Alfred Watkins

Mike Lawson • Features • June 1, 2003

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At first, Lassiter (Marietta, Ga.) High School Band Director Alfred L. Watkins downplays his band’s recent travel plans – a trip to the Bands of America National Championships in Indianapolis, and another to the Marching Band Regionals in Morgantown, W.V. Oh, and the band also traveled to the National Concert Band Festival in Indianapolis and the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.

Did he mention the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York? Or that the band has traveled to all of these destinations since 1999?

While many band members are fortunate to experience one of these events during their academic careers, the Lassiter Trojan Band has been making a once-in-a-lifetime trip almost every year for the past several years. The expense and logistics of taking trips with 270 students does not intimidate the 27-year veteran of band travel. With the help of his band booster organization and two assistant band directors, Watkins and his Bands of America National Champions hit the road for as many worthwhile educational events as possible.

“We travel a lot because we have a lot of different ensembles that need to travel,” he relates. “We have marching band and parade band, a concert band program, a winter color guard, five different indoor percussion ensembles and a jazz ensemble. As a result of that, we have to put the kids on the road a lot to get them to national and regional events so that they can continue to grow and the program can continue to expand. We go for the best events that can allow for the greatest amount of learning for our students.”

Typically, the band program travels in the fall, during or at the tail-end of marching season. Watkins tries to avoid taking the band on what he calls “spring fling” trips at the end of the school year. Logistically, he prefers autumn travel because the band and its entourage are already accustomed to boarding buses and loading the equipment trailer for away-football games and competitions throughout the season.

“It makes it easier to get it done all at one time, as opposed to shutting it down for four or five months and then trying to get the program active again,” he explains.

All of his careful planning and hard work as a band director earned him a special place at Lassiter High School. On his 25th anniversary in music education – 21st at Lassiter – Watkins received the greatest surprise of his career. Unbeknownst to him, the band boosters had taken the necessary legal avenues to have the brand new band building named after the band director. The $1.5 million structure now bears the name Alfred L. Watkins Band Building in bold, silver letters. Since, in many cases, buildings are named after individuals upon retirement or once they are deceased, Watkins is particularly humbled to be able to enjoy this honor every day.

“It is probably the greatest honor a band director could ever get. It is past flattery for your community to think that highly of you,” he says. “It’s really wonderful.”
While Watkins is cheered by the daily reminder of his accomplishments as a band director, seeing his name adorning the building’s brick wall also challenges him to continue to work at a high level, he notes. He is also proud that his two sons, who are in band, can learn from his example and understand that hard work and working harmoniously within a community can lead to such an honor.

SBO: As a director, what is the most important aspect of student travel?

Watkins: First and foremost, I want to make sure that there’s a strong educational tint or reason or rationale behind any trip that we make – whether we travel down to Symphony Hall here in Atlanta to hear the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal. We’ll do that as the main component and then we’ll stop and get hot dogs and hamburgers, which is another part of it. I try to avoid taking the kids to the beach for the sake of going to the beach. I try to avoid taking them to New York City just to see New York City. I try to avoid taking them to California just to show them what California, the West Coast, looks like. If I’m interested in getting the kids to another culture – which New York City is for us in the South, and which the West Coast certainly is – then I will try to find those areas that can provide that kind of growth for us. For instance, we participated in the Orange Bowl Parade when it was active down in Miami, Florida. So we do the event to get the kids to Miami, to see culture in Miami, plus there’s a great event – the Orange Bowl Parade – and then they can get a chance to do the beach and the other things the kids like to do. I’ve found that if you can kind of camouflage a learning experience for high school teenagers around things that they like to do then the learning curve is stronger and sharper and the program is healthier as a result of that.

SBO: How do you determine what trips the band will take?

Watkins: I look for the most educational events. I try to space them out according to a four- or five-year plan to know what we’re doing and when we’re going to do it. Next year will be a non-travel year. The following year will be a major parade. The year after that will be a concert band traveling year; marching band won’t travel. Then the following year will probably be a major trip with the marching band again.

I haven’t taken any trips abroad yet, in my 21 years at Lassiter. That kind of travel is typically a bit expensive and – even in affluent communities, such as where I am – it doesn’t always allow for all the kids to participate. And I’m an advocate of “If one goes, all of us go.”

SBO: How did you grow the band from its original size when you arrived to its present size?

Watkins: We’ve had at least 250 kids in the band since 1985. Between 1982 and ’85 the band program went through enormous growth. In a new school, it was one of the “cool” things to do, so to speak, and that was probably because of good quality of performance. The band was good and strong and very precise, and well disciplined. The parents saw the discipline component as being something that they wished for their children to have, in addition to getting some music training. Once they saw a good product on the football field, the kids just started to come.

