How this college marching band gets ready to take the field
Welcome to From Florida, a podcast that showcases the student success, teaching excellence and groundbreaking research taking place at the University of Florida.
With 425 members, the Gator Marching Band is one of the biggest in the nation. Jay Watkins, associate director of bands, shares what it takes to get members ready for a new season of setting the tempo for Gator Nation and what fans should watch for this year. Produced by Nicci Brown, Brooke Adams, Emma Richards, James L. Sullivan and Lorenzo Phrasavath. Original recording of “The Orange and Blue” by the Gator Marching Band; other audio recorded during a band practice on Aug. 22, 2022.
Nicci Brown: They are referred to as the “Pride of the Sunshine” and the sound of the Gator Nation. We’re talking about the Gator Marching Band. It's one of the biggest in the nation and its members are now hard at work preparing to, once again, set the tempo for the University of Florida's football games, pep rallies, parades and other big events. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and today on From Florida, I'm speaking with Jay Watkins, associate director of bands. Welcome, Jay.
Jay Watkins: It's nice to be here. Thank you.
Nicci Brown: I want to start with where the idea of collegiate marching bands actually came from and what the history of the Gator Marching Band is specifically. Can you tell us more?
Jay Watkins: Sure. College marching bands were basically an outgrowth of the ROTC bands or the cadet bands that existed on almost all of the university campuses or college campuses, and then they eventually morphed and grew into student organizations that were not cadet affiliated. People might know Texas A&M, they have a cadet band that performs everywhere. You have to be a member of the corps of cadets to be in their band.
And that's the way it was here at Florida, even before the University of Florida was formed. The three component institutions that came together to form the University of Florida, there were cadet bands at all three of those schools. So, the concept of the marching band predates even the formation of UF in 1853. And then once UF formed, it continued as a cadet band and it wasn't until 1913 that an all-student band was started by a group of students with a student director and then it's been growing from there.
Nicci Brown: It seems like there's always just such an incredible amount of camaraderie between, not just the current members of the band, but people who have actually graduated and they tend to stay together as well.
Jay Watkins: Yes. I'm not sure if it's just a shared experience that tends to bond them together, misery loves company. But yes, we have a tremendous alumni band program here at UF that provides tremendous support to the current program. And alumni bands all over the country are getting together and organizing, and they're having their own conferences now and really helping to support the current programs.
But it is quite a bit of bonding that takes place. Again, those folks spend a lot of time rehearsing together, a lot of time with each other, a lot of time traveling together. They're 18- to 22-year-olds that have similar interests. We're really fortunate here at UF that we have over 110 different majors represented in the band, so it really is a great crosscut of campus and it really does shrink the size of the campus down for those students.
Nicci Brown: How do they get into the band, do they need to audition?
Jay Watkins: Yes, everybody has to audition. Every year they audition, so just because maybe they've made the band one year, they still need to re-audition the next year. We started doing video auditions years ago, well before the COVID crisis forced us to do it, and that has worked tremendously well. We do video auditions for all of the wind players, the brass and woodwind instruments. We do live and video auditions for the Color Guard, we call it the Florida Visual Ensemble, the FVE is their acronym, and then the Gatorettes, which are the twirlers that perform with the band. And then there's also the Drumline, the Florida Drumline, or FDL.
Nicci Brown: And is that simply a matter of trying to streamline things because it is so large and you've got to look at so many auditions, is that the reason that you do that?
Jay Watkins: That's a big part of it. The other part is, it just makes it so much easier since we have students from all over the country and international students. Instead of requiring them to show up for an in-person audition, obviously the technology is in place, why don't we use it? We can get all of the auditions taken care of. They don't have to travel. They can also have a little more calm experience of recording on their own and then when their video is to the level where they're comfortable, then they send the video in.
Nicci Brown: Got it.
Jay Watkins: We do live auditions then to follow up for the Florida Visual Ensemble, Gatorettes and the Drumline. They do all have to come in for a one-day live audition early in the summer, and then we spend the rest of the summer working with them to get them ready for camp.
