Lessons from Green Mountain College From Poultney to St. Stephen’s, Middlebury

St. Stephen's Episcopal Church

St. Stephen’s photo courtesy of Kitty Davis

I’ve really enjoyed making videos for St. Stephen’s this year, and I hope all of you have too! I’ve learned a lot along the way, from improving my production skills to learning how to integrate new video equipment with my long-standing audio recording studio.

Until this past year I didn’t have much experience with it all. The very first ones I ever made were devoted to animal shelter and feline diabetes awareness issues, with my harp music in the background, and I made them on my iPhone. At that time, I was just posting them on my website and continuing to focus on studio recording, my mainstay.

One of my very first videos, a memorial/feline diabetes awareness video, made on iPhone.

My goals with the St. Stephen’s videos were (and are) to give everybody a little four- or five-minute vacation from thinking about the pandemic, explore the world a little bit without leaving the comfort of your armchair and experience a bit about the places where the composers lived and worked, whose works George is playing in the preludes and postludes. And lastly and maybe mostly importantly, to help keep St. Stephen’s going when it isn’t safe to gather in person.

In January 2019, as an alumna of Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, I received a disturbing email from then College President Bob Allen that the institution was financially insolvent and would be shutting down at the end of the semester. Faculty/staff layoffs would be commencing in two weeks. This was a complete shock to all who worked there, and to students and alumni, as we had no idea the school was in such dire straits. Right away a group of us gathered together online and shared ideas on how we might rescue our beloved alma mater: we called ourselves SaveGMC.

Panicking and not knowing what I was getting into with my minimal production skills, I volunteered to produce videos for the group. (Again, with my phone.) I began taking photos of the campus, recording my harps, writing poignant text and uploading the completed video to YouTube, where the alumni would then redistribute them: to the group’s Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, emailed to WCAX Channel 3 News, and to any prospective donors or interested parties who could help us. President Allen gave us a goal to reach: raise $21 million in three months and he would not shut down our school.

 A SaveGMC video I made on my iPhone, using Pinnacle Pro.

We scrambled. I made videos. Fast. I made numerous trips to Poultney with George, tweeted and chatted online, logged into hasty YouTube meetings and watched College administration conferences as our future was weighed. In the end, we managed to raise only a few $K and our final Commencement was held on May 19, 2019, a somber event akin to a funeral amid much tears.

But my alma mater had one more lesson to teach me, that I decided to try applying to St. Stephen’s: the importance of community.  George came home from his last service playing the organ, much rattled and shaken, saying, “I don’t think we’ll be in church together again for a long time” and he was clearly very upset. I remember thinking, “oh, no. Not another GMC.”

I wanted to apply the concept of online community building, which is what we the alumni achieved: we may not have been able to secure last-minute rescue funding but we did discover the power of keeping far-flung hearts and minds connected over the miles via artistically produced and archived videos that can be accessed whenever the need arises: whether loneliness, nostalgia, reminiscence, curiosity or bonding.

Even today my old videos continue to be watched and I’ve gone back to making more of them for the alumni. They are becoming very popular! Some of the skills I’ve learned here are being applied to the new ones. In something of an annual Christmas Eve tradition my college videos are now regularly viewed on YouTube, and also on other significant commemorative days. (As a happy footnote, our school was bought this past summer and there are plans for it to re-open as GMC!)

I started doing videos for St. Stephen’s last April and it’s been very gratifying to see that this concept of holding people together over a long difficult period of time does indeed work. As an aside, my alumni peers had felt that an organized online outreach program that included video, had it been started at least two years prior, might have been instrumental in engaging the alumni, increasing enrollment and student retention and strengthening the endowment. Again, underscoring the need for community.

An early video for St. Stephen’s, April 2020. Filmed with iPhone and edited on Mac PowerBook iMovie.

 

Another early St. Stephen’s video. Easter 2020. Also filmed with iPhone and edited with Mac PowerBook iMovie and opening screen made on iPhone.

Here, I consider it an honor to be able to see what happens over a longer term: it’s been almost a year since I started making videos and from the YouTube analytics stats I can tell there’s been quite a lot of watching! Of course, it’s not a substitute for being in person again, but I like to think of it as a nice bridge to get you there when that time comes (as it will).

In November our trusty laptop issued to George by Middlebury College started to overheat and crash often. It was a very nice Mac PowerBook but it clearly couldn’t take the load of frequent video-making. I upgraded to an iMac with a very large screen and am now in the process of learning Final Cut Pro X, a professional video editing application. I’ve been doing everything in iMovie and before that, I had a simpler app on my phone called Pinnacle Pro, which I used in 2019. I’ve also been learning how to work with two cameras and a dolly.

 

Christmas Eve 4 PM Pageant video. A lot of supporting visual material supplied by stock photo agencies.  Edited on iMac desktop computer.

On Christmas Eve St. Stephen’s did a fabulous job with Zoom! The pageant was a lot of fun to watch and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing how well it all came together, and seeing a lot of people working together as a well-organized team. Each online Sunday service presentation is more polished and professional from the last… we’re all learning! Father Paul Olsson is truly an asset and a blessing to St. Stephen’s and I love the way he presents on camera, as well as his thoughtful way of helping us all through this difficult time. He has a very positive approach to challenging times.

It would be fabulous if St. Stephen’s could record and archive some of its really great Zoom services… members of the congregation might want to see these again later in the week if they were unable to attend. They could serve as an inspiration to other churches as well, learning how to navigate the online presentation world and see how a well-done service looks.

In closing, Green Mountain College’s motto was “First in Sustainability”. I hope and like to think St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Middlebury, Vermont can proudly say that too, for their community online and off.

Respectfully submitted,

Sherri Matthew ‘07

(This post was originally submitted as a Microsoft Word Document, “Supplement to Organist’s Annual Report 2020″ to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Middlebury VT in advance of the annual meeting in January 2021. It accompanied George’s “Organist’s Annual Report 2020″.)

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