Editor’s note: Through our “Exceptional Educator” series, Reporter Newspapers is showcasing the work of some of the outstanding teachers and school officials at our local schools. These pieces focus on influential teachers and administrators identified through their schools. If you would like recommend an Exceptional Educator, please email editor@ReporterNewspapers.net.

Stutz Wimmer

Stutz Wimmer teaches band and jazz band at The Lovett School. He’s taught at Lovett since 1987, and started teaching seven years earlier. He plans to retire at the end of this year. Under his direction, Lovett’s jazz bands have competed successfully in national competitions. In March, Lovett’s Ellington Jazz Ensemble placed third among a dozen bands from across the country selected to compete at the Swing Central Jazz Competition in Savannah, the school said. “He’s been such a huge influence on the kids,” said Jen Sarginson, associate director of communications at Lovett. “He’s just a passionate teacher and a very talented musician himself.”

Q: What attracted you to teaching at first?

A: As an undergrad/grad college student I dabbled in it some, working with local high school students on sort of a one-to-one basis, and discovered I was pretty good at it.  (Though, in my mind, I was a player first.)

In truth, grade schools had been rough on me.  By the time I’d graduated from high school I had become about as “disengaged” from school as one can be.  That said, I had some wonderful, inspiring teachers/mentors in college.  And the band director under whom I student taught was among the most successful folks in the region.  In hindsight, they were some of the best role models one could have had. I was hooked.

Q: Has the appeal changed? 

A: It hasn’t!  Honestly…as I look at retirement in just a few weeks, I truly feel that I’ve never had to really “work” for a living. Teaching is such a kick. There’s nothing more rewarding than to help young people get excited about the thing you are so excited by personally. Music must be the easiest subject of all to teach when it comes to getting kids to fall in lock-step.

Q: What keeps you going year after year? 

A: I’ve never really seriously thought about doing anything else. I do love the challenge, especially as you see a group continue to progress as they grow older.  Many of my students started working with me as sixth graders…some even before.  By the time they graduate (graduating 13 this year), we all understand the program and each other.

It’s a very personal and gratifying thing. I can count on one hand the number of days in 37 years when I wasn’t eager to get back to school. And the Lovett School is probably as good a place to work as any place can be. It’s an amazingly supportive family of like-minded people, guided by some of the brightest and capable folks I’ve ever encountered…truly amazing.

Q: What do you think makes a great teacher?

A: That, of course, differs from teacher to teacher.  For me, an effective teacher has to be passionate, committed and deeply knowledgeable about the subject.  Kids can see right through a teacher who lacks sincerity or skill. They “get it” so fast! If you love the subject, as I do, and the enthusiasm for it spews out of you like I’m told it does in my case, you can’t help but inspire most of the students.

Tenacity is also key. I’ve never been much of one to accept “no” for an answer.  (It’s gotten me in a pickle on more than one occasion!) Fortunately, Lovett has been a Godsend for me in that regard, too. The administration has supported pretty much every out-of-the-box idea I’ve ever presented. To be honest, I’m a bit of an iconoclast by nature. Same-old, same-old doesn’t work very well for me. It’s important that the kids find relevance in the work they are asked to do. That’s where my own high school education ran off the rails. Because of that, I’ve taken great care in keeping that from happening to the kids in my charge.

You also have to be empathetic to be an effective teacher/coach.  It totally can’t be about your ego, though ego does naturally play a role. It’s mostly about the kids and their families. It’s really hard to be a kid these days and even harder to be a parent. Positive outcomes require lots of personal attention, interaction and empathy to negotiate the worst of times. But if you care, the kids sense that. Parents, too. Word gets around pretty fast regarding whether or not you’re ally or adversary. I can’t imagine being a teacher without liking/believing in the families you teach. (Though I’ve known some “teachers” who don’t.)

Finally, you have to be willing to put in extra time. If you want a gig that’s 40 hours a week, teaching is not for you. My wife Carla is an amazingly patient and supportive woman. I could not have done this without her support. How lucky am I?

Q: What do you want to see in your students? 

A: I want to see them discover the value and depth of music that may not at first be familiar to them. In my case, as a jazz enthusiast, most of my students are less familiar with the history and art form that is expressed through jazz music. It’s a beautiful thing to have a student develop a deeply held passion to learn to play well and be committed to working for years in order to play at the highest of levels.

Q: How do you engage your students? 

A: As described above. The music mostly does it — that, coupled with some degree of my own enthusiasm for it. The combination pretty much closes the sale. It’s easy to engage the students. Really easy.

Q: Do you have a project or special program you use year after year? Why do you keep going back to it? 

A: Yes! Lovett students are generally motivated/driven by goals and outcomes.  Nothing “jazzes” them more than a good challenge (sorry for the pun), provided they are interested in the subject. I’ve never been one for accepting mediocre music-making, either. Can’t stand the sound of it! I’ve always held a belief that students, given proper instruction and lofty goals, are capable of rising to a near-“professional” level by senior year.

Toward that end, I’ve involved my students in two particular national competitions that we take a shot at most years. The Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Festival and Competition, sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center (and Wynton Marsalis) is one of them. The Savannah Music Festival’s Swing Central High School Jazz Band competition is the other. Both are Super Bowl-like events.  Bands from all over the U.S. enter via recording. The top 15 or 12 bands, respectively, are selected from among hundreds of entries and are invited to attend the finals contest in New York and Savannah. Lovett has been a finalist at the Essentially Ellington festival four times, and Swing Central five times, I believe.

We weren’t chosen as a top finalist for Essentially Ellington this year, but were for Swing Central. We placed third overall in Savannah; this was the first time we’ve ever placed in the top three in Savannah. We earned a third place finish in New York in the early 2000s.

Nothing motivates Lovett/Ellington Band students more than the possibility of long-shot success.

Q: Is there a “trick” that works to get students involved? 

A: No tricks. The music, camaraderie and now, a legacy established by so many years of really wonderful groups, attracts the up-and-comers to the program. I’m most proud of the fact that The Lovett Ellington Band seems to have established a solid reputation for success and quality. It’s fairly self-sustaining at this point. I’m really proud of that.

Q: What do you hope your students take away from your class?

A: Great question! I want them to know what it feels like to perform at the very highest level the art form has to offer. I want them to carry their enthusiasm out of here when they graduate. I want them to share that experience with everyone, and get their own kids involved in music when the time comes.

I want them to “get this” like I have. I have little doubt that the students who just returned from Savannah will never forget the experience. You should have heard them play. My, oh my!

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.