July 2020

Musically Yours, Mabel: A student with a dream is hard to ignore, even for an accomplished musician who’s sure he’s done teaching.

Author: Amy Bartlett | Photographer: M.KAT Photography

abel Safe started playing guitar at age six, “just as that thing you do as a kid.” You pick a sport or an instrument, you play. Years later, touring the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities with her family, her dream of pursuing music was discovered—and just as quickly challenged when she learned the school no longer accepts guitar players. Undeterred, Safe simply reconfigured how to get in—because she was getting in; that much she’d decided.

At St. Francis Catholic School, where she was in seventh grade at the time, she found an old, donated saxophone in the corner of the music room and thought to herself, it would be cool to play sax. The school had a small band (“and I mean tiny,” she specified, “like five kids”) and no sax player. So, she asked to borrow the instrument for the summer, and like any member of the class of 2022, turned to YouTube for answers. That’s when a series of unremarkable moments came together to compose a remarkable story. While Safe hit the internet, Carla and Stutz Wimmer were moving into Hilton Head Plantation, “two doors down from Nana,” Safe said.

Guess what?
Mabel got a call from her Nana (maternal grandmother Connie Killeen), who said with a bit of plotting, “Guess what? Two great musicians just moved in down the street, and one of them plays the saxophone!” Having taught in Atlanta for 37 years, the Wimmers had finished the school year and retired to Hilton Head the next day.
Stutz’s retirement plan was to play fulltime, and he began on the island at The Jazz Corner, Ocean Club, Red Fish Grill, and Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra. He was “done teaching,” he said. “As a new retiree, I had my sights set on picking up where I’d left off as a performing musician 30+ years prior. My plan was (still is) to focus on my playing and to explore a long list of things I hadn’t yet gotten to as an artist.” That was before being asked if he would please consider helping Safe get started, “just a couple of lessons?”

“I’ve never had much success at saying no to a request for help if I had some inkling I may be able to do so, especially when regarding a little person. Mabel’s Nana Connie doesn’t take no for an answer all that well either. I figured it was worth the risk, assuming Mabel would quickly discover she’d bitten off more than she could chew. She was sure to bail in no time. It would be inaccurate to say that I was disappointed to have gambled and lost.”

The impossible dream
Stutz made Safe a deal she could refuse: she had to practice, prepare, and realize it was a longshot—an uphill battle to catch up with kids who had been chasing this goal with near Olympic-level training most of their lives. The word impossible was thrown around a lot.

Matriarchs to the rescue, Nana bought a new sax to replace the old/donated Vito, and Grammie (paternal grandmother Patti Catalano-Braddock) paid for lessons and academy programs. Stutz saw a wave forming. “I figured out there was no way Mabel was going to give up. Teachers (who love to teach) find it hard to resist the opportunity to share what they do and know with a curious youngster. Mabel’s goals soon became my own, and Carla remained relentlessly insightful and supportive—an indispensable partner from day one.”

Carla returns this praise. “Stutz is a masterful teacher and learned from extraordinary teachers as well. It’s rare to have an instructor who plays as well as he does and can also effectively teach. Mabel has an underlying fire that fuels her tenacity for perfection. At every lesson, she walked through our front door smiling because she was prepared and ready to take on the next hurdle. The most inspiring part was experiencing the joy of a student reaching her goal. It’s simply why teachers teach. I have started thousands of beginning instrumentalists over 30 years as a middle school band director. At first, Mabel was just another beginner. Each week I listened to her struggle with the same hurdles as all new instrumentalists: breath support, diminished fine motor skills, a large instrument to hold. I truly didn’t think her goal of making the Governor’s School in such a short amount of time was reachable. Clearly, I underestimated two things: Stutz and Mabel!”

Stutz said his perspective shifted weekly “until it dawned on me six months before her audition that she really had a chance at this. She can play. I would ask, ‘Have you practiced this week?’ And one week she looked at me and said, ‘I thought we’d gotten past that’ because the answer was always going to be yes. ‘I’m going to go to this school, and you need to help me get there.’ She made me believe.”

For Safe, the test run was the school camp. “I loved being surrounded by kids who wanted to play music like I wanted to play music,” she said. On campus, Stutz asked, “Do you still want to do this?” Safe returned, “I would stay right now if I could.”

The moment of truth
Safe was more than prepared, having gone from googling saxophone to winning first chair in the S.C. Region Band, a spot in All-State, and the Jazz Corner Scholarship at Rising Stars. Of the final audition, Stutz and Safe’s conclusions were humble. His: “I’ve done all I can for her.” Hers: “I walked out of the audition room and the next kid came in.”

The story of the phone call, though, comes out more like “hold my latte” as Safe pinpoints the location of every person in the house. Mom and sister outside, her in her room, dad working in garage, near the answering machine. “He heard the message start and ran into the house full-on screaming. Not calling—screaming, banging on the sliding glass door.” The whole family was listening as Dr. Zhang said, “Mabel….” It should be noted that only two saxophone students were accepted from the state. One of them was Safe.

The village and the vision
To say there were tears is a minor footnote to the larger story of contribution, commitment, certainty, and celebration by so many invested players. Noting this, Safe quietly said, “I am lucky.” She’s also determined, grateful, and going to Greenville this fall.

“Mabel had developed a clear vision for herself,” Stutz said. “Carla, her parents, her grandparents and I simply worked together to help her fulfill that vision. It’s a validation of the power and value of thoughtful teaching, hard work, tenacity, and the support of a village. I’ve known that power for years. Mabel now knows it too. My hope is that she will, in time, find it equally difficult to say no to the little people who find their way into her sphere of influence.

“She’s bound to,” Stutz added, in the perfect parting shot of a jazz musician who knows how to turn a phrase, musically or otherwise.

With equal flair, his protégé signed off with the quietest determination and “I told you so” one can fit into an email signature: “Musically yours, Mabel Safe.”

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