Patrick A. Scott

PatrickScottYouTube Channel:

Dr. Patrick A. Scott was recently appointed as the new Assistant Organist-Choirmaster at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a graduate of Birmingham-Southern College and the University of Texas — where he studied with the late Dr. Gerre Hancock and Gerre’s wife, Dr. Judith Hancock. At the 2014 AGO convention in Boston, he won first place in the National Competition in Organ Improvisation.

Stations of the Cross:
Station I: (What Wondrous Love)
Station III: Jesus Falls the First Time
Station V: Simon of Cyrene Helps Jesus Carry the Cross
Station VII: Jesus Falls the Second Time
Station XI: Jesus is Nailed to the Cross and Station XII: Jesus Dies on the Cross

Julian Wachner


Julian Wachner currently serves as Director of Music and the Arts at Trinity Wall Street in New York City and Music Director of the Washington Chorus in Washington, DC. He studied improvisation, composition, organ and theory under Gerre Hancock while a chorister at the St. Thomas Choir School in New York City and eventually earned a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Boston University’s School for the Arts. He maintains an active career as conductor, composer, and performer.

Julian Wachner – Improvisation on “Truro” (Lift Up Your Heads) – Trinity Church, Wall Street

Jan Overduin – Making Music: Improvisation for Organists

Jan Overduin
Making Music: Improvisation for Organists
The best summary of this book can be found in the opening quote and paragraph from the preface:

There is no mystique or magic to improvising, just consistent and conscientious practice.
Gerre Hancock

It has been said of Jean Langlais that he could teach stones to improvise, and it is true that his own example and his enthusiasm for the art of improvisation were inspiring and contagious. But miracles are as rare in improvisation as they are in any field, and after several decades of teaching improvisation, I have come to rely less on the miraculous and more on clearly laid out exercises and assignments. The aim of this book is to show the student that improvisation is within the grasp of everyone, even those with minimal keyboard skills. To some this might seem like a tiny miracle, but it is achieved by hard work and an encouraging teacher rather than by chance.

What an inspirational message for the beginning student!

Jan Overduin also explains in the preface his belief that “the traditional comes first, then the modern.” Thus, this book is primarily focused on common practice tonal language. He begins with melody alone, moves slowly through one or two chords, thirds and sixths before arriving at the pentatonic mode. Even though the harmonic language is simple, he introduces contrapuntal concepts early by having each voice play a different rhythmic species. Only in Chapter 29 on Toccata is there any sort of exercise that deviates from tonal harmony (when the right hand is to play white keys and the left hand black keys).

Each chapter begins with an explanation of the material to be covered and then provides assignments with examples for further clarification and/or completion. Most chapters have 5-7 assignments, though the chapter on ostinato has 12 and rondo only has one. While each assignment usually grows out of the material that appeared previously, occasionally there are a few larger leaps that might benefit from some teacher guidance or further demonstrations. The examples and assignments are clear enough that they seem quite easy and approachable. A student can most likely follow this book without the guidance of a teacher, but should be careful not to skip over the assignments that seem too easy. While the explanations seem simple, I know that integrating the skills to be able to accomplish the given tasks will take time and practice.

In comparison to other methods reviewed so far, this may be one of the best places to start, especially if one wishes to improvise in any common practice harmonic style. Also published by Oxford University Press, Improvising: How to Master the Art by Gerre Hancock, while offering similar clear assignments for each chapter topic, would really work best as a follow up volume to this one, allowing review of the material covered here and advancement into larger forms. Creative Hymn Playing by Michael Burkhardt covers some of the same material as Jan Overduin, but is more limited in what it offers. Breaking Free by Jeffrey Brillhart would also make an excellent second or companion volume to this one depending upon the interests and aptitudes of the student. Many of the assignments in form and structure in this book could be used with the harmonic instruction of Breaking Free.

Michael Burkhardt – Creative Hymn Playing

Michael Burkhardt
Creative Hymn Playing: Improvisation, Exercises, and Repertoire

Michael Burkhardt is well known for his inspiring hymn playing and hymn arrangements. This book provides a guide to some of his techniques and can best be summarized by a quote from the end of the instruction portion of the book:

Develop one facet of improvisation at a time. Create a plan of attack, experiment, and modify.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part – Leading Congregational Song – offers some philosophical background and covers general performance practice for accompanying hymns. He gives specific and concise advice concerning tempo, registration and phrasing:

Slower tempi may be needed for rhythmically complex and intricate hymns….
Consider using as few stops as possible….
Generally speaking, a pulse of silence is needed for a breath between stanzas when a hymn begins on the beat, and half a pulse of silence for a breath between stanzas when a hymn begins with an anacrusis.

