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Arts & Culture

Charlotte Organist Wins National Improv Competition

Duncan McFadyen

Charlotte organist Patrick Scott won the 2014 National Competition in Organ Improvisation, held June 26 in Boston. In addition to the competition's $3,000 first prize, Scott took the audience prize, which earned him an additional $1,500. WFAE's Duncan McFadyen profiled Scott earlier this year.

When you think of a church pipe organ, Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" probably isn't the first thing to come to mind. But when organists give recitals, sometimes, they cut loose by improvising. Some take it further, actually playing in improvising competitions.


Patrick Scott knew he wanted to play the pipe organ when he was very little. But, at age 4, he was too short to reach the organ’s pedals. He took piano lessons instead.

Four years later, he remembers sitting down at his church’s organ in Picayune, Mississippi and realizing he was finally tall enough.

“It was really exciting," he says, "because it was something that I had wanted to do but physically wasn’t able to do yet and realized that a dream had now become a reality.” 

Reaching the pedals is no longer a problem for Scott; he’s 6’ 5”. Scott has earned a doctorate in organ performance, and today the 27 year old is the Organist at Myers Park United Methodist in Charlotte.

He also competes at the national level in organ improvisation. A few months ago, Scott won second place and the audience prize at the North American Guild of Organists’ Competition.

The way it works is the organists are handed an envelope that contains a melody they’ve never seen. They open it at the keyboard and have to create an arrangement of the tune on the spot.

In competition, it’s a melody they haven’t heard before. But recitals, it’s often something familiar suggested by the audience…

Scott ended a recent program  at Davidson College Presbyterian Church with three audience favorites: Danny Boy, Sweet Caroline, and When the Saints Go Marching In.

He stayed after the performance for an informal Q-and-A with the audience, and they asked him what goes through his head after he opens the envelope.

"It’s very nerve-racking," he says, "because even though it’s a simple melody, trying to sight read it and figure out what you’re going to do with it….are you going to play it fast or slow, loud or soft? And sometimes I don’t know the answers to that until I just start playing."

You wouldn’t know he was sorting all that out from watching him play. He dives right in, and as his playing develops, it’s easy to forget he’s improvising.

Clara Gerdes, a high school student from Davidson, asks, "So while you’re playing, does everything just happen totally spontaneously or at some point, do you try to come up with some general plan of where you’re going?”

Scott says he uses music theory to guide him along.

“There are formulas that you go by," he says, "You try not to make one section too long. You want a sense of balance”

Beyond the chord progressions running through his head, he also has to decide which organ pipes, or registers, to use. And he says every instrument is different.

Then he has a choice of three keyboards and the pedals to play. When you watch him play, his socks make it hard to lose track of what his feet are doing. Scott likes to wear colorful patterns when he plays. At the Davidson recital, he sported a black and teal polka-dotted pair.

As for the melody, he says that it eventually becomes a “old friend,” and he just tries to have fun. He says his teacher always reminded him that when improvising, there aren’t really wrong notes:

“He said if you play a wrong note, just play it three more times and nobody will know it was wrong,” Scott recalls.

He probably doesn't have a problem with wrong notes very often, though.

Patrick Scott's full improvisation from his Davidson College Presbyterian Church recital.