Lee DENGLER is one of the sacred music industry’s nice guys. Lee is a man who has successfully worked for decades as an editor, engraver, composer and arranger. He and his wife Susan, (a lyricist) have provided many significant anthems into the choral canon in a variety of traditional styles and genres. His compositions range from soaring anthems of praise to delicate a cappella gems that touch the heart with tender beauty. Lee agreed to answer our questionnaire and with his answers we gain a little insight to this remarkable musician.
What was the music of your youth?
As a teenager in the mid-to-late 60s, I was, of course, exposed to the popular music of the day, but for me, the biggest musical influence came from my church and my family. I grew up in the Mennonite Church, and at that time, congregational singing was strictly a cappella. In my childhood, men and women sat in separate sections during the worship service. It was much like singing in a large choir. There were several song leaders in the larger Mennonite community that would visit various congregations and “teach” them how to sing – how to read music. Hymn singing was at the core of Mennonite worship in those days.
Hymn singing did not only happen on Sunday mornings. Whenever my family would get together, we always stood around the piano and sang hymns. I was often encouraged to accompany at the piano.
Men’s Gospel Quartets were quite popular back then. I remember going to quartet concerts and hearing the rich harmonies and the rather extravagant arrangements. There was a time when I dreamed of singing bass in one of those quartets.
Tell us about your background and how that inspired you to pursue music as a career?
I started taking piano lessons in grade school. I would spend hours at the piano. I can’t tell you how many times I would ask my mother to come and listen to me playing whatever I happened to be working on at the time. She was so patient and encouraging with me. In high school, I got very involved in the choir. I sang in the District, Regional and State Choruses and, as a result, was exposed to great choral music. In high school I discovered the joy of composing. Pursuing music as a career was not a choice for me – there was simply no other choice.
What music do you listen to now?
As I get older, I find my musical tastes are very eclectic. I love music that is passionate, surprising, and creative; and is performed with purpose and vulnerability. If these elements are all present, I can and do love nearly any style and genre.
Tell us about your faith journey, and how it influences your musical choices.
I try to live my life, following the example clearly set by Jesus. He was compassionate, generous, faithful, and selfless. Those are words easily said, but, for me, difficult to live out. I am committed to doing my best to follow His example. Throughout my life, God’s loving presence has always been with me…in good times and bad. I am interested in writing music that, I feel, has something to say that is important in terms of both words and music.
Name three things about yourself that would surprise people.
I love cats. We have two cats—Toby and Teddy–and they are very cute!
I like to play golf. I come from a family of golfers, although I started playing golf much later than my parents or siblings.
I cannot resist a good pun. Whenever puns pop out of my mouth, my family groans. I suspect that they actually like them, though.
What projects are currently on your horizon?
I am always working on some new piece. It has been a few years since I wrote my last piano collection, so I am giving serious thought to writing another in the near future.
When are you most creative?
Usually mornings find me at my most creative, however, it is more important for me to have the stress-free space to write, no matter what time of the day it might be.
What’s your sacred space?
Outside of church, it would be in nature. I am often speechless when I find myself in the midst of God’s creation. It is both inspiring and humbling. Susan and I love the southwest and have enjoyed many moments there as we are inspired by the dramatic beauty of its landscape.
Which composers/arrangers inspire you?
Here is a partial list:
Ralph Vaughan Williams
What do you do when you’re not composing?
I do a lot of music editing and engraving for several publishing companies. I direct my 40-voice church choir, and this year, I am filling in as co-director of St. Joseph Valley Camerata Singers, a local small auditioned choir in which I sing in the bass section. I also sing in a small community men’s ensemble called The Open Fifths. Susan and I enjoy travelling, and we love spending time with our 5 grandchildren.
Where do you see church music going in the future? Are there trends you think are important in the current culture of sanctuary music?
Although choirs have dwindled somewhat in some churches, they have grown in others. I am optimistic about the future of church choral music. Singing in a choir is rich in benefits. There is a bond that is created among the singers. The words that are sung become deeply planted in the depth of each singer’s being, where they have the power to inspire and change. The music enables singers to express their emotions and feelings. Singing is good for the choir members, it is a blessing for the congregation, and it is a gift of worship to God.
What is your #1 tip for aspiring writers?
Every piece that you write needs a singular core idea. Stick with that idea. If it is a good idea, it is more than enough to build a piece around. I taught composition at Goshen College. I think the number one thing that my students struggled with was putting too many ideas in one piece.