SBO: How do students become involved in the marching band?

Watkins: Every child that wants to play in the school band program can play in the band program. We audition for the marching band. We’ll take the very top performers. We generally set the limit to around 250. It’s been as large as 325.

The musical program for our marching band program is very complex, very difficult music and some students don’t have those skills coming out of the eighth grade. This year’s show had 124 marching formations in it – in an eight-and-a-half-minute show – and the tempo variation was anywhere from 72 to 180. To do 100 formations-plus at a fast tempo is very complex. I won’t put the students through that hardship if their skills are developing but they have not developed well enough to have any semblance of mastery. I’ve found, through the years, it was not enjoyable for them or for the students around them because the kids were lost and couldn’t carry their own weight.

So, rather than put them through that difficulty in their lives, I formed up two marching bands. Once we got to 325 with the big band, it was just too big and too cumbersome to do that many formations and so we went to two bands for five years. In 1996, I formed the second marching band. The first 250 kids auditioned in the first marching band and the next 90 to 100 kids went into the second marching band. It was like a training band, a junior varsity-level band. There were two separate staffs. The second band had the Lassiter uniform like the other kids and performed at junior varsity football games. One of the assistant directors was the head director for the second band. It had a color guard instructor, a percussion instructor. The older students in the first band that were not student leaders in the first band volunteered to rehearse the second band. We had two bands for five years. This past year, we dissolved the second band because a new school opened up down the street and our numbers went down just a little bit. We had the unique distinction of marching 390 kids in the Macy’s Parade in 1999. We put both marching bands together for the Macy’s Parade and the Tournament of Roses Parade.

SBO: Now that you don’t have a second marching band, what happens to the students who don’t make the marching band at auditions?

Watkins: I kept all the kids who tried out this year. We carried 245 students in the first marching band and I had 30 additional students who were alternate members of the band. They all got into at least one performance during the year. They go to the regular practices and get their skills developed, but they were not in the regular line-up, so to speak. And that works really well for us right now.

SBO: How far in advance do you start planning for trips?

Watkins: If it’s a major trip that’s going to cost anywhere from $600 to $1,200, it’ll be announced to the community anywhere from 10 to 12 months in advance so that everyone can make preparations.

SBO: What mode of transportation do you favor for the band?

Watkins: We generally travel by bus unless we’re going beyond about 20 hours. We’ll take a plane then. The reason that we travel by bus is that when you travel by plane, it’s wonderful and it gets you there quicker – and now the cost of airplane travel has come down so it’s about the same as traveling by bus for many places – but when you get to an airport, you don’t have any ground transportation. You can’t move once you get there. Ground transportation in major cities can be very expensive when you’re renting a bus fleet. If we’re traveling with 300 kids, we’ve got to rent eight or nine buses once we get to the city and simple things like going to the amusement park or going to the rehearsal – you can’t go any place, and a large band can’t really practice in the hotel parking lot.

You’ve got to have a bus to take you everywhere that you choose to go. We travel by bus on almost all of our trips with the exception of the West Coast trip and the two trips to the Midwest Band Clinic in Chicago in late December. We traveled by plane to those two in December because of the limited number of school days missed, for one. The second reason was that you can have bad weather in late December and you don’t want to get caught on the freeway. With all the preparations you’ve gone through for this huge event, you could miss it because of bad weather. So we just fly over it. If there’s a flight delay, you’ll get there at some point in time, but if there’s a blizzard there and you’re driving, you may miss your performance.

One of the things we have to consider is time out of school. We travel a lot during the winter holiday between late December and the beginning of their school term. Most of our trips are during that period of time, or during the Thanksgiving break. By doing that, the kids can miss either no days of school or minimal days out of school. The good thing about traveling in the fall is that if we choose to go to the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, for an example, we can leave two days after Christmas and stay a week. There’s no class time missed and you can spend a week in Southern California. If we wanted to go during the spring term, we’d either have to go during spring break, which I’m not anxious to do and neither are the kids because it’s supposed to be their break. I never travel on spring break because I want the students to have a break and I want them to have a life and I want them to be fresh when they come back from the break. Since we don’t travel during spring break, if we traveled during the spring, we’d have to miss two, three, four or five days of school. I’d never ask the school district for that kind of time away from school. It’s too much class time spent away from the students’ academic subjects. I try to respect their learning in other subjects. We’re an addendum to the school. We’re not a part of the core curriculum at the school. I always try to make sure that my philosophy balances how I think.

SBO: Who is in charge of planning the trips?

