After 37 years as a band director (31 with a single band), Alfred L. Watkins retires from Lassiter High School. Here, he shares his philosophies on how he achieved countless accolades for himself and his band.
Photos by Alfred L. Watkins
Four Rose Parades, three Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades, two Bands of America Grand National Championships— all from just one band and one director. Alfred L. Watkins from Lassiter High School in Marietta, Ga., will retire at the end of this academic year after 37 years as a band director (31 with Lassiter). He looks back at some of the keys to his success.
Halftime: What is your background?
Watkins: I played trumpet and was much influenced by my high school band director as I suspect most of us in this profession are. He saw something in me and encouraged my parents and me to move forward with marching band. I moved onto his alma mater, which was Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee. I had a very good music education background with very good teachers.
I was in the Marching 100 for four years and section leader. One of the activities I participated in that was influential to me was a fraternity, Kappa Kappa Psi honorary band service fraternity, where I learned the value of service. That was really critical throughout my career. My mission has been to serve my students and serve my community. I developed a service-based band program with a high standard for musicianship—but also character, integrity, honor, and decency are just as much a part of the Lassiter band or any of the bands I’ve taught.
Halftime: Lassiter is one of just 14 bands to be awarded the Sudler Flag and Sudler Shield, signifying national excellence in high school concert and marching band. Which season do you enjoy the most?
Watkins: I enjoy the season that we’re in. That’s a real important part of the job. A lot of band directors specialize in marching, concert, or jazz, and I think it’s very important that we’re comprehensive, and we have thorough knowledge of everything we’re asked to do on a day-to-day basis. The band director has to learn as much as he or she can about the activity and in turn pass that onto the students. … I believe in having a myriad of good experiences for the students and for the program, so that it can continue to flourish and grow.
Halftime: Which performances were some of your favorites?
Watkins: Performances for me are kind of like children. They’re all unique and all different and all terrific. We’ve been blessed at Lassiter with two or three major highlights in every year, but you put 31 years of that together, and it’s too much to distinguish.
The highlights were probably the first year we won Bands of America Grand National Championships in 1998. It was an unusual position for a Southeastern band to be in, and I was excited to represent that part of the country. The other ones were the big parades. It’s a unique experience to perform for a billion people on television. The Rose Parades—it doesn’t get much better than that. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades in New York City—marching down Broadway was always just spectacular. As a marching band person, those are the signature moments that stand out over the rest.
Halftime: Out of the many awards and accolades you’ve won for your work, which meant the most to you?
Watkins: I’ve been inducted into the American Bandmasters Association; as a band director, it’s the most prestigious organization that we have. It’s quite an honor and the greatest individual honor of my career. I’m in the Hall of Fame of FAMU distinguished alumni and Bands of America. And I’ll be in the Georgia Bandmasters Hall of Fame.
I never expected to be inducted into four halls of fame. When I started off, I never expected to get past making a superior at a marching contest—that was the biggest deal in your life, and that was the end of it.
Halftime: You’ve had so many students over the years and a current program of 300 students. How do you keep a personal connection?
Watkins: My goal is that by the end of marching band camp, to be able to identify every child. Then the next step is to put the parents with the children by name and by face. Everyone prefers to be called by their name. I think it’s important that we know them by name as soon as we begin working with them. I make it my business to speak to every student in the band program once a week.
The other option is, “Young lady in the blue shirt, move over two steps.” I think it’s too impersonal and the main reason I’ve made an effort to do this. It is challenging, but it’s certainly a good challenge, and I’m pretty good at it. I was better for my first 30 years than my last seven. I’m on name overload now. I must have taught about 10,000 kids, which gives me 28,000 to 30,000 parents!
Halftime: What are some secrets to your success?
Watkins: At Lassiter we don’t discuss winning and losing and instead discuss perfection or the highest degree of execution at what we can do. You can have a very comprehensive band program that doesn’t have to compete with others to be competitive. The other group has nothing to do with your skills, absolutely nothing. People pay too much attention to what someone else is doing, and we can try to keep up with them or beat them, but they have nothing to do with a Lassiter rehearsal. Zero.
Halftime: How do you balance your work with your outside life?
Watkins: One of the ways I stayed fresh is that I just wouldn’t compete every weekend. We don’t compete more than three to five times a season, and it allows for everyone to breathe and have a life and not to be so aggressive in getting the final product that we lose sight of the total person. It gives the program longevity and life.
Halftime: What advice do you have for aspiring band directors?
Watkins: The band director needs knowledge of how everything works and is taught. Rather than relying on a marching instructor to clean the drill up, I can learn that, so I did. It’s important that the band director learns as many skills as he or she can learn, and that in turn will keep the band director fresh and in a learning mode as opposed to a producing mode all the time.
The director is the CEO; he has veto power over every aspect of the organization. Oftentimes young teachers give parents too much responsibility. Instructors must allow parents to be volunteers who help with building up an organization as opposed to being in charge of the operations of the band.
Halftime: Why retire now?
Watkins: I’ve always worked as a head band director. I’ve never had the luxury of being an assistant. The major decision always fell solely on my shoulders for 37 years. The challenge is immense, and I’m just tired now, and you know when it’s time to move on. Retirement will give me an opportunity to go around the country and help young band directors develop their programs, so that they can enjoy the profession. That’s what I’m really excited about doing.