2013 Spirit of Gainesville Award Winner: Education

Strike up the band

Teaching students to work together & other life lessons — on field and off

Jay Watkins, director of the Pride of the Sunshine Fighting Gator Marching Band, at Steinbrenner Hall on the UF campus.

Photo by Doug Finger
Published: Tuesday, November 26, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 25, 2013 at 5:06 p.m.

Jay Watkins almost didn’t pursue a career in music education — he was busy studying liquid fuel propellants for the U.S. Navy.


John “Jay” Watkins

CATEGORY: Education
AGE: 51
WHAT DEFINES THE SPIRIT OF GAINESVILLE? “It really is a kind, caring, nurturing community. It really is a unique partnership between the academic side, the artistic side, the business side and the charitable side. Everybody really works together and comes together to support so many things.”

In college, he took chemistry and biology classes with the intent of going to medical school. Sure, he enrolled in music classes and arranged music for high school bands, but it was jet fuel stability studies that paid the bills after graduation.

Eventually, he was asked to direct the drum corps at the U.S. Naval Academy, something he did in the evenings after driving an hour from the naval research lab.

“I was at the point that to do anything else with chemistry, I was going to have to go back to school and get a Ph.D. and start over,” he says. “Or, I could really do what I love to do, which is work with people who want to work together to make music.”

Watkins transitioned back into the band realm full time, eventually landing at the University of Texas and, currently, the University of Florida with a slew of titles: assistant professor, associate director of bands, director of athletic bands and director of the Gator Marching Band.

To him, it was those dual experiences in the sciences and arts that best groomed him for his “real job”: preparing students to be prosperous beyond college.

“I try to teach them the skills they’re going to need to be successful in whatever their career is after college. Nobody gets a degree in marching band,” he says.

In addition to memorizing songs and marching routines, students learn how to work together, manage their time, prioritize, how to take a business trip and conduct interviews.

“It’s more life-coaching than band directing, but I love it,” he says.

The hard work has paid off richly for Watkins and The Pride of the Sunshine, as the UF band is called.

A little more than a year ago, the Gators represented the U.S. as the only college marching band invited to perform at the Summer Olympics.

Upon their return home, the marching band learned they had been named the 2013 recipient of the Sudler Trophy from the John Philip Sousa Foundation, an award bestowed to one university marching band every other year.

Also this year, UF’s College of Fine Arts named Watkins as its Teacher of the Year.

“It’s one of the things we talk about with the students. To whom much is given, much is expected,” he says. “We have opportunities that a lot of people don’t have, and we can’t feel entitled about it. We need to go out and help other people.”

A former high school teacher, Watkins still works with public schools throughout the region. By working with schools such as Gainesville High, Buchholz High and Fort Clarke Middle School, he cultivates a nationally-recognized talent pool in Gainesville. In fact, Gainesville is the only city in the country to have won all four Sudler awards, which go to selective middle school bands, high school concert and marching bands, as well as collegiate marching bands.

Watkins says the UF bands office fields around 40 or 50 requests for pep band performances each week. Although he has to protect students’ time, the Gator Marching Band frequently partners with charitable organizations such as the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, March for Babies and Children’s Miracle Network. When the band travels to road games or special events, the students do a service project near where they’re staying.

“A lot of what we do, it’s about entertaining other people,” Watkins says. “It’s not about what we do for us. It’s about what we can do to make everybody else’s life a little better.

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