Watkins: I think it’s the director of bands’ responsibility to do the long-term and short-term planning and set the course for what we’re doing the next two or three years. What I’ll do is announce to the students and the parent organization a two- or three-year plan to let them know what I’m thinking about and where we are. I want to make sure that the parents understand what we’re doing and that they’re on board. Very seldom do I ever have concerns with regard to that. Past that point, I’ll plan what the itinerary is in terms of when I want the band to rehearse and when I want them to perform. I do a skeleton of the trip and give it to the booster club travel committee and they’ll do the minute details – what to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner and those kinds of issues. But the three directors work out the basic skeleton of the trip because we’re the only ones who know exactly what kind of preparation the students will need while we’re out there.

I have a terrific booster organization. Once we give them that information, they implement everything past that point. They take that skeleton and work a full-fledged schedule from that.

It’s my job to make sure the kids have the widest range of opportunities available to them. The parents fill in the blanks.

In some years, we have an outside travel agency that works with us. Like if we’re going to go to New York for the Macy’s Parade, I won’t try to do that in-house. I’ll let one of those band travel tour companies do it because I don’t want to get lost on Broadway and 32nd Street trying to get to the parade. I approve all of the activities that require expenditures while we’re there.

SBO: As a director, what is the most challenging aspect of planning a trip for the band?

Watkins: Deciding where to go. Deciding when to go. Past that point, the most challenging thing is trying to find just the right educational event to work for that group of students that you’re working with, so that the trip is perfect in terms of everyone finding a lot of really good components of the trip. That’s really important to me. I’ll give you the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade trip as an example. We went to New York and the first thing we did when we got there – I mean day one, off the plane, onto the buses – was take a tour of New York City. We initially had the tour scheduled for the third or fourth day, but I wanted the kids to almost leave the airport and go and see what the city looks like so they could get a feeling for where they were, as opposed to going to practice and then going to Radio City Music Hall. I wanted them to see the city first. Wherever we go, they get an overview really quickly first. We will show them videotapes of where we’re going, what we’re going to do. We spent time in Central Park. Some students loved the notion of going to Central Park – the highlight of the trip. We spent time in the Museum of Modern Art. Some students loved the art museum more than anything else. We went to see two Broadway shows – some students loved one, hated the other. We took a tour of Lincoln Center, which includes the Metropolitan Opera House and Avery Fisher Hall. Some students loved that; some students could care less. We went to Radio City Music Hall – everyone loved it. We didn’t know if they would love the Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall; we just had a hunch for it. And that was the last night. The parade was great for everybody. I try to make sure that there’s something for everyone.

The second-toughest thing is to try to make sure that the trip is paced out well so that students don’t get too exhausted but so that they keep extremely active. When the students get too exhausted, they get a little cranky and edgy and you start to have problems – disrespect to each other, disrespect to hotel guests. You also have to plan the trip so that the students stay extremely active. I try to have the least amount of hotel time as I can – to keep them out of the hotels just because of shenanigans and kids being teenagers in hotels, running from room to room and closing the door too loudly, accidentally, and yelling out the door at somebody across the way, disturbing other guests. So I keep them out of the hotel as much as possible. We’re up in the morning and we’re gone until late at night, typically.

We never have the expression “free time” on trips. It’s always a controlled event, whatever it is. For “free time” we’ll take them to a park and spend two hours there doing Frisbee contests and things like that.

SBO: How do you ensure that every student shows up at scheduled times?

Watkins: Someone is with them in a supervised setting almost all the time. On rare occasions, we’ll let them go. If we’re in Disney World, they show up at the bus at the end of the day. That’s pretty easy because it’s self-contained. On some occasions, we will say, for instance, “You can meet us at Times Square at Virgin Records at midnight.” Even at that, we’ll give them parameters as to where they can go and where they cannot go: “You cannot go past 37th Street. You cannot go past the Avenue of the Americas.” We’ll have chaperones staked out on the perimeter of where they can go with a walkie-talkie just in case kids forget.

Another part of travel that is very important for us is communication – chaperone to chaperone, chaperone to equipment crew. For the most part, we’ll always get some company to give us or loan us cell phones with free roaming charges for our trip. If students or parents need to get in contact with someone during an emergency, they can do that, wherever we are. That’s one of the most important issues: it’s imperative that adults have a really sensible and systematic means of communication on the spur of the moment. Today’s cell phone society makes it a lot easier, but we didn’t have cell phones 10 years ago. We had to have systems in place even then. We’d always leave a parent back at the hotel or at one location we call Checkpoint Charlie. One parent stays there all the time so if anything comes up, everyone knows to go to that particular location to find a parent. There’s always a band parent at the 40-foot tractor trailer truck that travels with us so that the students can go there if something comes up. It’s important to have systems in place to ensure that the children are safe, that they’re where they’re supposed to be, and that they can fully enjoy themselves while they’re on the trip.

