Dagan Bernstein first came to HPA as a middle-schooler in 1992. He currently co-directs the Middle School ‘ukulele ensemble, teaches Middle School algebra, music technology, and an eighth-grade capstone course in which students create an art project on an issue or topic of passion. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon.
Where did you grow up?
Before moving to Waimea in middle school, I lived in Kealakekua in South Kona. My family moved there from the east coast, and we lived on an avocado and coffee farm.
What fostered a love of both math and music for you?
It started with my parents. My mom is really artistic, and my dad is a crazy-smart computer science/mathematics/physics/astronomy genius who also plays music. My dad would always ask me how to calculate discounts when we went shopping, or other questions like that. He explained the Pythagorean theorem to me when I was really young, and how the Greeks calculated the circumference of the earth. And there was always music playing in our house. My parents got me my first guitar when I was 10. I would look through my dad’s Beatles songbooks and try to figure out the chords—but the Beatles had crazy chords with major sevenths, and flatted fifth—stuff that was way beyond my 10-year-old brain! I just always remember being very curious about how both math and music worked, about their underlying structures. I feel really lucky to have had parents who fostered those interests.
If you were an equation (or a ‘ukulele chord!), which one would you be and why?
I would be the equation for the circumference of a circle, C = π d I find it fascinating that you can measure the distance across any circle, multiply that by roughly three, and it will always equal the distance around the circle. And I’d say an F major seventh chord. Major sevenths have a beautiful kind of soft and pensive sound. It is achieved by just adding one note to a basic major chord, and it makes this really amazing sound. On the ‘ukulele you have to stretch your pinky out to make it, so it is a nice exercise in finger dexterity, too!
What is your favorite place on the island?
There is something about Napo’opo’o Beach at Kealakekua Bay that I really love. There is so much history at that bay, and I have such fond memories about being a child there. But also, I really love every beach, every valley and mountain. This place is truly amazingly beautiful, and you can go anywhere and feel connected to something bigger than yourself.
Who are some of your musical heroes?
I’m definitely influenced by traditional country musicians like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Hank Williams, but also have a huge love for Hawaiian music, so some of my heroes are Gabby Pahinui, Sonny Chillingworth, and Eddie Kamae.
What do you love about teaching at HPA?
I feel blessed to be at a school that supports learning as much as we do. The students are really engaged and passionate, and we give teachers the resources and support to create really dynamic and engaging learning experiences.