Part Two moves on to using the hymnal and becoming comfortable playing and using the material provided on the printed page. A series of very simple steps is outlined and illustrated using the tune Winchester Old.

Part three outlines a process for beginning hymn-based improvisations and then works through examples using the tunes O Filii et Filiae, Erhalt Uns, Herr, and Holy Manna. The last portion of part three is a set of variations on O Filii et Filiae with all the techniques of part three explained and labeled. Like part two, these steps are very simple and seem like they would be easily managed by a student with minimal music theory instruction.

The final part, providing almost half of the page count for the book, is filled with examples of hymn treatments with the forms and techniques identified in a box at the top of the piece. In addition to providing repertoire that the student could play, these examples show how simple the application of the techniques outlined in this book can be.

In general, I find this to be an entry level book. The material covered is very simple, but not so simple that it can be skipped by the student beginning to study improvisation. There is almost no discussion of harmonic language in this book. If the organist is to use these techniques to introduce, accompany, or provide an interlude for a hymn, it makes sense that harmonic vocabulary would be similar to what is printed on the page, so not a lot of discussion is necessary. Burkhardt does indicate that “further harmonizing possibilities are beyond the scope of this resource.” It would be nice to see a second volume address harmonic vocabulary in the same concise way Burkhardt has addressed form and melody here. (Breaking Free by Jeffrey Brillhart addresses harmonic language brilliantly but might be a little advanced by comparison to this book.)

Creative Hymn Playing: Improvisation, Exercises, and Repertoire gives clear and concise instructions with many examples on how to transform and create pieces based upon hymns. While the material is simple, it provides a solid foundation for further studies. It would be a great volume to work through before tackling Improvising: How to Master the Art by Gerre Hancock.

Jeffrey Brillhart – Breaking Free

Jeffrey Brillhart
Breaking Free: Finding a Personal Voice for Improvisation through 20th Century French Improvisation Techniques. Published by Wayne Leupold Editions.

One of the great difficulties I see in the teaching of improvisation is choosing where to begin and how to cover the wealth of material that a well-trained improviser needs to know. Whereas Gerre Hancock focuses almost entirely on form throughout his book Improvising: How to Master the Art, the bulk of the material in Breaking Free concerns harmonic language.

Jeffrey Brillhart attacks the challenge of what to cover and where to begin by narrowing the focus to “finding a personal language for organ improvisation through 20th century French Improvisation techniques,” the subtitle of the book. In the Introduction, Brillhart acknowledges that each student’s route to mastery is different:

There is no “one size fits all,” in learning to improvise or in teaching someone to improvise. What may work for one student may completely stymie another student.

Improvisation is a mystery. We do not fully understand what happens within the mind of the improviser while improvising. Improvisation is a search. It is a search for a personal musical language. It is a search for musical coherence. It is a search for personal self-expression. It is a search for beauty.

Breaking Free is a book filled with ideas for the student to explore. The first part (chapters 1-5) provides a philosophical grounding of improvisation and establishes the importance of the theme. Many example themes are given and chapter 4 is a catalog of development techniques. Any advice or examples provided are always accompanied by the encouragement of the student to find his or her own solution for how to treat the theme.

Part II (chapters 6-15) move into harmonic language and provides a framework not of scales, but intervals. Each chapter is devoted to a different interval (fifths, fourths, thirds, seconds, and so forth) and the harmonic colors that can be generated while using that specific interval to either harmonize or accompany the given theme. The pentatonic mode is also introduced and the student is urged to explore canons in this mode because of the harmonic simplicity the mode offers. Triads and seventh chords are also given their own chapters in this part, and while there may be references to key centers in the text, the student is encouraged to explore the textures without the restriction that a scale or specific mode would require.

Part III (chapters 16-20) begins with a look at Charles Tournemire. This chapter combines the techniques already covered with the structure and style of a specific composer, and provides a bridge into a harmonic language built upon modes. The next three chapters explain and explore the modes of Gregorian chant, a common theme source for much of French music. The final chapter of this part looks at the Bartok mode and serves as a bridge into Part IV which covers the more complex modes of Olivier Messiaen.

Only in Part V (chapters 25-35) does Brillhart finally begin to address large scale forms. Forms covered in this part include Passacaglia, Song From, Scherzo, Sonata Allegro, the structures of Louis Vierne and Pierre Cochereau, free improvisation and finally improvising on a literary text. The last two chapters (Part VI) provide examples of the language of Debussy and Ravel for the student to explore. Finally, for the student still searching at the end of this book there is a wonderful two-page bibliography of high quality resources for further exploration either of improvisation or other specific musical topics such as harmony or counterpoint.

