Tuesday, December 12, 2017
News Roundup

University of Florida band's London Olympics trip includes Tampa Bay students

Nick Sholl wants a London Eye's view of the River Thames. • Kierstyn Whitehurst can't wait to walk through the set from the Harry Potter films. • Allison Fudge hopes to soak in the gilded gates of Buckingham Palace. • All of these fanciful wishes may become reality when the University of Florida Fightin' Gator Marching Band makes a trip "across the pond" to London for the 2012 Summer Olympics. • More than a dozen graduates from Tampa Bay area high schools — Plant, King, Wharton and Durant, to name a few — will be among the hefty contingent of more than 200 UF musicians and dancers.

According band members, the group's time in London will be split between sightseeing and performing, with a tentative itinerary including stops such as Stonehenge, Warner Brothers Studios, Westminster Abbey and the West End theater district. Band director Jay Watkins also said students will be able to attend at least one Olympic event.

"I'm pretty excited," said Whitehurst, 20, who graduated from Spoto High and is a member of the UF color guard. "I feel like for this being my first time going out of the country, it's like 'go big or go home,' and so I'm doing it pretty big with going to London."

Sholl, a King High graduate and trumpet player, is looking forward to his first time overseas, as well.

"I'm just really glad I get to do it with all of my friends there," Sholl, 19, said. "And we get the gigantic honor of getting to play at the Olympics. I don't think I could have asked for anything better there."

Fudge, 18, who went to New York City to perform with the Durant High band last year, said London is a city near the top of her must-visit list.

"We want to go represent the school, but we also want to just go as a big group to have a fun time because it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," she said.

The journey to the Olympics began in March 2011, when Watkins was asked to submit three portfolios to organizing committees in London. Then in September, the band received a written invitation from the Greater London Authority through the Mayor of London's Office to do live performances.

Since then, Watkins said, more invitations have piled up.

"My goal is that we don't over-schedule the trip since the students are having to pay for most of it themselves," he said.

About 240 members of the UF band will travel to London, paying $3,500 toward the total $4,000 cost. Watkins said Olympics officials told him that the band would be the largest performing group at the summer games.

"I want it to be a fun trip for them where they can have the opportunity to be tourists and enjoy London during the celebration of the Olympics," Watkins said. "So we're trying to work to finalize our schedule with the most iconic signature performances we can, just to make it a better trip for the students."

Watkins said the group has been invited to play at Wimbledon and other places but has only accepted a few invitations.

The first performance, on July 27, will coincide with the opening ceremonies. The band will play in London's Hyde Park for 80,000 people around the time the Olympic torch is delivered, then later in Victoria Park for 45 minutes during the parade of nations. The band will not be a part of the opening ceremonies inside the Olympic Stadium because that event is strictly for British performers, Watkins said.

Another performance will take place at an athletic event, Watkins said, but will remain top-secret until about mid June.

"It's an unprecedented performance opportunity for any non-British performing group," he said. "So it's pretty substantial, but unfortunately we can't talk about it because they don't want the information to get out so it can be a surprise."

Other scheduled events involve the London Gator Club and World Olympians Association.

Jordan Street, a Chamberlain High graduate who plays trumpet, said preparation is challenging for such a large group.

"There's got to be at least 20 to 30 different charts of all types of music, ranging from British pop to top 40 over here — all these different sets of music for the different audiences we'll be playing for," said Street, 21.

Sholl said some of that sheet music included Olympic fanfares but also many songs the band is familiar with, including Beatles hits and Taio Cruz's Dynamite. He said members have been instructed to learn the music with the expectation that they will bring it together for a final pretrip practice.

Before the spring semester ended this month, Street said both the band and color guard members met for a four-hour preliminary rehearsal.

"Even though it wasn't enough to prepare, they just thought if we get into it, we have all summer to prepare and we know what to expect," Whitehurst said. "And then the day before we leave, there's like an all-day rehearsal to kind of piece everything together before we head out."

Although the band directors tell students they will never have to do fundraisers, such as selling doughnuts, Sholl said, the group is still actively seeking donations.

The band would like to raise about $100,000 more toward funding their travels. "So we'll probably be accepting donations probably up until through the trip," Watkins said.

Kelly Price can be reached at [email protected]

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