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Lincoln High School Music Teacher Jelani Canser Brings Passion and Full Songbook Collection to His Job

Lincoln High School Music Teacher Jelani Canser Brings Passion and Full Songbook Collection to His Job

On any given day, a visitor to Abraham Lincoln High might be treated to the sounds of Bach and Tchaikovsky ringing through the halls. Or they might hear a classical rendition of rock anthems like Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” and Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” And then there is always the chance that the sounds of traditional Mariachi tunes will be ringing out.

Those eclectic musical selections can all be traced back to the classroom of Jelani Canser, the Director of Orchestra and Mariachi at Abraham Lincoln High. A teacher within the San José Unified School District (SJUSD) for 16 years, Canser has spent the last two years at Lincoln High School, where he has galvanized students with his unique approach to music.

“We are a performing arts school at Lincoln, so I think we all have this expectation that there will be a lot of playing music,” said Canser. “We have a live performance once every grading term—so that’s once every six weeks. We like to have fun with these shows too. For the Halloween performance, we all get dressed up in costumes. I think the students appreciate that.”

Over his five total classes—three orchestra sessions in the morning and two Mariachi ones in the afternoon—Canser teaches more than 100 students, including a handful of crossover students. It makes for a busy schedule, but Canser said it’s all very rewarding.

“It’s pretty amazing to see these kids develop a passion for music,” said Canser. “To see some of these students form groups outside of what I’m teaching, to pursue music on their own terms—that’s fun to see.”

Andrea Acevedo, a senior violinist at Lincoln High School, has been taking orchestra classes under the tutelage of Canser for the past two years. She said his classes are special because they combine an upbeat, infectious atmosphere with a real focus on the future.

“Mr. Canser brings so much enthusiasm into the program,” said Acevedo, who is planning on studying music in college. “He’s always well prepared, and a very apt musician. He also incorporates a lot of stuff we didn’t know about that will be really helpful for students looking to major in music. He implements music theory and introduces a lot of different repertoires, and talks about the right music etiquette for college. He’s really preparing us to pursue music after high school.”

Acevedo also said that Canser does a great job of bringing modern music influences to the more traditional curriculum of orchestra.

“It’s been very unique,” said Acevedo. “You wouldn’t expect to pair a string orchestra with modern music. But he’s been great at doing that and making that traditional music more approachable for newer students.”

Canser is originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and although he had always been a gifted musician (his first instrument was the upright string bass), he didn’t develop a special appreciation for the form until he joined an honors orchestra program during the summer months between the 8th and 9th grades.

“I got to go to this amazing music program in Northern Michigan called the Interlochen Arts Camp,” said Canser. “It was eight weeks in a summer camp with students from all over the world. That’s when I truly realized I wanted to do something in music.”

After graduating from the University of Minnesota, Canser enrolled in a graduate program at Arizona State University, where he also began his teaching career in nearby Mesa. Canser, whose wife is originally from California, eventually moved to the Bay Area, and he got a job teaching music at the SJUSD’s Muwekma Ohlone Middle. He stayed there for 14 years before moving on to Lincoln High School.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have teachers like Mr. Canser at our school,” said Lincoln High Principal Joseph Heffernan. “His enthusiastic and innovative approach to music is matched by his professionalism and dedication to his craft. You can see his passionate approach to music reflected in his students, who clearly respond to his instruction. We are proud of our history as a performing arts school and that’s all been made possible by teachers like Mr. Canser.”

A prodigious musical talent (he said he can play the basics on about 90 percent of the instruments at his disposal), Canser strives to introduce his students to the entire gamut of orchestral and Mariachi selections. That’s why they are learning everything from the songbook of classic Czech composers to the stylings of British rock acts like Coldplay. And while he’s not quite as steeped yet in the traditions of Mariachi, he’s eager to explore and develop that genre of music alongside his students (and with the help of his fellow teachers.)

Perhaps most critically, Canser believes in the importance of establishing a lifelong love and appreciation of music early on in a student’s playing career. Canser works closely with the teachers at Merritt Trace Elementary and Herbert Hoover Middle to develop, support and integrate students at every step of their musical journey.

“Those schools are literally within a two block radius of Lincoln, so there is just a natural opportunity for students to advance their learning,” said Canser. “It’s ideal to help someone grow and develop this love for music. It’s why we do this job.”