The University of Florida Fightin’ Gator Marching Band has experienced many achievements under the direction of Jay Watkins during the past eight years. It overcame logistical problems, performed at the London Olympics and recently became the newest recipient of the Sudler Trophy. Find out how the group realized these accomplishments and what’s in store as it continues to move forward.
Photos by Steve JohnsonM
For almost eight years, Jay Watkins has been directing the University of Florida Fightin’ Gator Marching Band. During that time, he has taken the group to new places and new heights. The band performed in the 2012 Olympic Games in London and recently received the prestigious Sudler Trophy.
Halftime: What started it all for you; what made you want to be a musician?
Watkins: Well, listening to high school bands as I grew up. While I was in elementary school, I played clarinet. I stayed involved in high school. In college, I majored in chemistry and biology. I only minored in music, but I realized that my real passion was with music, so I went back to school.
Halftime: What has been the University of Florida band’s greatest success?
Watkins: The easy answer is being awarded the Sudler Trophy and being asked to perform at the London Olympics. They really wanted to recreate the American football atmosphere. Also having really determined kids. They want the band to be good because of the band, not necessarily because of the football team.
Halftime: What has been one of your band’s greatest challenges?
Watkins: The short answer is really finding a practice field. We [didn’t have] a dedicated field, so we bounced around a lot. However, we finally finished our second season on our field. Also, getting into the University of Florida is a hard process, and new students get a lot of “advice” that they won’t have time for band anymore.
Halftime: What were your feelings upon winning the Sudler Trophy?
Watkins: I was elated; I was also pretty surprised. The band program has undergone a turnaround the past eight years, and it is nice to get acknowledgement after all the hard work from the band.
Halftime: What was it like performing at the London Olympics?
Watkins: Wow, that whole experience was surreal. The setup time was very short. The London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG) contacted us initially at the end of September for a performance in July. We had to submit three complete portfolios of work to be officially selected by both LOCOG and the International Olympic Committee. The next challenge was getting all 300 kids to get their passports and their last five addresses, [which] was a bit stressful. And then they were all spread out in different airports due to cancellations.
Our first rehearsal in London was at Buckingham Palace. That’s when it really hit me—Wow. It happened. The kids got treated like rock stars. They got a big formal dinner in the officers’ quarters. We also got to play for Michelle Obama during the Let’s Play initiative with 1,200 kids from London. Everyone related to the music that we played regardless of what country they were from.
Halftime: What is the preparation like to go to a big event?
Watkins: It is mainly about going out to a site visit; if we don’t know the layout, that is the most important part. We have to go see what everything is like, where we can stay, where potential practice facilities are. We also have to make sure we have enough things planned for a full show. Also making sure we have per-diem and meals figured out.
One of the biggest challenges is always trying to find a practice facility. They aren’t always given to us. It’s also important to design a schedule that allows the kids to be tourists, not just kids here for a job.
Halftime: Any big future plans?
Watkins: Well, we were invited to go to Dublin in 2015 to play at a St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Pending is an invitation from the Ambassador of Arts in China to expand on what we did in London—the college marching band experience—through the US-China Culture Exchange Foundation; they are very experienced in the drum corps side of band but not the collegiate side. So we are pretty excited for that. Getting an opportunity like that is great.
Halftime: What advice do you have for other band directors?
Watkins: It’s just band. No one is getting a degree in marching band. Students need input. They are carrying the lion’s load. All the energy comes from students; we just steer the ship. Also, it is very important to balance your personal and professional life.
Halftime: What advice do you have for students?
Watkins: Continue to do band in college. You gain life-lasting friendships. Just continue to do what you love.
About the Author
Kyle Bellomy is a junior at the University of Cincinnati (UC) where he is studying journalism and communication with minors in public relations and deaf studies. He has been playing trumpet for 10 years as well as performing with the UC winter guard for two years.