Nicci Brown: What about the camp, how long is the camp?
Jay Watkins: We start the day before the residence halls open on campus, so this year we'll start on the 18th. We usually do about six days of 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., three rehearsal blocks a day with breaks for meals, to really try to get everything done that we need to get done before they start classes. Once classes start, we have an academic class schedule that, we still see them quite a bit, but we realize that everybody is here to get a degree in something other than marching band. So, we're really very detailed with how we use the time.
Nicci Brown: Well, talking about that, what is the time commitment of band members? Aside from that camp, which sounds really intense.
Jay Watkins: We meet Monday evenings for two hours for music rehearsals. We spend half of that time in sectionals by instrument and then the rest of the time in full ensemble. We call it New Music Monday because we're still one of the few bands in the country that learns new shows for each home game, so they're always learning something. And then Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 4:05 to 6 p.m., we have rehearsals scheduled out on our practice field. We don't use all the Fridays, but most of them.
[Live audio from band practice]
Nicci Brown: You mentioned just the range of students, which I think a lot of people often think, "Oh, these are just students studying music" and they're really not. But what about the range of instruments that you have, does that vary from year-to-year?
Jay Watkins: Yes, the number of instruments varies year-to-year. It's the same standard instrumentation: piccolo, clarinet, alto sax, tenor sax, trumpet, trombone, horn, baritone, sousaphone and then all of the different percussion instruments. The numbers vary slightly, again, it's just based on auditions.
Nicci Brown: What's the composition then of the band in terms of how many of each kind of instrument that you have, because it's very impressive when you see the large brass instruments out there. But does that change from year-to-year?
Jay Watkins: Slightly, unfortunately. We would love if we had a core number, a set number for each section, but again, we have to adjust every year just based on the number of students that audition. The last two years, post COVID's been interesting because we had a huge turnout for people who obviously really missed the activity when they couldn't do it. We had over 640 applications last year for basically 420 positions.
Nicci Brown: How does that compare to say the typical size of a collegiate marching band?
Jay Watkins: I'd say we're a little larger than most, the last couple of years, especially this year, we're at 425. I thought it might dip a little bit, but it hasn't.
Nicci Brown: You remain very popular.
Jay Watkins: Apparently.
Nicci Brown: What about the logistics then of, I mean, just thinking about that number of students trying to go from one place to the other. I think many of us who have attended games have seen students who are members of the band converging towards the field, but what about when you're moving them to other places? How do you do that?
Jay Watkins: I will say that UPS has nothing on us when it comes to logistics, because it's a huge endeavor. It's nine to 10 buses if we're moving people and equipment trucks. It's like moving an army, quite frankly. They all understand, and one of the great things about... I mean, I'll just say, I have the best job in the world. I absolutely love what I do because I work with so many great students who, they understand that they're part of something bigger than themselves and that it's a we/us mentality in the organization.
So, everybody knows, okay, if the bus is leaving at this time, you need to be on the bus 15 minutes before it moves. And so, everybody helps everybody else make sure that they're there and they're ready to go, so we don't have too many of those issues. Now, obviously, traffic or a bus breakdown, we spend a lot of time learning how to overcome challenges.
Nicci Brown: And very successfully by the sounds of things. Do you have a buddy system that's set up so that you've got the more junior members paired with more senior members or does it just naturally evolve within the band?
Jay Watkins: I would say it naturally evolves. We have section leaders within each group, generally four to six section leaders per section, that are responsible for... one section leader's responsible for the uniforms for the section, another instruments, music, attendance, morale, things like that. We put a lot of trust, we delegate a lot of trust to the section leaders to take care of their section, be the personnel managers.
I think one of the reasons why it is so popular is all of the non-musical things that they learn by being in a group this size. They have to take individual responsibility. They have to learn to work with people around them who are different than they are and there's different people around them at all points in time during the show, during the week. Every show, they rotate to a different position. So, they learn a lot of the non-musical skills that contribute to them being so successful after leaving the University of Florida.
Nicci Brown: Yeah, it sounds like they're also learning some great leadership skills, almost like a captain of a sports team.
