John Siler has always been attracted to music and started piano lessons at age 7.
That launched a 60-year career.
Siler, 68, who’s organist at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, has published 14 of his choral and handbell anthems with major church music publishers.
It all started in the “piano room” in his family home in Belmont. “I used to love to go in there at 6, 7 years old and just play the keys” of the old upright piano, he says.
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His career in music includes a stint in an Army band in Alabama, a doctorate in music, and years playing the organ at churches in the Charlotte area.
Siler says he recently got a call from someone in Florissant, Mo., who liked doing one of his pieces. That’s his “highest joy” – hearing back from people who are playing his creations.
“Things have just been rocking along really nicely with these compositions. I’m not getting rich off of them, but I enjoy it.”
Siler grew up in First Presbyterian Church of Belmont. He took music lessons for nine years at Belmont’s Sacred Heart College, started organ lessons in 10th grade, and got his first job playing organ at 15 with First United Methodist Church in Mount Holly.
While in the Army during the Vietnam War era, he went to the Armed Forces School of Music in Little Creek, Va., and played in an Army band at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., before being sent to Germany in 1970.
He taught music for years at public schools, Gaston College and with private students. Siler also spent 21 years as organist at First Presbyterian Church in Gastonia, and played at First Presbyterian in York, S.C., before going to Dilworth United Methodist Church, where he was organist for five years until about 2009.
At Dilworth, Siler worked with Robert Pritchard, the director of music. Siler calls him “a great influence on me.”
“I simply encouraged him,” says Pritchard, founding director of Renaissance, a choral group. “I’ve always laughed and said you could put the phone book up on the music stand and John could play it. He can play almost anything.”
The Dilworth choir performed several of Siler’s compositions.
Siler published his first piece in 2007 with San Diego-based Neil Kjos. “Make a Joyful Noise,” for soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices and keyboard accompaniment, was dedicated to the Dilworth choir. His score is framed and hanging in the choir room there.
Other works followed with Kjos and with GIA, a leading publisher of choral music, hymnals and music education resources. Siler also published a Christmas piece, “How Far to Bethlehem,” in 2012 with Houston-based music publisher Alliance.
Many of his choral anthems take their texts from the Psalms, like the GIA-issued “May God Be Gracious (2011).” Others use texts from traditional hymns that are in the public domain. Siler wrote “All My Heart This Night Rejoices,” published by a Kjos subsidiary in 2009, in memory of a girl who died young – a playmate of his two children. The traditional German hymn includes the words: “Come then, banish all your sadness! … We shall live with Him forever.”
Siler composes at the piano and writes his scores by hand. Then he sends them to a business that transcribes the handwritten versions into Finale, a software program that produces typed scores that he submits to publishers.
Lately, Siler says, he has been getting inspiration from 20th-century British composers – Benjamin Britten, Percy Grainger, Percy Whitlock, Herbert Howells and others. “I love the big English cathedral sound.”
“But, of course, Bach is the king.”
An ‘upbeat kick’
Siler praises the acoustics and the organ at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian, where he’s been organist since 2009. The three-manual organ (it has three keyboards, and a wider variety of stops) is “so fun to play.”
Siler loves the “big sound” of the organ – and also of handbells, which can reverberate even in a “dead room.” He’s written many recent pieces for three- to five-octave handbell choirs.
“I don’t know whether I’m on a sort of an upbeat kick or what … so far, my handbell pieces are called ‘Exultations,’ ‘Hymn and Alleluia,’ ‘Laudations,’ and I’m working right now on ‘Canticles of Joy.’ ”
“Exultations” is dedicated to Selwyn’s handbell choir and to Fred Spano, Selwyn’s director of music since 2009.
“I must say that we were touched to have John dedicate this piece of music to us,” says Spano, associate professor of music education at UNC Charlotte. The 11-member handbell choir plans to begin practicing “Exultations” this fall, with the goal of performing it in spring 2015, Spano says.
The gift of music
Music runs in Siler’s family. His wife, Jan, who has a master’s in woodwinds, sings in the Selwyn choir. Their daughter, Allison, an attorney, plays piano, and their son, Nathan, teaches in the music program at the University of Louisville and plays trombone in the Louisville, Ky., symphony.
Father and son “always like to play trombone and organ for the Christmas prelude at Selywn on the Christmas Eve service,” Siler says. He wrote “Hymn and Alleluia” – dedicated to his grandchildren, age 2 and 18 months – for Nathan’s trombone quartet, who premiered it at the University of Louisville New Music Festival in 2013.
“I hope to write as long as I can,” Siler says. “I tell you, it’s the Lord’s gift when he gave music. It runs to the inner soul. It’s just a never-ending view of wonder, really.”