SBO: How do you handle the discipline of students away from home? How do you enforce appropriate behavior while traveling?

Watkins: It depends on the severity of the issue. If they’re in flagrant violation of a school policy, then I’ll send them home or their parents will come and get them. I won’t hesitate in sending a child home if their mistake causes other kids to be in harm’s way. If a kid chooses to get in a cab and takes a ride 40 blocks away and I find out about it, I’ll send that child home immediately. I won’t dismiss them from the band, but I’ll send them home and then the school administration will go through whatever their discipline procedures may be in that case. I haven’t had a smoking incident in over 15 years. I haven’t a drinking incident that I know of ever. I occasionally had a child stay out at the beach past lights out when we were in Miami. When something like that happens, I won’t let them march in the parade and they’ll be sent home.

SBO: In addition to school rules, do you have a set of band travel rules?

Watkins: Yes, we have a set of band travel rules that are aligned with the school rules and a few other rules. One example: the young men are not allowed to wear hats in buildings. If they violate the band rule then we’ll ask them to clean up one of the buses, or something that lets them know that they’re out of line. If a kid comes late to an event, we’ll caution them. So there are two or three different types of infractions, as you can imagine. The really bad ones result in kids being dismissed from the trip. For the moderate ones, the kids are assigned as a non-participant in the event and they must stay with the assistant principal for the rest of the trip. The assistant principal goes and sits some place and the kid sits beside him all day. If you’re at Walt Disney World, that’s not what you’re planning to do – sit outside for 12 hours. That takes them out of the mixture of the other students and allows for that kind of behavior not to be tolerated. The intention is to take them out of the flow of that activity so that they can’t continue to misbehave and so it doesn’t grow into more students misbehaving.

SBO: How many chaperones go on each trip?

Watkins: We typically take one chaperone for each 12 students. That’s the number that we work with. Chaperones are working parents for the trip, and they don’t pay to go on the trip. Their cost is absorbed by the overall cost of the trip. We’ve always done it that way, since the school was initiated.

We carry four chaperones per bus and all of my staff members go on all the trips – color guard instructors, percussion instructors, marching instructors, occasionally drill writers. The staff members, with the exception of the assistant band directors, are not chaperones. They are travelers and they assist us when we go into what I call “Performance Mode.”

The parents do all the chaperoning and we seldom have any problems at all with travel. The students are always on time. They’re always in their rooms when they’re supposed to be. There’s never any problem with kids drinking or smoking or doing drugs, or any of that kind of business on our trips. We’re fortunate to have wonderful students who understand that it’s a privilege to travel to these events. They don’t take advantage of it by doing things that would be harmful to their reputation and the reputation of the program.

SBO: How much fundraising does the band do?

Watkins: We do very little fundraising for our trips. The trips are paid, for the most part, as an assessed figure through an installment plan. It’s a nice luxury to have in this community.

The trip to the Rose Parade was a quarter of a million dollars. It’s really hard to raise a quarter of a million dollars. So we raised about $50,000 of it and then we assessed a figure to each band household and they paid it over a month-to-month installment plan. Say if the trip to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was $1,000 per child, then we gave them that assessment. Many of the parents and children worked it off with some fundraisers and some people just said, “Let me pay the $1,000.” So they paid it off over 10 months – $100 per month.

Either one of the systems works. The children and the parents who choose not to adjust their family budget by, say $1,000, will work various fundraisers to make that work.

SBO: Can you talk about the role of fundraising in planning a trip?

Watkins: The fundraising ideas have been organized so that the kids are not totally responsible for funding the band. Funding for the band is essentially a band parent and band booster situation, as opposed to door-to-door sales over and over for children. I personally don’t think that’s healthy and, in today’s climate, kids just don’t enjoy doing that anymore. Particularly in the metropolitan areas, fundraising can be a little dangerous. So the parents have to come up with creative ways of raising money. We sponsor a golf tournament which will raise quite a bit of money, which is adult-generated.

We also have a Flamingos fundraiser. It’s kind of a gag fundraiser. I’ll tell you when I was “flocked” – after we won the National Championship. When I got home that Sunday night, there were 25 flamingos in my yard. They’re not real flamingos. They’re plastic flamingos with the little metal sticks that go in the ground. What it does is it tells the neighborhood that something is happening in this house. So I got back and the little sign out front from the Flamingo Committee said, “Congratulations, Mr. Watkins! National Champions 2002.” Someone else’s yard might say, “Happy 40th Birthday, Bob!” It makes money for us. People will actually pay money to “flock” someone else. It’s all positive, and everybody wins when you do it that way. The band parents deliver the flamingos to the person’s yard.

