Getting Out of the Way

I have been taking classical voice lessons for several years now, a training I underwent as a teenager and returned to as a thirtysomething. In 2015 when I met my new vocal coach, I brought along with me my dog-eared copy of Schirmer’s 24 Great Italian Songs and Arias, Soprano Edition. After warming up, I chose a piece that I was once assigned in 1995, to see how I would fare 20 years later. 

I was comfortable with the swift melismas that hid the higher notes from my anxious eyes, but when I was asked to hold a high G for a whole measure, I suddenly tightened. On my end, I decided I needed to gird my loins, summon my strength, and force that note out into the sanctuary with every muscle in my body. 

“Sounds like a Hail Mary,” my teacher suggested, gently noting that I sounded a bit like a train whistle. “The trick is to get out of the way—you don’t have to push the sound. It’s like grace—it comes on its own.” 

I should have known that signing on with an Episcopalian for voice lessons would also mean spiritual direction, because there was profundity in his advice to “get out of the way.” 

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Grace, Vocation, and Leaving the School that I Loved

Part of a series of autobiographical reflections written by Richard T. Hughes.

It was 1970, the year before my doctoral graduation. The job market for professors was tight, so tight that I sent letters of inquiry to 140 schools scattered all over the country—large schools and small schools, state schools and private schools, colleges and seminaries. The constraints of the job market had left me desperate. It didn’t much matter to me where I taught. I just wanted a job.

Of those 140 letters, only 60 institutions saw fit to reply, and the letters I received were amazingly uniform. In fact, I could hold each envelope up to the light and count the paragraphs. There were always three: Paragraph #1: Thank you for your inquiry. Paragraph #2: Unfortunately, we have no openings. Paragraph #3: But we will be happy to keep your letter on file. I knew that the “file” that each letter referenced was the large round “file” that sits on the floor. To say I was discouraged is an understatement.

And then grace appeared in the form of a telephone call from the provost of Pepperdine’s new Malibu campus which would open in 1972. He had gotten my name, he said, from a friend, and would I be willing to fly out for an interview? After the discouraging responses (and the non-responses) to my 160 letters, the invitation to interview at Pepperdine—an invitation that essentially came out of the blue—struck me as a God-send, an act of unmerited grace. Yet, I quickly discovered that embedded within that grace was a note of deep ambiguity. 

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