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Faculty Profile: Ringerwole ends her storied career as Dordt College's official organist

By Sally Jongsma

Dr. Joan Ringerwole

Dr. Joan Ringerwole

When asked about the highlight of her thirty-eight year career as organ instructor at Dordt College, Dr. Joan Ringerwole says without a pause, “Working on the organ project.” Ringerwole describes the responsibility of helping select an organ builder and voicing for Dordt’s organ as a bit daunting, but so exciting.

She recalls visits to hear other organs, narrowing the builder to two, and finally selecting Casavant, partly because of the organ’s exterior case design and partly because of Gerhard Bruinsma, with whom they worked. Bruinsma came from a Reformed background and realized the important of voicing the organ for congregational singing, Ringerwole says. She gives him credit for the care he took, working closely with the architect to get the acoustics right in the B.J. Haan Auditorium.

When she pauses, Ringerwole quickly adds that working with and watching students “start from scratch” on the organ was a blessing and a joy. Many became good church organists, some became respected organ professionals, and several earned Ph.D.s.

Ringerwole came to Dordt College in 1967, fresh out of a master’s program at the Eastman School of Music. She had kept in contact with Music Professor Dale Grotenhuis, whose high school choir she had accompanied as a student in Michigan. A position at Dordt College opened for her, and she joined the faculty at age twenty-three, no older than some of her students. She taught music theory and literature as well as giving organ lessons.

Ringerwole recalls that her colleague, Trina Haan, urged her to make sure students called her Miss Ringerwole, so she could separate and establish herself as a faculty member. She followed that advice. Students came to respect her expertise, and she often invited her students into her home for meals and social events.

“The tone and attitude of Dordt students was refreshing,” Ringerwole says. “They were pleasant and friendly.” It’s what kept her here all those years, committed to helping them become excellent organists.

“Students today keep to themselves a bit more,” she says, then adds, with a chuckle, “Of course maybe it’s that I’m old now.”

Ringerwole notes the tremendous change in the Dordt College campus over her years here. But the changes haven’t been simply in facilities and programs. They’ve also come in her field. One of the biggest changes is the way music written before Bach is now played.

“Since the discovery of new manuscripts and research done in the ’70s, we no longer play this music in the same way. Rather than legato, organists now play in a lively way that is more true to the original composition,” says Ringerwole. Although the change was not universally accepted at first, it is now accepted as the way to teach Bach and his predecessors.

“I had to go through all of my old scores, change the fingerings I had written in when I learned them, and put in new fingerings based on the new techniques and fingerings found in original scores,” she says.

Ringerwole’s big contribution, she believes, has been in her private lessons emphasizing the basics: placement of the foot, angles of the feet, height of the bench. “I watch those things very carefully,” she says. She believes basic techniques have to be mastered for a person to become a good organist.

Memories of study trips with students to great organs in the Netherlands, helping local congregations improve their organs, participating in American Guild of Organists Pipe Organ Encounters for young people, giving over 160 recitals around the country, and working with so many talented and wonderful students will go with Ringerwole as she retires in May. But she won’t leave it all behind. She expects to go on playing organ in church, teach some private lessons, and maybe even give the occasional recital. “It’s something I’ll always be able to do,” she says.