We try to allow the kids here to be teenagers. We try to keep them out of the money-making and the fundraisers. We have concessions at the Georgia Dome, which is the Falcons’ home football stadium. For every event at the Georgia Dome, we’ll have a concessions booth, and it’s operated by some of the students, but mostly the parents. It’s tough enough to be a 16-year-old child.

There’s a high school that’s three miles from Lassiter and another that’s four miles from Lassiter. And they just built another high school three miles from the other side of Lassiter. Because the community confines are so small, we have to be really creative in the way that we raise money. And we don’t have a business community close by – we’re beginning to develop one, but it’s almost all residential. Every club and organization goes to the same households to raise money and that makes it very difficult.

The other thing is that it takes well over $100,000 a year to operate the band program – if you don’t go anywhere. We have operational costs and we have trip costs, so we decided many years ago that we couldn’t go on trips and get back home and be flat broke for the rest of the year. You can’t maintain your color guard program, your winter guard program, your jazz program. You can’t have guest conductors come in to conduct your concert band. You can’t pay for your percussion ensemble. If you use all of the money that you raised on a trip, then the operational budget of the band gets destroyed. The boosters have accepted that challenge of having an operational budget, which is well over $100,000 – actually closer to $150,000. Plus there’s the other burden of dealing with trips as they come about.

Sixty-five to 70 percent of the operational budget goes to instructors, staff and guest conductors and clinicians to try to make sure that the musical and performance part of the program stays vibrant and continues to grow and to develop. Once that stops, the interest in the program stops.

SBO: Can you explain the FANS program (Financial Assistance for Needy Students)?

Watkins: That’s something that we started this year to help to provide for our students or households who are in financial need. The philosophy is that everyone goes on the trips. We’re not always able to satisfy that. If we have 10 kids who can’t afford to go to the Tournament of Roses Parade at $1,500 apiece, that’s $15,000. It gets difficult when it gets to those numbers. With so many people in the middle management of America in my band program, they’re running into cutbacks. We have students who are in financial need because the father lost his job or the mother lost her job, or single-family dwellings or both parents lost their jobs. The FANS program is terrific. It allows for alumni parents who had children who went through the program and enjoyed their tenure in the program to give back to the band in some kind of way. They can pay all of a kid’s expenses for a year: marching band camp, uniform, marching shoes, a trip. It’s tax-deductible.

SBO: Has this program been successful? Have many people done this?

Watkins: Yes. We have an alumni booster organization and we have the FANS club. We have a lot of different ways that people in the community – band lovers or people who want to support the band – can support it and they choose to support it and give to our program without having to go through fundraising.

SBO: What is the role of corporate sponsorship in your band program?

Watkins: The corporate sponsors provide monetary assistance to the program. It varies from large, long-term financial contributions to some of the smaller sponsors that do some in-kind services and others that will do a few thousand dollars a year. It’s evolved over the years – creative ways to fund the program without having the kids do door-to-door sales. It keeps the program healthy. The difficulty in fundraising is that you’ve got to do it every year.

SBO: Has the war in Iraq and other events, such as the September 11th terrorist attacks, affected your attitude toward traveling with student groups?

Watkins: Abroad, yes. Not domestically. After September 11th, I think the entire country was a little nervous about traveling. But once we, as a country, got back up and running again, it hasn’t concerned me much at all.

Because we typically don’t travel abroad, that issue hasn’t come forward. We were invited to Russia about three or four years ago and we found out, as we were going through the decision-making process, that Moscow was not the safest place to be at the time. Their citizenry was just getting accustomed to their liberty, so pick-pocketing and those kinds of crimes were pretty rampant in Moscow at the period of time that we were looking to travel to Russia. That was well before September 11th, but it was one of those things where we had to look at what was happening.

I think if we show sensitivity to our students, it allows our students and our communities to realize that we are human beings and we’re Americans and we all share, in many cases, the same kinds of fears. If your decision is based on that respect, it will make it all work. When you don’t think outside of your own band room is when you begin to have problems.

Alfred Watkins has been teaching music for 27 years. Before his career path brought him to Lassiter High School, he served as Director of Bands at Murphy High School in Atlanta, Ga., for six years.

As a high school student, Watkins enjoyed playing in the band. After seeing a live performance by the Florida A&M University Marching Band, he decided to attend the school and earned a dual degree in performance and music education. He began his teaching career upon graduation from Florida A&M University.

Watkins plans to retire from his post within the next four years.

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