In the Loop
Faculty News : Oct 20, 2016

Band director duo celebrates 10 years

By Brandon McKinley

The Pride of the Sunshine has a rich history. Over 100 years of directors, staff members, alumni and students have shaped the program into what it is today.

In recent years, the Gator Band’s many accomplishments and awards can be attributed to the pair of directors that have shared the past ten years together, though they would probably tell you that the recognition goes to the students they work with.

Professor John “Jay” M. Watkins, Jr., and Dr. Chip Birkner have been directors of the University of Florida (UF) Gator Marching Band since 2006.

But they didn’t come in knowing each other.

In fact, they both walked in to work on the first day about a week before the start of pre-season band camp having never met.

“Everyone thinks we came together like we were a package deal,” said Birkner, assistant professor of music and assistant director of bands.

They had roughly one week to plan what would unknowingly become one of the most visible seasons for the Gator Band, which concluded its season traveling to the BCS National Championship to support the football team.

“The run to the 2006 National Championship was memorable,” said Watkins, associate professor, associate director of bands, and director of the Gator Band. “It was so unexpected, and the program really wasn't prepared for that sort of visibility. There was always something happening that needed immediate attention.”

Birkner was a music education major at UF and a member of many of the performing ensembles in the School of Music (SOM), including marching on the drumline in Gator Band.

Upon completing both his undergraduate and master’s degrees at UF, he moved back to his home state of Texas to teach high school band.

Three years later, on his birthday, Birkner received a call as he was painting the new house he and his wife had just bought. Dr. David Waybright, professor and director of bands at UF, called to ask if Birkner would like to return to his alma mater to take up a new third band director position.

Birkner accepted the job, and he and his wife packed up their new house, leaving it behind before even selling it.

“UF has always been much more home to me than El Paso ever was,” Birkner said.

Watkins was also in Texas before taking the job at UF, serving as the Assistant to the Director of Bands; Assistant Director of the Longhorn Band; and Conductor of the Longhorn Basketball, Volleyball and Concert Bands at the University of Texas at Austin.

He has a multitude of musical accomplishments under his belt, having also taught at Charleston Southern University where he was awarded Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year.

Prior to his career in music education, he worked for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory as a research associate in the areas of liquid fuel propellants and published over 75 articles in science journals.

Ask any band member and they can tell you that Watkins says he has the best job in the world. He tells the band every year at the start of band camp and multiple times throughout the season.

“I have the best job because I love working with all of the diverse students in the marching band from different majors, cultures, backgrounds and ability levels,” Watkins said. “I also love college sports, and the unique atmosphere that athletic bands play in creating the college environment.”

He said he also enjoys working with music students including, teaching classes in conducting and marching band techniques as well as conducting the Symphonic Band.

“My favorite part about Gator Band, and my ultimate goal is when the students perform something at a level beyond what they believed they could do and create something that is immediate, temporary and unique, and brings about an emotional response from so many people,” Watkins said. “Basically, the best part of Gator Band is the students.”

One of the highlights of the past ten years was the band’s trip to London for the 2012 Olympics.

The committee that organized the event said they wanted to bring the excitement and energy of college sports to the Olympics, according to Watkins. They had seen the Gator Band both at home games in The Swamp and at the National Championships and wanted none other than the Pride of the Sunshine to bring that energy they were looking for.

Watkins said it was a huge undertaking to put a trip of that size together, especially considering the security and travel hurdles that had to be planned in only 8 months.

“The honor of being the first non-British band to ever play at Buckingham Palace and performing for Michelle Obama and the U.S. Olympic Contingent at the U.S. Ambassadors mansion was an amazing experience,” Watkins said.

Another major accomplishment in recent years for the Gator Band was being recognized as the Sudler Trophy winner in 2013.  The award is considered the highest honor for a college marching band and is awarded biannually to a band program voted on by previous winners.

Now in their 11th season as band directors, Watkins and Birkner continue to grow the program bigger and bigger each year. This season, the marching band is the largest it has ever been with over 365 members.

But not only has the size of the band increased. Watkins said there has been a steady increase in the number of students auditioning for the band each year, which he thinks is an even better indication of the health of the program. Even in seasons when the football team has not been as successful, the band still continues to grow.

“People want to be involved in band at UF,” he said. “People are doing band for the sake of being in band – not just for the football.”

One of the highlights of Gator Band for Birkner is getting to see his old students come back for the alumni band.

“It’s really really neat to see people come through our program and go on and be successful,” he said.

Last weekend was homecoming for UF, and alumni of Gator Band returned to the field for their annual reunion weekend. On Saturday morning, the alumni joined the current band members on the practice field for rehearsal of the halftime show featuring tunes from the American rock band Chicago.

It’s tradition at the end of Saturday morning game day rehearsals for the band members to link arms and sing the Alma Mater. During Gator Band Alumni Weekend, the current band members get to link arms with the band members that came before them.

Birkner said this is possibly his favorite part of the season, particularly when there are multiple generations sharing the same field.

“I love seeing the parents next to their kids,” he said. “We had four or five groups of them this year, so that’s really cool.”

The alumni are always privileged to have the opportunity to return, remarked Robin Oegerle, chair of the Gator Band Alumni Association (GBAA) and a SOM music education alumna.

She said that Watkins and Birkner have brought the perfect leadership to the band.

“They promote such commitment to the performance,” she said. “The band is not just out there blasting ‘Orange and Blue.’ It’s all played with musicality. They bring out the best musicianship in all the players.”

But it’s not just the musical achievements of the band that make Watkins and Birkner stand out. Oegerle said that the directors truly care about their students.

“They care about the whole person and the whole student and the whole environment,” she said. “Chip and Jay capture the experience. The Gator experience.”

The GBAA now ranks second amongst UF Alumni Association affiliate groups for giving, having raised over $10,000 last year, according to Scott Francis, director of gator clubs and affiliate groups at the UF Alumni Association.

During the reunion weekend, the association also awarded 13 scholarships to current band members.

The directors’ enthusiasm for the band never waivers. Birkner said he was up at 4 a.m. before this year’s band leadership camp preparing a presentation for the section leaders.

To the band members, they appear to be a seamlessly working team.

“We really do bounce ideas off of each other and debate things regularly - always working toward what will be best for the band and the students,” Watkins said. “We really do have a shared vision of the program, and I consider him one of my best friends and most trusted colleague. I think it's also funny that people really don't know which one of us is the 'good' or 'bad’ cop when they try to play one versus the other.”

Birkner said that there’s no way you can’t get to know someone’s personality so well after spending so many hours, days and years together.

“I like to think that I know him as well as I know anyone,” Birkner said. “And I think he would say the same thing about me.”

Check out more photos from Gator Band Alumni Weekend on Flickr.