By: Kristin Conrad
Sharing the Wealth
Melanie Watson is currently the Band Director at Starmount Middle School in Boonville, North Carolina. She has taught middle school for most of her career and has ambitious goals for her program and her students.
“Right now, we’re in the thick of recruiting season to get fifth-graders signed up for the sixth-grade band next year,” Watson said. “My goal is 100 out of 170 fifth-graders. I want 100 of them in band class, and we’ll see what we get.”
“My last position was taking over for someone who had built up this fantastic program. And, I wanted to share the wealth, because I felt like I knew exactly how to do what she did after watching her build that program,” Watson said. “What we’re doing now is trying to eliminate some of the barriers that kids experience to entering a band program, including teacher turnover, financial issues, lack of information, and language barriers.”
Strong Female Leads
Watson grew up in North Carolina and stayed in her home state to complete her undergraduate work at Catawba College. Her first band director position was in Wilkes County, part of North Carolina’s western mountain region. She stayed in the general area, switching school systems a couple of times before moving to Yadkin County, a rural, farming community just west of Winston-Salem. While teaching, Watson pursued evening graduate studies through East Carolina University to complete her master’s degree.
Mentorship from family and female colleagues has been an integral part of Watson’s career path and success.
“I had such supportive parents and such supportive people around me all through middle school and high school. No one ever told me, ‘Women don’t pick brass’ or ‘Women aren’t band directors.’ They just said, ‘You want to do that, go do it,’” Watson said. “I was also very lucky that when I got into my master’s music education program, there was Cindy Wagoner, who worked 27 years in public education and now is a professor at East Carolina University. Just a few years after that degree, we started having conversations about other women band directors in our area. Ruth Petersen, retired band director of Bailey Middle School, led the charge to establish a state chapter of Women Band Directors International in 2021.”
Female Representation in Music Education
Now, as North Carolina chapter president for Women Band Directors International (WBDI), Watson works alongside other local women to help make those first years on the job more comfortable.
“I want to expand the chapter in North Carolina so that no one has to go through what I went through in my first couple years of teaching,” Watson said. “I want them to always know that there’s somebody who’s going to bring them into the profession and bring them in gently and lovingly. WBDI has been a real lifeline for me personally, and I want to see it plastered over every wall in the whole country.”
The North Carolina chapter is working on bringing the Athena Music and Leadership Camp* into the state next year, something Watson is very excited to see come to fruition.
“These camps are women-centric,” Watson said. “You have female faculty, female clinicians, and you’re bringing in female students and not only working on music, but you’re talking about leadership and you’re talking about roles that you can play. So, you’re really setting these folks up for success and for the vision that they can do it.”
Challenges of Rural Music Education
Deciding what is going to be best for her program and the kids in her band room is a battle Watson fights daily while serving her rural community.
“I’ve had to decide what success is going to look like for me and for my program, and to make sure that my philosophy is always matching what’s going to be best for my kids and my community,” Watson said. “They don’t need extra cost and extra pressure in their lives because they’ve got other things going on. What they need is an outlet for emotions. They need a safe space that is for them and is comforting.”
A common challenge in both urban and rural public school districts across the country is a lack of resources or the power to effect change. Watson wishes people knew how much teachers care about their jobs, their students, and their communities.
“I wish people knew how much we want everything to work really, really well and how hard it is to actually make those things happen,” Watson said. “If you want to change something fundamental, it takes a lot of power, a lot of movement, a lot of pressure, and as one person it can be very overwhelming to try and accomplish something that drastic.”
Providing Connection in a Divisive World
When it comes to her own professional development, Watson is a talented Horn player, and she performs with several regional orchestras in her area.
“For me, learning through being where my students are and working with a conductor – that really has affected how I approach teaching and learning with my students,” Watson said.
Music provides connection in an often divisive world, and Watson has found comfort in seeing that, wherever she goes, music is a common denominator.
“Any place I’ve worked – rural, urban, suburban – band kids are band kids. It’s been really nice to see that there is more that connects us than separates us, and to have hope that we’ll find each other again. Being able to watch middle school kids interact with each other and learn from one another, and realize that we’re the same, has been one of the best blessings of my life.”
*Editor’s Note: The Music for All Summer Symposium, presented by Yamaha is a co-ed music and leadership camp, including the Leadership Weekend for all student leaders. Learn more at camp.musicforall.org.