A Closing Chord: Mr. Townsend


Steve Townsend

Organist Mr. Townsend has been an integral part of the Bishop’s community for 30 years.

It was a great match that was just meant to be,” Mr. Townsend said, reminiscing on his time at Bishop’s. For thirty years, he has provided the music that played as students entered chapel, exited chapel, sang the daily hymn, or listened to Performing Arts Department Chair Ms. Lara Korneychuk’s musical offering. 

Since 1992, Mr. Steve Townsend has served as the School’s organist. After 30 years as a valued member of the Bishop’s community, he will be retiring at the end of this school year. 

Southern California has been Mr. Townsend’s home since birth: he grew up in Fullerton, Orange County, and has lived in La Jolla since taking the job at Bishop’s. As a young adult, he left Southern California to attend the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York for his undergraduate, and then studied at Southern Methodist University in Dallas for masters degrees in Organ Performance and Sacred Music. 

After his university education, Mr. Townsend  found himself working in Santa Barbara as Organist and Choir Director. Beyond a musical knowledge of the extensive instruments in the orchestra, Mr. Townsend credited his time conducting to helping him learn to bring musicians—tubasists, violinists, pianists, singers—together. “I was able to conduct major works by Bach or Mozart, the big ones: the Brahms Requiem, the Bach Magnificat,” he said. “That was a really wonderful addition to the musical part of my life.”

When asked about the spark for his love for music, he struggled to think of one particular spark moment. Having taken piano lessons in elementary school and grown up with a part-time organist father, Mr. Townsend was surrounded by music at every turn of his life. “I think it sort of started in school,” he said, remembering. “But once I realized that I could play professionally, [my love] just blossomed.”

“If you find something that you’re talented at, then you can find a way to use that, no matter what it is,” he went on to say. 

For one year in Santa Barbara, he found himself replacing a faculty member—choir director and organist—on sabbatical at a private school called Cate School. “I went on campus and I thought, oh my gosh, I wish I had been able to go to a school like this,” Mr. Townsend said. Although it would be over a decade until he would begin his job at Bishop’s, he believes his yearlong experience at Cate School sparked his love for spending time with young people on school campuses.

Twelve years later, Mr. Townsend walked into Saint Mary’s Chapel. He had applied to two jobs: one at the St. James by the Sea chapel, and one at Bishop’s, getting both and beginning both that year, 1992. 

“I think this chapel is the hidden gem of La Jolla,” he said with a laugh, looking around. “And so, what happened over the course of the years was that I literally fell in love with the Bishop’s community.”

And just like that, the community fell in love with him. 

In particular, he connected to those with whom he worked, often those involved in chapel or music. “He and I clicked instantly due to our shared experience in church music, our social justice interests, and our shared passions for making beautiful music,” Ms. Korneychuck, who often sings in chapel, said.

Mr. Townsend does not just walk into the chapel three times a cycle and receive the music for the day’s chapel. He has an integral role in planning the speakers and presentations, meeting regularly with Reverend Nicole Simopoulos and Ms. Korneychuk to plan. He also sometimes works with the student musicians who play during chapel. Julia Haymaker (‘22), a violinist, met him for the first time in seventh grade. “He helped me figure out how my part fit with the piano part, and took the time to practice with me a lot, doing as many run-throughs of the piece as I asked him to,” she said. “He was always super patient, and a great mentor and accompanist.”

It takes some planning to make sure the message of chapel, which includes the music, feels cohesive. “[It would be confusing] if the chapel was about one thing and you sang a song that was about something completely different, even if it was a nice song,” he pointed out. The most recent chapel, he explained, had focused on a man—Paul Farmer—saving lives through healthcare, so they had found a song—“For Good”—about changing people’s lives. “We try to make the music really fit with the theme of the day,” he shared.

However, Mr. Townsend’s impact on the Bishop’s community has extended even beyond the walls of Saint Mary’s Chapel. He has substituted for music teachers occasionally and has even proctored AP exams. He knows the names of many of the staff around campus. “If I’m having lunch, I talk to the faculty,” he said, smiling. “I’m taking a Spanish class right now, and I can ask Ms. Sutherland questions about what I’m learning.”

When students graduate, they might have spent almost half their lives attending Bishop’s. But Mr. Townsend has, of course, spent more years on this campus than any student: indeed, more years than many teachers. Much has drastically changed over the years, and much has simply strengthened. “There was no theater, there was no science building, there was no multi-story library, no black box,” he recounted. “The town has more traffic now,” he joked. “But La Jolla does retain a lot of its character… it doesn’t change.”

Beyond buildings on campus, Mr. Townsend believes that the community has gone through remarkable changes. “The commitment to justice and inclusion and diversity has gotten stronger over the years, which I think is wonderful,” he reflected. “The desire to make every student feel that they’re cared for and that they belong is—for me—as important as academics, and I hope we continue to do a really, really good job at that.”

After so many years leaving his mark on the students and staff, Mr. Townsend has trouble saying goodbye. “I did retire from St. James full-time five years ago,” he said. “But I love Bishop’s so much that I just didn’t want to retire.” Indeed, he plans to continue to have a relationship with the community even after retirement. He hopes to be a substitute teacher for music classes and a substitute player for the new organist. 

It seems the community will miss him greatly as well. “We aren’t just colleagues,” Ms. Korneychuk reflected. “Mr. Townsend has been there for me through ups and downs—even offering to sub for my classes when I’m having a rough day.” 

Outside of Bishop’s, he has numerous plans for retirement. “I’m just gonna live into it,” he remarked, revealing plans to continue taking Spanish classes at a local college, foster cats from the San Diego humane society, and travel. So far, his favorite vacations have been to Iceland, Barcelona, and Portugal, and he is excited for his coming “bucket-list” trips: one to Norway, and another to Australia and New Zealand.

One of Mr. Townsend’s ambitions for retirement is to travel the world. This photo was taken in Cinque Terre, Italy. (Steve Townsend)

No matter what, he emphasized, Bishop’s would be an integral part of his life. “I just love this community. I love it. I love what it stands for. I love the students I get to work with. I love the faculty. It doesn’t matter whether it’s food service or groundspeople—they’re all amazing.”