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This pianist strives to find the right note

When Patton Hutchens, 15, played piano at his Montibello home, he was an imposing figure.

At 6-feet-3, he towered over the piano as he played a song he had written, his hands floating across the black and white keys.

The melodic piece, "Afternoon by the Lake," sparkled like that imaginary lake in the afternoon sun.

"He changed it," his mother, Michele Hutchens, said, which was not surprising, because for Hutchens the songwriting process is always evolving - so much so that his music can change depending on his mood or "ear."

To say Hutchens, a sophomore at Charlotte County Day, is passionate about his music is accurate but insufficient. He tweaks the notes until he finds the right one. "Basically, that's a musician's job, to search for the perfect song," said Hutchens.

The piano can also be an indication of her son's mood, said Michele Hutchens.

"I can tell if he's excited, if he's melancholy, whatever, just by the way he plays the same songs."

Hutchens' interest in music began at age 5, when he received a keyboard for Christmas. He played with the keyboard until Michele Hutchens thought it was time for instruction.

Hutchens has been taking piano lessons almost eight years, and since April 2006 that instruction has been with Claire Ritter, a pianist, composer, recording artist and artistic director for Composers Charlotte.

Hutchens started writing music when he was 13. Ritter calls Hutchens' style "his own," characterized by a "flowing lyricism and unusual melodic depth for his age." When composing, Hutchens is "one with the instrument, as it should be," said Ritter.

Many of Hutchens' songs are not written down, leaving him to depend upon his memory.

"I've written down the basic chords, like the left hand, the basic keys, but I'm always changing the right hand, the melody," said Hutchens. His reasons, he said, are twofold: "I don't have the time to write it down," he said, and even if he did, "I always play it differently."

Hutchens hesitates when asked to describe his music: "It's really hard for a composer to explain his own piece, because it doesn't feel like he will do it justice." Music seems a genetic predisposition in the Hutchens household. Patton and his sister, Marais, 13, who also plays violin, guitar, and piano, are the latest of four generations of musicians, beginning with their maternal great-grandmother.

Patton Hutchens' musical tastes include everything from classic '70s rock to popular artist Five for Fighting.

Hutchens' musical abilities are equally diverse: He's teaching himself to play guitar, yet also plays bass clarinet, baritone and tenor saxophone, and currently the alto saxophone for the band at Charlotte Country Day.

Hutchens may be able to play a variety of instruments, but it is the piano he prefers, calling it a "symphony in your living room."

Unsure of what the future holds for his music, Hutchens now calls it his "profession," as he performs regularly at the Carmel Country Club, various Christmas parties and occasionally at his church, Forest Hill, and at the Regency Retirement Village.

In September, Hutchens performed at a Belk fashion show at the Blacklion home furnishings store, where Josh Diaz, managing director of the Ballantyne Chamber Orchestra "discovered" him. Diaz calls Hutchens a hidden gem and expects him to be "a large gem" one day, with a bright future.

To that end, Diaz appears to have given Hutchens a good start on that future. On Oct. 22, Hutchens performed "Afternoon by the Lake" as a prelude for the Ballantyne Chamber Orchestra's season opener.