Having spent the majority of my formal instruction in improvisation learning from French teachers, I am delighted that Jeff Brillhart has created this volume. While it may not be exactly what I experienced in France, he provides a codified and logical progression for something that I saw many French teachers address in a very haphazard way. By choosing to focus on a specific style, he actually helps the student develop many tools that can be applied in other areas. The greatest difficulty with this book may come from the lack of specific challenges for the student. Each chapter of Improvising: How to Master the Art by Gerre Hancock concludes with specific activities for the student to complete before moving on. While each chapter in Breaking Free has numerous examples and may offer ways for the student to apply the materials in the chapter, there is no task given where the student (or teacher) can clearly know if they have understood and can apply the material presented. If the student is creative, then this is probably not much of a problem, but for a beginning improviser who has trouble generating ideas, this may make it difficult to use this book without the aid of a teacher. Perhaps unintended, but a likely benefit of a student working through this book will not only be a breaking free of harmonic language, but also a strengthening of the creative muscle.

It takes a lot of varied skills to master the art of improvisation. Breaking Free by Jeff Brillhart is an excellent resource for adding tools to the improviser’s toolbox. Using this book, not only will the student break free harmonically, but he or she will also break free from the reliance on a teacher and discover his or her own creative potential. For anyone interested in improvising in a modern style (whether French or not), I highly recommend this book.

Gerre Hancock – Improvising: How to Master the Art

Gerre Hancock
Improvising: How to Master the Art
Oxford University Press

As one of the most highly regarded American improvisers of the late twentieth century, Gerre Hancock has left us a wonderful treasure in his book Improvising: How to Master the Art. I remember as an undergraduate student anticipating its release, anxiously waiting to see what this master would put down on paper as the way to learn American improvisation. While there were some smaller volumes (by Jan Bender and Michele Johns), the referential text for improvisation when I was a student was still the Cours Complet D’improvisation a l’orgue by Marcel Dupré. While offering lots of guidance, the Dupré was written for French students who normally have many years of harmony and counterpoint studies either already under their belt or in parallel process which typical American students lack. This makes the Dupré a very challenging place to start for most Americans. Gerre Hancock provides a wonderful bridge for those aspiring to follow the Dupré method but without the advanced theoretical background.

After an introduction where he offers two axioms of the art of improvising – 1)Never stop and 2)Salvation is never more than half a step away – Hancock begins with scales. Beginning with one voice, the student is encourage to make an interesting melody out of an ascending and descending scale. Slowly the texture is increased up to four voices. Numerous examples are given in a multitude of styles, however there is always one voice that is the scale. Whereas Dupré expects a student to practice proper voice leading and keep a strict even rhythm to the scales, Hancock encourages variety. This does not mean rhythmic instability as one of the recommendations at the end of the first chapter is for the student to count the time signature aloud while playing.

Chapter two moves on into phrases, starting again with only one voice and building up to a four voice texture. Having mastered scales and phrases, the student begins work on transitions in chapter three (“The Interlude”). Chapter four lays the foundation for variations as Hancock leads the student through re-voicing and re-harmonizing hymns. Chapter five (“The Ornamented Hymn”) begins to move the student away from strict statements of the hymn tune, preparing for “The Hymn Prelude” of chapter six where the student is given several forms to combine and apply the work of the previous chapters on phrases, interludes and ornamentation.

Beginning at chapter seven, Hancock moves the student from a given melody to forms that can be used with freer themes, beginning with Song Form, moving through Sonata Form (chapter 8) to Toccata (chapter 9). At chapter 10, he begins to introduce contrapuntal ideas through study of the canon. More complicated imitative structures are studied in chapter 11 (“The Duo and the Trio”) before arriving at the ultimate improvisational achievement- the fugue (chapter 12).

Overall, I find this book to be very logical in the progression through the material covered. While tonal language is implied throughout the course of study, the primary instruction in this book is in coherence through form and thematic development. It can be followed using a very simple or very complex harmonic language, i.e. in whatever language the student is most comfortable. If you are looking for instruction in harmony or a specific style, this is not the place to go, but if you wish to develop your improvisational form, this is an excellent workbook. Each chapter is filled with concrete recommendations for practice. It begins simply enough that anyone with basic music theory knowledge can follow, but it provides enough substance that even those with several years of harmony and counterpoint studies can still follow and learn.

Gerre Hancock was not only a master improviser, but also a master teacher. Improvising: How to Master the Art is indeed a masterwork of improvisation pedagogy and should be in any serious student’s library.

