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'How Can I Keep from Singing': Video of San Juan College Choir will be streamed this week

'How Can I Keep from Singing' was shot over fall semester

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Farmington native Taylor Woodard recorded the audio and shot the video for the project.
  • The program features approximately 17 selections.
  • It can be viewed Dec. 8 on the San Juan College website and the school's social media platforms.
Members of the San Juan College Choir perform in the back yard of Allen and Karon Lyon in Farmington in October while footage is shot by a drone for the program "How Can I Keep from Singing."

FARMINGTON — By her own admission, San Juan College choral music director Virginia Nickels-Hircock was at a creative dead end by early last summer as it became increasingly clear the COVID-19 pandemic was going to be around for the long haul.

"I had nothing — nothing," Nickels-Hircock said emphatically, describing her uncharacteristic lack of enthusiasm for anything related to music. "I didn't play the piano, I didn't sing all spring and all summer. I didn't listen to music or choral CDs or the radio. I took a total break."

Nickels-Hircock's dark mood was a product of the hopelessness she felt when she considered how unlikely it would be that the many vocal group projects she oversees would be able to resume their activities anytime soon. In addition to leading the San Juan College Choir, Nickels-Hircock is the director of the Caliente Community Chorus and even leads a monthly "beer choir" night at a local bar.

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This panoramic photo shows the San Juan College Choir during a recording session in October for the "How Can I Keep from Singing" program that will be streamed this week.

It would be fair to say that her devotion to vocal music is an enormous part of her life. And when the pandemic placed all that on hold, Nickels-Hircock found herself treading water emotionally, unable to count on the power of song to keep her spirits afloat.

Fortunately, she found a life preserver just in time. When the college's fall semester began, she and other music faculty members devised a way to resume in-person instruction that conformed with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's public safety orders, mostly by keeping students masked and socially distanced from each other as they met for class in cavernous rooms or even outdoor spaces.

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Even better, she and her fellow music instructors developed a plan to hold student showcase events that would take the place of the end-of-semester concerts the college's music groups traditionally perform. The showcases would be streamed on the college's website and social media platforms, and there would be no audiences present.

It took virtually the entire semester for Nickels-Hircock to make such a program for the San Juan College Choir a reality, but she finished up the work just a few days ago, allowing the choir showcase, "How Can I Keep from Singing," to be streamed this week.

"I have to tell you, I think it's going to be really entertaining," she said of the program, for which shooting began in September and concluded on Dec. 2.

San Juan College choral music director Virginia Nickels-Hircock credits her former student Taylor Woodard for the work he did in compiling the material for a choral music program that will be streamed this week.

Nickels-Hircock said the program is less a traditional choral concert and more a series of music videos. It includes approximately 17 selections and features all manner and size of groups — everything from the full choir of nearly two dozen members to smaller groups of just a handful of performers — singing a mix of folk, Broadway, holiday and pop tunes.

The project could not have been completed without the work of Taylor Woodard, who was a Nickels-Hircock student at Piedra Vista High School before he went off to college at the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston and finished his contemporary music degree at Columbia College in Chicago. Now 26, Woodard has had his pursuit of a graduate degree interrupted by the pandemic and found himself back in Farmington in need of a project to keep himself occupied and build his portfolio.

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A screen shot of the "How Can I Keep from Singing" program captures the San Juan College Choir in action.

Nickels-Hircock said she had a vision of how a full choir program could be compiled over the course of the semester, but she lacked the technical expertise to do it herself. Woodard graciously stepped in and did the heavy lifting, she said.

In some cases, Woodard was able to record the singers as a group, but in others, they were recorded separately, then edited and mixed for a master recording. Nickels-Hircock acknowledged the tedious nature of that work and said the last piece that was recorded and shot for the program — a performance of the title theme from the Broadway musical "Little Shop of Horrors" — featured only three women but still required four and a half hours of labor from start to finish.

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Members of the San Juan College choir are featured in a shot from the "How Can I Keep from Singing" program that will be streamed Dec. 8 on the college's website and social media platforms.

The visuals for the program were another matter entirely. In the case of some pieces, the video is as simple as a "Brady Bunch" style-montage of talking, or singing, heads of all the choir members. But other tunes were shot and recorded outdoors for social distancing reasons, and that gave Nickels-Hircock and Woodard the opportunity to take advantage of the high desert scenery. The video for a performance of "Scarborough Fair," for instance, was shot in the backyard of choir members Allen and Karon Lyon, and features drone footage.

"It's quite spectacular, in my opinion," she said.

While this was the first time Nickels-Hircock has been involved in a project of this nature, she said she was not a stranger to developing visual concepts.

San Juan College Choir director Virginia Nickels-Hircock, right, leads choir members during a recording session in the college choir room in October.

"For anybody who has seen any of my Caliente or PV shows, you know I have a vision (for how it should look)," she said. "I really do think the visual aspect is very important. I think it influences what people hear."

But Woodard's involvement helped her concepts reach another level, Nickels-Hircock said.

"Sometimes I see Cirque de Soleil, and it winds up being a children's fair," she said sheepishly, explaining that her former student's expertise and creativity were invaluable. " … I didn't have the technical ability to do anything.

"Taylor knows me and knows what I want," she continued. "He is able to go not just off what I want, but he prepares his own ideas. I have totally enjoyed this collaboration project with him."

San Juan College Choir members practice social distancing while doing a recording session in the college's choir room earlier this fall.

Despite all the work, Nickels-Hircock said the experience has been so enjoyable it has renewed her spirit. She already has turned her attention to planning another video program for the spring semester, one that will be focused on more traditional choral music.

"People are now coming to me with ideas, which prompts me to work harder," she said. " … I'm not in some dark place anymore. I am hopeful for the future."

"How Can I Keep from Singing" will be streamed at 7 p.m. Dec. 8 at sanjuancollege.edu, facebook.com/SanJuanCollege and facebook.com/ksje90.9.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.