Jay Watkins: Exactly, yeah. That's how we run it. The section leaders are the personnel managers and then the section leaders report to the drum majors, the three student conductors that conduct on the front sideline of the group. We empower them to solve problems and then if there are problems that they can't solve, then we ask them to come to us so that then we can help guide that.
We spend a lot of time with the leadership team over the summer. Every Tuesday night I have a two-hour meeting with all of the leadership team, wherever they are around the world. We do a Zoom meeting, just trying to equip them with the tools to be better leaders so that when we get back together and it's crunch time, they've already established how they're going to communicate with each other, and how they want to speak and what words to use so that we're all working together to create a positive ... we refer to it as that, "We're just one big, huge dysfunctional family when we're together." That's our goal, is to create that environment for them every year.
Nicci Brown: Well, speaking of working together, let's talk about those formations and what you're actually doing on the field because it's quite spectacular and as someone who has watched it, I'm endlessly amazed that you manage to do what you do. How do you do that? I mean, do you use some kind of technology? We like to say here at UF that we're building an AI university. Do you use artificial intelligence to choreograph what we're doing, how does that come about?
Jay Watkins: Unfortunately, it's not artificial intelligence.
Nicci Brown: Okay.
Jay Watkins: Yet. I would love to dive into a way to make that happen. We actually use a software program that I've been using for about 40 years now that we've helped to develop quite a bit. It's basically just a sophisticated graphing program that allows us to get ideas on paper. Unfortunately, the AI thing would be awesome because then ideas don't all have to come from my head, but that's basically where it comes from. We use a fairly sophisticated system of writing it and then delivering that information to the students. We moved years ago to eliminate all paper. We use an app, a phone-based app, since we know all the students are going to have their phone and they're going to have them out and using them. We use an app-based system that delivers their drill, their formation information to them.
They can see their exact coordinate on the field at the end of each phrase, they can see an animation of what it's supposed to look like, they can see a diagram that shows where they were, where they are now, where they're going to next and we also put all of their music onto the app. So, we do everything through their phone. I will say one of our biggest fears was, we had a lot of discussions about do we really want to have them on their phones that much? And we realized that, they're going to be on their phones anyway, let's use it to our advantage. If they're on their phone, if they're on TikTok or Instagram or something else, it just means we're not moving fast enough. So, we just use that as our own personal challenge to make sure we're moving as quickly as we can.
Nicci Brown: Got it. What about the songs that you choose? Do the students have any say in that? How does that come about?
Jay Watkins: Yes. We use a student creative team and we spend a lot of time in the spring semester where there are no bad ideas. Then we get into the summer and we get rid of the bad ideas and work on really what we can play, what we can get licensing for, copyright.
Nicci Brown: And so on and so on?
Jay Watkins: Yeah, all of the lawyer stuff, right? And then we get it arranged and then try to put together shows that are going to entertain the people at the football games. It's not about competition or anything like that. It's about creating something that's going to be entertaining.
Nicci Brown: Well, you must be particularly successful at that because I understand that the Gator Marching Band was the only band invited to perform at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. That must have been an incredible experience for the band. How do those sorts of opportunities come about?
Jay Watkins: The London experience came about because the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, LOCOG, wanted to create the same kind of environment that they had seen at SEC football games, American college football games, at each Olympic venue. So, they asked us to come over and actually Dr. [Archie] Chip Birkner, who's the associate director of the band or co-director of the band, we do everything together. We both went over, had meetings with them, and they said, "Well, look, we want to bring your band over to help create this environment."
It was a wonderful invitation. It ended up being a wonderful experience for the students while they were there. It was absolute chaos for the six months of planning that we were allowed prior to going over there and getting everybody credentialed and all of that. We ended up, in addition to playing for the Olympics, we also were the band for Michelle Obama and the official U.S. delegation, so that involved a whole other level of security and credentials and everything else. But the students had a blast. It couldn't have been a better trip.
Nicci Brown: I guess too, one of the things that you think about are the instruments. I mean, these are expensive instruments. They're often very, very delicate. That kind of travel must be something that you fear as well as get excited about in a way?
