Marshal Townsend and I, taken in May 2016
In March I received an unexpected phone call. The voice at the other end of the line was weak and breathy, but I immediately recognized the friendly, southern voice. My high school bell director Marshal Townsend was on the phone. I was having a tough time understanding him, so he passed the phone to his wife. She explained that the bell group was performing their spring concert in May, and Mr. T wanted me to be there.
The way I remember the story, it was my freshman year of high school when Mr. T accosted me outside of his music theory class and asked me to join the newly formed handbell ensemble at the school. I believe that’s how I started playing handbells. Although to hear him tell the story, I was the one who talked him into creating the group. I don’t remember this occurring, but maybe it did. Memories are strange things sometimes.
The high school my brother and I went to was the Las Vegas Academy for Performing Arts (LVA), the performing arts magnet school in Las Vegas, Nevada. I studied french horn in the band, where Mr. Townsend was one of my directors. The school was an incredible experience. Friends I made there were fantastic musicians, many of whom went on to be professional musicians all over the country and the world. Much of that success was due to the amazing faculty at the school.
Mr. T was one of those teachers who made you feel like you were the most important person in his life, even though you knew that couldn’t possibly be true given the hundreds of student he saw every year. He always greeted you with a friendly smile and encouraging tone that not only made you feel good but pushed you to be the best musician you could be. I know I’m not the only one who felt this way. Over his several zillion years teaching band in Arkansas and Nevada there were flocks of students who respected his teaching. He would always tell stories of former students who would invite him back to class reunions year after year.
There are so many things I remember about Mr. T:
I remember his southern vernacular that crept into his teaching. “You’re as lost as a ball in high weeds” he would shout at us whenever we lost our place.
I remember seeing a Sonos VHS in our rehearsal room. We never actually watched it, but the mystery stayed with me and probably caused me to eventually audition for the group.
I remember hating the red bow tie and cumberbund he would make everyone in the group wear, and then finding out years later that I’d have to wear them again with Sonos.
I remember him opening up his house to all the bell students at the end of the semester for a pool party every year.
I remember playing “Shenandoah” every…single…year….
I remember having long conversations during rehearsals brainstorming all the things a deer could be doing during “As the deer”
I remember Mr. T calling Schumlerich to order a new casting during my last week working there. I told him that it was all his fault I started down the path that lead me there.
I remember finally making the decision in May to catch a flight down to Vegas to hear the LVA bell ensemble perform. I didn’t really have the time or money to go, but something told me that I really should go and be there.
I remember Mr. T finding my mom and me in the lobby, pulling us out of line so we couldn’t buy tickets, and escorting us to our own seats in the auditorium.
I remember how proud he looked when he introduced me to his students and the audience. Over the years he had thousands of students go on to become incredible musicians across the globe, but I’m guessing not many became professional handbell ringers. That moment when the teacher who started you down this path turns to you and tells you that you did him proud is a moment I’ll never forget.
Mr. Townsend was more than a teacher to those of us lucky enough to be in his classroom. He was a friend, a mentor, and a parent. He pushed us to become better musicians and people through his kind words and southern charm. I am the person I am today because of him. He will be missed.
Marshal Townsend passed away Friday, July 22nd.