September 21, 2023 at 11:15 a.m.

Making Beautiful Music: Local Organist John Ziegler Reflects on His Passion for Playing

By JENN WILLHITE | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Making beautiful music comes naturally for Hope resident John Ziegler.

For nearly 15 years, Ziegler has delivered moving renditions of traditional hymns and songs of worship to the Moravian Church congregation with an ease and confidence that seem second nature. And though he may not define it as such, his ability to bring people together through the power of music is a gift that continues to inspire those around him.     

Ziegler recalls beginning piano lessons when he was in the sixth grade. After a few years of dedicated practice, he graduated to organ lessons during his freshman year of high school in 1963.

“I wanted to play the organ from the start,” he says. “There were times I played at the Moravian Church then.”

Little did Ziegler realize at the time, but those services he accompanied would lay the experiential foundation on which he would build quite the expertise as an organist.

Ziegler pursued his love of music by earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music education from Butler University in the early 1970s. Since 1974, Ziegler has regularly been an organist somewhere, he says.  

The 74-year-old says when he initially began piano lessons, he didn’t think much about where it was going to lead. He simply pursued what made his heart sing.

“One day, a gentleman at the Methodist Church called and said he needed an organist the next day,” Ziegler says. “Then through a lady there I got introduced to an organist in Shelbyville and ended up subbing at the Presbyterian Church. It just kind of became what I was doing.”

For nearly 30 years, Ziegler served as organist at Shelbyville's Christian Science Church and the West Street United Methodist Church, respectively, before becoming organist for the Moravian Church in Hope.

Ziegler says despite his many hours of playing, he still maintained another job because being an organist was never a full-time job.  

“I was a mail man, I worked at the hardware store in Shelbyville and did some organ tuning,” he recalls.

At one point, he even bought an organ servicing business based in Louisville that had a list of 62 clients. Prior to that, he had worked for another tuning company that had contracts with 300 customers spanning nine states, so he traveled extensively, he says.

In January 2009, Ziegler became the organist for the Hope Moravian Church following the retirement of the late organist Mary Louise Hamilton.

Pastor Andy Kilps, of the Moravian Church, describes Ziegler as a gentle soul with a rich familial history both with the church and the Hope community. Stretching back to the 1830s, Ziegler’s ancestors were an integral part of not only the founding and establishment of the Hope community, but the Moravian Church, too, Kilps explains.   

“He loves the history and is a part of that history,” Kilps says. “And it means a lot him. He is very connected and loves the history of the whole town.”

And it is that love and connection that informs his playing, Kilps adds.

“Every time he plays you can tell he loves bringing music to the congregation,” Kilps says. “He loves being a part of the tradition of organists.”  

When asked, Ziegler describes himself as the “old man on the block” who has called Hope home for more than 40 years. And his membership with the Moravian Church goes back more than 60 years.

He says making the transition from piano to organ was not that difficult as it mainly comes down to being able to adapt to the pedals and multiple keyboards of the organ that define the difference in the two instruments. He credits the unique tonality of the organ and making music for the church as that which fuels his passion.  

When Ziegler plays the organ, he plays it loud and proud, Kilps says.  

“It is not only the volume, but the way he plays with such strength that it is very triumphant,” Kilps says. “His demeanor as a person, he’s a quiet man. That strength comes through in his playing. It is like his music speaks as loudly of his love for God and our congregation.”

The breadth of Ziegler’s repertoire of hymns and songs is as expansive as his years of playing and, yet, he still has his go-to list of music that he loves to play, he says.

“We play so many things,” he says. “I like the ones that are based on hymns – the ones people relate to more and know.”

Organ players are becoming rarer as the years go by, Ziegler says, yet he is hopeful the tradition is still a way from extinction. 

“We seem to be a dying breed, I guess,” he says. “I find that some of the churches I’ve taken care of lose their organist and then don’t want to put out the money for [maintaining] the organ.”

When he has the opportunity, he encourages others to pursue the instrument in the hopes that more people will express interest in learning to play. It isn’t as daunting as one would imagine it to be, he says. It is simply something – like anything else – you have to take the time to learn and perfect. And that means practice.  

“Stick with it and find someone you can study with,” he recommends. “And try to play on a regular basis. Right now, there are a lot of churches who are looking for an organist.”