Jay Watkins: Yes. Well, any travel is interesting and terrifying at the same time with this many people, but yeah, making sure all the instruments are taken care of and packaged appropriately and shipped. We took everything with us on that trip. We're getting ready for another potential international trip and we're looking at maybe just putting everything on pallets and having it professionally shipped ahead of time, just so that everything is there and taken care of from that standpoint.
Nicci Brown: So, what’s your instrument of choice?
Jay Watkins: Well, nowadays it’s a baton.
Nicci Brown: Yeah!
Jay Watkins: I started playing clarinet when I was in the fourth grade. Where I grew up we could hear the high school marching band from our house.
Nicci Brown: Oh, that’s so cool!
Jay Watkins: And so in the afternoons I would be on the front porch listening to the band practice which was almost about a mile away at that point. We were lucky to . . . I was the oldest of three. I played clarinet, my next sister played flute and bassoon and my youngest sister played the horn so we were all doing band.
Nicci Brown: At least there were no drums in the house. I am a dropout clarinet player. I started in eighth grade. It’s not an easy instrument.
Jay Watkins: No, it’s not!
Nicci Brown: There are many shrieky squeaks that come from that!
Jay Watkins: Lot of families with beginning clarinet students and oboe students and saxophone students . . . it is so painful!
Nicci Brown: So, what other opportunities might be coming your way?
Jay Watkins: Well, the Gator Band has been officially invited to go to Ireland this spring and be the first university marching band to participate in the Cork International Music Festival on St. Patrick's Day, which is a huge honor. And they're planning on somewhere around 100,000 live spectators for this parade in Cork.
And then we've also been invited to perform an exhibition at the 51st International Marching Band Championships in Limerick, Ireland. It's the largest band event in all of Europe. And then we'll be back in Dublin to close out the Irish Week festivities in downtown Dublin. So, we've got three performances in Ireland over the period of about seven days and it all falls during spring break, which is wonderful.
Nicci Brown: That sounds amazing. Can I ask if you've got any special songs that you've been working on?
Jay Watkins: Not for that yet. We are just now starting to put some things together for that trip. Do you have any ideas?
Nicci Brown: “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling?”
Jay Watkins: Exactly.
Nicci Brown: They'll be smiling when they see you guys.
Jay Watkins: Exactly.
[Live audio of band practice]
Nicci Brown: Okay. We've got a bit of a speed round for you now, a few questions. What is your favorite song to perform?
Jay Watkins: Okay, I have a follow-up. Am I performing it or my favorite song for the band to perform?
Nicci Brown: Hmm. Okay.
Jay Watkins: Let's go with the band to perform, it's going to be something Earth, Wind & Fire.
Nicci Brown: Okay.
Jay Watkins: Alright, that's easy.
Nicci Brown: Anything Earth, Wind & Fire?
Jay Watkins: Yes.
Nicci Brown: And why is that?
Jay Watkins: It's just great writing. It's very accessible. It's fun music. It makes us dance.
Nicci Brown: What is the favorite formation that you've ever created?
Jay Watkins: Probably putting the gator head on the field and getting it to open and close and do a real gator chomp on the field.
Nicci Brown: And one thing for us to watch for this year?
Jay Watkins: Just one, huh? Well-
Nicci Brown: You can add as many as you like.
Jay Watkins: I will tell you that we are working on a circus show that is going to have all of the elements of an old three-ring circus on the field.
Nicci Brown: Any Gators involved per chance?
Jay Watkins: Possibly in the Parade of Animals. You might see a lot of mascots in the Parade of Animals.
Nicci Brown: Good to know. Well, Jay, thank you for that tease. And thank you so much for joining us today. It's been a real pleasure.
Jay Watkins: Thank you so much for having me.
[Live audio from band practice]
Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams. Our technical producer is James Sullivan, our editor for this episode was Lorenzo Phrasavath and our editorial assistant is Emma Richards. I hope you'll tune in next week and I hope you'll be able to catch the Gator Marching Band in action.