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Gator Marching Band gears up for performance in Ireland

Students will perform in St. Patrick’s Day festivities

<p>Tubas and drums of the Gator Marching Band move into position while practicing at Gator Band Field Sunday, March 5, 2023.</p><p><br/><br/></p>

Tubas and drums of the Gator Marching Band move into position while practicing at Gator Band Field Sunday, March 5, 2023.

For the first time in the country’s history, Ireland will hear the singing of woodwinds, the buzzing of brass and the booming of drums from the Gator Marching Band as it embodies the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day with “We Are the Boys from Old Florida.”

About 340 out of the roughly 400 students who comprise the Pride of the Sunshine will spend Spring break performing in the Cork St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Limerick International Band Championship and Dublin St. Patrick’s Day Festival. The band is performing at the invitation of Caroline Conroy, the Lord Mayor of Dublin.

John “Jay” Watkins, associate director of bands, said UF will represent the first well-known college band Dublin has seen in a long time, as his students will have the opportunity to perform live in places other than football stadiums.

“Getting that interaction — that feedback — from a live audience is incomparable,” Watkins said. “Especially for people that have never seen the [band] before. They have no clue what's getting ready to hit them.”

Gator Marching Band is no stranger to prime time, having performed at SEC championships most recently in 2006 and 2008. In 2012, the London Organizing Committee invited the band to perform during the London Olympics, which earned the band international exposure.

Conroy has requested for several years for the Gator Marching Band to perform during St. Patrick’s Day, Watkins said. He confirmed the band would be able to finally perform after UF released its 2022-2023 academic calendar and found Spring break aligned with St. Patrick’s Day.

“This year, with the change in the academic schedule, was the first year that it looked like it was going to line up,” Watkins said. 

About 200,000 to 300,000 people will see the band perform on St. Patrick’s Day, Watkins said. The band was invited to compete in the Limerick International Band Championships, but they decided not to compete to avoid an unfair advantage against smaller local high schools.

“We typically don't compete,” Watkins said. “Our goal is to entertain.”

Watkins, who has served the band program for 17 years, said the opportunity for students to perform with hundreds of thousands of international spectators is once in a lifetime.

The eight-day trip costs about $3,205 for students, but the Gator Band Alumni Association and the provost’s office helped with the funding, Watkins said. He’s not sure how much the entire trip will cost the band program because transportation for instruments is still being accounted for.

Band students were officially notified about the trip at the start of their August camp. Joseph Simmens, a 19-year-old UF microbiology and cell science freshman, said he didn’t want to miss this opportunity after he was unable to perform in London’s New Year’s Day parade his freshman year of high school.

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The COVID-19 pandemic sent schools into lockdown at the end of his sophomore year, so Simmens couldn’t participate in international travel until now.

The band is preparing a combination of popular pieces performed at football games with traditional Irish tunes. Students are preparing music specific to their experiences at UF, such as the fight song, “The Orange and Blue,” “We Are the Boys from Old Florida” and the music of Gainesville legend Tom Petty.

The band’s goal is to bring some of its Florida heritage to Ireland, the freshman saxophone player said.

In addition to traditional football game tunes and the Irish music selected, Simmens said the band is playing other popular show pieces including “Time Warp” from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and some of Elvis’ music.

“I think that a lot of the places will appreciate us wanting to show stuff that's important to us,” Simmens said, “Especially Tom Petty.”

The band has rehearsed its music for Ireland with four Sunday rehearsals lasting two hours since the beginning of February. Of all the songs the students are practicing, Carter Erickson, a 22-year-old UF theater production senior, said he’s most excited to play the Irish ballad “Danny Boy.”

“I'm probably going to break my lips playing it just because I like the [mellophone] part on it a lot,” Erickson said.

Luz Perez, a 22-year-old UF music education senior, learned she was going to be one of the three Gator Marching Band drum majors this school year in May — the same time Watkins told the newly appointed drum majors they would be leading the band on a trip to Ireland.

“It was one of the first conversations we had,” she said, “‘Hey, we're going to be going to Ireland, and you're going to be the drum majors for that.’ That was a super big fun announcement to hear about along with the new position I had just gotten.”

As the drum major, Perez helped pick about 20 songs that would best represent UF in Ireland. She has been rehearsing since August to conduct and lead the band in parade formation during each performance.

“I think the whole band feels pretty prepared, too,” she said. “Because we've obviously been working towards achieving a more top-tier level of musicality since we found out about this trip.”

The trip to Ireland marks Perez’s first time traveling internationally, which is a major step away from the traditional band experience inside football stadiums.

Aside from focusing on rehearsals and performance, Perez said she’s excited to be a tourist and get in some sightseeing. 

“I'm excited to do all the touristy things and take Instagram pictures,” she said.

For Perez, the trip to Ireland will be the last time she dons the Gator Marching Band uniform. Her March 14 departure to Ireland marks the beginning of the end of her career as a marching Gator.

“I'm trying to hold on to it every single day,” she said.

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Sophia Bailly

Sophia Bailly is a second-year journalism major and covers politics for the enterprise desk. Some of her favorite things include The Beatles, croissants and Agatha Christie books. When she's not writing stories she's either reading or going for a run.

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