Scott Smedinghoff GR '17 remembered for talent and kindness

by Erin Lee | 1/19/16 8:39pm

Scott Smedinghoff GR ’17 was a talented musician and mathematician who died last week.

Scott Smedinghoff GR ’17 could astound a room with his virtuosic musical talent, but he had a way of bringing out the best in everyone else around him as well, Dartmouth College Wind Ensemble director Matthew Marsit said. He was a kind, passionate, hard-working person with a goofy streak, and his exceptional musicianship and mathematical brilliance were obvious, Marsit recalled.

Smedinghoff was found dead at his Lebanon apartment on Jan. 15. He was 28. Two police officers went to check on him as he had not been heard from for several days, according to a Lebanon Police Department release. The circumstances of his death are currently under investigation, the release stated.

Friends and family remembered Smedinghoff for his dry, witty sense of humor and boundless generosity in addition to his talents as a gifted musician and accomplished student.

He had a distinctive, booming laugh that some dubbed the “Scott Smedinghoff laugh,” Williams College voice teacher Kerry Ryer-Parke said.

Smedinghoff earned his bachelors degree in mathematics and physics from Williams in 2009. He worked as an organist and choir director at several churches before starting graduate school at Dartmouth in 2012. He was a fourth year doctoral student in the College’s mathematics department.

Smedinghoff loved music from a very young age, his mother Linda Smedinghoff said. He sang with the Chicago Children’s Choir and started playing the piano when he was four-years-old.

“He always had a song to sing,” Linda Smedinghoff said. “I think one of my favorite things about him was that he became very giving with his music.”

In high school, Smedinghoff picked up the organ, a difficult instrument he enjoyed for its intricacy and quantitative complexity, Ryer-Parke said.

Williams’ organ and piano teacher Edwin Lawrence said Smedinghoff made a memorable impression the first time Lawrence heard him play the organ. He was a facile artist who had broad-ranging musical interests, though he was partial to contemporary music, Lawrence said.

Williams music professor Ed Gollin wrote in an email that he was impressed by Smedinghoff’s aptitude for analyzing music theory, as well as his creative compositional talent. His composition projects were always the biggest and most involved in his first-year class, Gollin said, recalling that Smedinghoff wrote a “Bach-sized” organ fugue for his final project.

Outside of his musical studies, Smedinghoff also accompanied other students at Williams and was enlisted to play the more advanced repertoire for singers, Ryer-Parke said.

“He really could play anything and transpose music — he was really understanding the math behind the music,” she said.

After graduating from Williams, Smedinghoff decided to stay in the area as a musician, working at several churches, including the Lyme Congregational Church in Lyme and the First Congregational Church in Thetford, Vermont.

On Sundays, he would play the organ for the service at one church and then rush to another church to play again, Ryer-Parke said.

“He made his living in a rural area as a musician, which is not easy to do,” she said.

In Lyme, Smedinghoff accompanied and sang with the community singing group Full Circle, bringing his perfect pitch, keen sense of rhythm and infectious laugh, Lyme Congregation Church choir director and Full Circle director Jennifer Yocom said.

“Though his standards in music for himself were extremely high, he was accepting of all levels of ability,” Yocom said. “He had a quality that made everyone feel special.”

He also played with the Bennington Children’s Chorus, directed by Ryer-Parke, for two years. The children adored him for his sincerity and sense of fun, she said.

“He was very awkward in the beginning until he realized he could be his quirky, musical self, wearing his piano socks and Bach t-shirt,” Ryer-Parke recalled. “We loved to delight in the wonderful oddness of certain kids.”

He developed unique, silly vocal warm-ups that the children still continue to request, she said.

College math department chair Dana Williams said Smedinghoff “sailed” through the preliminary portion of the graduate program. While other students were preoccupied with passing their exams, Smedinghoff was interested in starting research early on top of his coursework.

“He was certainly one of the best and brightest of his group, maybe even in the last 10 years or so,” Williams said.

He studied noncommutative geometry, a branch of functional analysis, in addition to teaching sections of introductory math.

His mother said he was interested in math and physics from a young age. When Scott was about 10-years-old, he became interested in black holes, she said. He wanted to read every book on the subject he could find, which led to trips to every library in the area.

“He was always asking lots of questions,” she said. “When he got interested in something, he wanted to know everything about it.”

Many described Smedinghoff as having a quiet, self-possessed confidence that garnered the respect of his peers.

“He was confident, but not cocky — he didn’t make other people feel small,” Williams said. “He was comfortable with his mathematic ability, but he knew he needed to learn a lot more as well.”

Friends said he was tireless in pursuit of his passions.

“He was the sort of person who was unfazed by a challenge, whether it be mastering a difficult piano work, tackling a complicated dinner recipe or accomplishing insanely long bike rides,” Megan Martinez GR’15 wrote in an email.

Smedinghoff started playing with the Wind Ensemble as soon as he arrived at the College, Marsit said.

“There truly was nothing he couldn’t play immediately and on the spot,” Marsit said.

Smedinghoff continued to accompany students at Dartmouth, and he always made sure everyone he worked with felt great about their performance, Marsit said. Even when students showed up late or came in unprepared, he never let that stand in the way and wanted the music to be as successful as it could be, he said.

Justin Richardson GR’15 said he was introduced to Smedinghoff as a fellow pianist. They formed a classical piano club, and even though Smedinghoff was the most experienced and skilled in the group, he was always patient and loved listening to everyone else play, Richardson said.

“He was such an interesting child to raise, always bringing interesting people to our lives,” Linda Smedinghoff recalled.

Marsit said one of his fondest memories is performing a Stravinsky piano concerto last spring with Smedinghoff as a soloist. Usually, when a student auditions to be a soloist, it takes an entire year to prepare for the audition. After a casual conversation with Marsit, Smedinghoff saw the score of the notoriously challenging piece for the first time and played an audition one month later that was “fully memorized and flawlessly prepared,” Marsit said.

“The first rehearsal when he played, students would stop playing because they couldn’t believe what he was capable of,” he said.

The Wind Ensemble performed the Stravinsky piano concerto as part of their spring concert at Dartmouth last year, but they also traveled to Williams, Smedinghoff’s alma mater, to perform there. Many of his friends and former professors attended the concert.

“That performance was really very special,” Lawrence said. “I really can’t tell you how thrilled we are that we had that opportunity with Scott.”

Linda Smedinghoff said when she recently asked her son what he wanted to do after earning his degree, he said he did not know which direction he wanted to go, but she believes he enjoyed the teaching he was doing at the College.

Smedinghoff would often joke about choosing between music and mathematics, Marsit recalled, adding that Smedinghoff would have undoubtedly found a way to combine his two great passions with his characteristic humor.

“There was never a time together when we weren’t just laughing,” Marsit said. “He had a smile that never faded.”

A memorial service will be held for Smedinghoff on Saturday, Jan. 23 at 11 a.m. in Rollins Chapel, followed by a reception hosted by the College mathematics department.


Correction Appended (Jan.21):

The original version of this article misidentified Williams College voice teacher Kerry Ryer-Parke as Smedinghoff's voice teacher.

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