VMD’s comeback for holiday cheer

VMD cascades at Balboa Park’s December Nights


Maddie Almodovar

BVH’s Sound Unlimited waits on the side of the stage as VMD Director Michael Atwood introduces their set. Excitement fills their face as they wave to family and friends, who came to support their performance.

The cold bites people’s noses, everyone huddling together for warmth as streams of adults, teenagers and children walk the paths of Balboa Park. On Dec. 2, Bonita Vista High (BVH)’s Vocal Music Department (VMD) performed on the Cascade stage for their first performance at December Nights since 2019. The VMD consists of Sound Unlimited, BVH’s all-female choir, and Music Machine, their co-ed choir group.

December Nights is one of San Diego’s most anticipated holiday events, being publicized on the radio, television and social media. The event has been a San Diego tradition for around 45 years. It often consists of festive events such as Christmas song performances from schools in the district. Balboa Park aims to celebrate the arrival of holidays and the winter season with these festivities. Considering the last December Nights occurred before the COVID-19 pandemic more than 300,000 participants came to the event.

“The VMD hasn’t done December Nights in a few years now. We actually had the option of performing on the [Organ] Pavilion stage at 3:00 p.m. or [the Cascade stage] at 8:00 p.m.,” SU dance captain and senior Jessica Engen said. “[VMD director Michael] Atwood decided that he would rather us perform here for the larger crowd, since it’s December Nights.”
Many people from the Bonita Vista community had come to watch the VMD’s performances and had an exciting experience at December Nights. The audience enjoyed the performance and live bands, along with the free entry to museums and exhibits that were accessible at the event. Ruben Samaniego III attended December Nights to watch both Sound Unlimited and Music Machine’s sets.

“[I wanted] to experience Balboa Park in a different way. I like coming to Balboa Park and usually it’s a lot more calmer than it is now. To see it full of people, it is like the park is alive,” Samaniego III said.

Engen has been a part of Sound Unlimited for all of her four years at BVH. This will be her second time performing at December Nights since she was last a freshman. Similarly, Assistant Director (AD) and senior Ariana Ramirez returns now a part of Music Machine instead of performing as a freshman in Sound Unlimited three years ago. Now in a leadership position, Ramirez aims to make December Nights memorable for new VMD members.

“To new members, [try to] have a lot of fun. Leave your heart out on the stage and perform like it’s your last because I mean COVID-19 happened and I didn’t know that was my last so perform as if it’s your last,” Ramirez said.

In preparation for December Nights, Sound Unlimited and Music Machine used their two hour class periods to rehearse their sets. Sound Unlimited rehearses during fourth period and after school on Monday’s until 7:30 p.m. while Music Machine has fifth and sixth period to rehearse every day. As AD, Ramirez made sure that choreography was clean and choral sets were perfected while dance captain Engen assists Sound Unlimited with choreography.

BVH’s Music Machine performs after Sound Unlimited walks off stage. Sound Unlimited members can be seen watching at Music Machine performs their mash-up of classic holiday songs. (Maddie Almodovar)

“I would be in charge of remembering what [choreographers] said specifically so that I could make sure everyone is doing that, for the most part. And then also wardrobe, making sure that everyone has everything they need. If they have questions, if they need help with eyelashes or lipstick, they could come to me,” Engen said.

Aside from December Nights, the VMD has been rehearsing their set for A Bonita Christmas to You (ABCTY), their annual winter performance. Atwood has been preparing his five choirs for the “grand finale” as Atwood phrases it. This will occur during the holiday season on Dec. 15 and 16 at 6:30 p.m. at Southwestern College’s new theater.

“I want them to feel prepared, like they’re ready to go. I don’t want them to have any hesitations. Yes, they’ll always have jitters, but to know that we’ve rehearsed this. To feel good about what you’re doing. That’s all I can ask for,” Atwood said.

Solos were given to individuals in both Sound Unlimited and Music Machine. Music Machine member and sophomore Lily Hopson sang “Never Fall in Love with an Elf” and Sound Unlimited’s AD and junior Kaelyn Connors performed “I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas”.

“Hopson has a song called ‘Never fall in Love with an Elf.’ But then to see it on stage, she does a good job with it and it fits her. So to see that it’s like I love it for her [and] I get to see students in their element and it’s special,” Atwood explains.

These multiple songs, performances and solos that were performed on December Nights created a lively environment. Atwood felt that this experience was impactful and was a great way to kick off the holiday season.

“To have that special experience, so much holiday cheer. It’s everything, all the lights, all the people and all the vendors. And as a performer they’re part of the magic too,” Atwood said.