaucracy is a pain because it involves working with other people…composition, on the other hand, is usually done by one person. If new information paralizes a composer to a point where they’re unable to finish a piece, maybe it might be a sign to move onto another idea.