The Final C: COLOR!

While I did not plan for the series to end this way, it seems appropriate that on this day when American are waving their red, white and blue to celebrate Memorial Day, the topic of the newsletter is color. Whether you are from the USA or somewhere else, I hope you will take a moment to express gratitude to those who gave their lives to enjoy the freedom that you are able to enjoy today.


While registration is an issue of competency, it also is an aspect of color. In the first issue on Competency, I expressed the need for an organist to be familiar with the registrations and combinations of organ stops available to him or her. Even a small organ of 12 stops offers 220 combinations of three stops! (You can check the math or try other numbers here.) While not all of these would project a sense of competency, I believe we fall into registrational habits and often fail to exploit all the colors an instrument may offer us. Instead of simply pulling out the 8′ Flute as a solo, why not try using a 4′ down one octave or a 2′ down two octaves? That 16′ reed in the swell might make a lovely 8′ solo stop if you play an octave higher. Using “non-traditional” registrations like this can also increase your mental dexterity and make it easier for you to play a melody or theme with the left hand or pedal.


Speaking of melody, a layer of color can come from melody notes that are non-chord tones and the contour of the melody itself. Every style (see The 3rd C: Coherent) has a set of rules for the relationship of melody to harmony with guidelines for how to treat non-chord tones. One simple exercise that was given to me by Philippe Lefebvre for finding colorful melodies was to hold a chord with the left hand and only play notes not in the chord with the right hand. It will take trial and error to discover which notes of the scale work best with what sort of chords, but let your ear be your guide. Perhaps the simplest rule I ever heard for non-chord tones came from Gerre Hancock in his admonition “Salvation is always a half-step away.” If you play something that sounds a little off, chances are there is a note right next to it that will sound better, and if you can repeat yourself and play it again, you become convincing and colorful at the same time!


A lot of my instruction in improvisation has focused on building and creating my own harmonic language. One of the ways to do this is to take a colorful harmonic progression from a written composition, memorize it, and then transpose it into all possible keys. Here’s a sample from the first movement of Louis Vierne‘s Symphonie no. 3:

The pedal part is an ornamented pedal point. (We could consider it a melodic way to add color to a static note!) The manuals could be simplified by only playing beats one and three of the chords. With these adjustments, we have a progression ready to transpose into all other keys and will be adding a new way to color a pedal point to our harmonic vocabulary.

What passages from repertoire do you find colorful? Examine them closely, simply if necessary and transpose them to make them part of your improvisational vocabulary. I’d love to know which composers and pieces you find inspirational.

Happy Memorial Day!

May all your improvs be colorful!

Glenn Osborne

Recent additions to

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has been greatly expanded. There are now over a dozen method books and over fifty recordings with a separate section now for Pierre Cochereau!



Newsletter Issue 5 – 2014 05 26
See the complete list of past newsletter issues here.
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Having served as the music of the Roman Catholic Church for hundreds of years, chant has been the subject of improvisations throughout many different stylistic periods and in many different forms.
Some popular chant themes include:

Gerre Hancock – Improvised versets on the Magnificat Solemn Tone – April 4, 2004 – St. Thomas
Otto Maria Krämer – Improvisation in Memoriam Marcel Dupré on “Ave maris stella”
Loïc Mallié Improvisation sur deux thèmes grégoriens
Olivier Messiaen – Puer Natus Est – La Trinité
Pierre Pincemaille – Conditor Alme Siderum – St. Denis
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: I (Theme and Plein jeu)
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: II (Scherzo)
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: III (Meditation)
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: IV (Introduction and Passacaglia)

Gerre Hancock

HancockGerre Hancock is best known for his service as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York City from 1971 to 2004.
Full bio.


Improvising: How to Master the Art
Oxford University Press
One of the most recent essential method books from a master teacher!


Gerre Hancock: Fanfare
Also Available as an mp3 download

Gerre Hancock: Christmas Improvisations

On a sunday afternon: Gerre Hancock Live at Washington National Cathedral

Great Hymns Of Faith
University Of Texas Chamber Singers under the direction of James Morrow
Gerre Hancock provides fabulous improvised hymn accompaniments, interludes, and free improvisations based upon hymn tunes on the Visser-Rowland at the University of Texas at Austin.

Doxology October 6, 2002- St. Thomas
Final hymn and improvised Organ Voluntary on ‘Gott sei Dank’ – May 18, 2003 – St. Thomas
Improvised versets on the Magnificat Solemn Tone – April 4, 2004 – St. Thomas