Mariah Bates, an 11th grader at Harbor City International School in Duluth, Minn., doesn’t hesitate when she tells you her favorite teacher. It’s Darin Bergsven.
“It’s like you don’t wanna do anything bad because you don’t want to disappoint him and make him upset,” says Bates. “He’s a wonderful teacher. My favorite, definitely.”
Bergsven started teaching music at Harbor City when he graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) in 2002. He has also been teaching at the Music Resource Center in the Sacred Heart Music Center since spring of 2011. He has played guitar since third grade, and brass instruments since middle school band.
Bergsven’s day starts at 7:20 a.m., when the bus arrives at Harbor City in downtown Duluth. He takes the elevator up to the third floor, only accessible this early in the morning with a key.
“Morning is messing with me today,” he jokes.
He lets his students into the classroom, then sneaks up to the fourth floor for coffee.
Today there is none. The coffee guys are at a conference.
Bergsven settles for Earl Grey tea.
His first order of business today: the African music ensemble that he started six or seven years ago. The ensemble is not a normal class. Students get here early just to be a part of it.
“I was wondering how to put the ‘international’ in our international school,” he says. “I think music is a visceral and even physical way to experience a culture.”
Bergsven studied African music under Sowah Mensah, a professor from Ghana who teaches at the University of St. Thomas and Macalester College.
“I took classes with him in the summer for six years,” Bergsven says.
When Bergsven walks into the classroom, with its brick walls and its view of the Aerial Lift Bridge, his 10 students are already practicing. Each is hitting a conga-like drum from Ghana called a “kpanlogo.” A young woman on the end of the semicircle has her eyes closed as she drums a steady beat.
Bergsven jumps in with them for a minute, and then cues them to end. They stop in unison.
“I don’t know how you all are feeling, but my throat is not so into singing,” says Bergsven.
“I agree!” a student calls out.
Bergsven suggests practicing a lyric-less song called “Bor Bor Bor,” and for the next hour the room is transported to Ghana.
When they finish, Bergsven says, “Let’s sing ‘Adenkum’ before we go.”
The last 10 minutes are spent on this song, named after the dried calabash gourd instrument that’s used to play it. Bergsven leads the group in call and response. He sings, they repeat.
“I try to teach it to them in the same way that I’ve learned it from Sowah, so it’s call and response, copying me, and that’s all part of experiencing the culture,” Bergsven says. “I feel like this is a very important gift that’s been shared with me, so I try to stay really true to how it’s taught and how it’s thought of.”
His next class is a chamber ensemble. Bergsven sits on a stool in the front of the classroom, holding his mug of tea.
“Let’s see. Attendance.”
Somehow, Bergsven makes even this sound like a joke. Some of his students giggle.
“Guitars, are you all here?” Bergsven scans the crowd of students. “Yeeeaaahhh.”
“String trio? Are you here?”
His attendance-taking progresses from roll call to a “Simpsons” reference.
“So there’s a really awesome episode where Homer does a chili cook-off…”
A minute later, he’s back on track. When he gets to a girl named Gabby, though, he goes on another tangent, this time to a Ramones song.
“‘Gabba gabba hey!’ Every time I see Gabby, that’s what I think of.”
This draws a grin from Gabby.
By the time Bergsven finishes taking attendance, he has earned the laughter and even applause of his class.
Bergsven is clearly at home here in the classroom, but he has a busy life outside of school. He is married and has a 2-year-old son.
“And a daughter on the way in January, so that’s the big news these days,” Bergsven says.
Bergsven also performs around Duluth. He plays solo and with a band called Tangier 57, which just released an album called “It Is People.”
“Darin’s really the glue in a lot of ways,” says Dr. David Syring, a bandmate in Tangier 57 and a professor of Anthropology at UMD. “He’s really talented and gives us a creative focus. I know I’ve learned a lot from him about music.”
Syring and Bergsven have been friends for nine years, since Syring bought a house across the street from him.
“He really is serious about making his own music and really opening the door for his students and his friends and other people to engage with it,” Syring says. “He’s also very funny. I think more people need to feel empowered to be their own eccentric, ecstatic selves, and he’s good at that.”
Despite all he has on his plate with teaching and performing, Bergsven says he doesn’t feel torn.
“I don’t see them as separate things at all,” Bergsven says. “I’ve got this really great thing that I love and I have a lot of experience with it, and why wouldn’t I share it?”