Laura Kerslake (’15 DMus) is a people person.
Music may be her passion, but it is not the sole source of her creative fulfillment. Engaging with individuals and groups is the thread running through her academic and employment pursuits. Now employed as the work experience coordinator for the Arts Work Experience (AWE) program at the University of Alberta, this classical saxophonist sees collaboration and ‘happenstance’ as the keys to a happy work life.
What drew you to the University of Alberta?
Saxophone or music in general is a bit odd in that we have pockets of different techniques or schools. You search out someone you want study with, who has a research interest in your field.
I studied with Jonathan Helton (University of Florida) and William Street (University of Alberta) who both studied with French saxophonist Jean-Marie Londeix (Conservatoire de Bordeaux) as well as American saxophonist Frederick Hemke (Northwestern University).
Hemke and Londeix studied with French saxophonist Marcel Mule at the Conservatoire de Paris, who can be considered the “grandfather” of the French classical saxophone. All my teachers studied with Jean-Marie Londeix, so my schooling has been based around this French style of saxophone playing. I ended up here at the U of A because they all studied with the same guy, and it afforded me the opportunity to study with such an internationally renowned performer and professor, Dr. William Street.
My focus is on newer music and advanced techniques. Using the instrument as a whole and exposing different, weird things that it can do.
Why the saxophone?
It’s not really a romantic story! My best friend and I were choosing instruments for band, and we both wanted to play flute and there was only one flute, but there were two saxophones!
I just did it as a hobby until my last year of high school when my music teacher said you should study music at university. I didn’t want to be in a lab or reading constantly for four years of my life, but having the opportunity to perform and do other things instead of just studying in textbooks—having that hands-on experience—really drew me to the music side of things.
Did you teach while you were in your doctoral program?
Yes, I worked with a saxophone ensemble, so I was developing a different skill set: thinking really fast on your feet, communicating concisely and efficiently, as well as developing teaching and performance techniques.
In my third year of my PhD program, I moved to Ontario and did an adjunct position for eight months at the University of Western Ontario teaching saxophone.
It was kind of the dream job! This is what I had been preparing for, to teach saxophone and to work with individuals and be in that creative music setting. Oddly, I found it quite lonely. Even though you’re in this big institution, you go to your office, you teach your 15 students one-on-one, and then you go home. I had been working in administrative jobs or with teams in career education and I missed that collaboration.
Would you call yourself an extrovert?
I really struggled with working one-on-one with the same person every week. They were all great students, but I wasn’t meeting a lot of people because everyone was doing their own thing. I ended up joining a Running Room clinic so that I could meet other people.
It was an eight month contract so it was a good way to test it out, and given the way universities are going, or by specializing in something that is so niche, I kind of knew that my prospects were limited. I really enjoyed what I was doing, but I still really had this big part of my life that I wanted to explore.
What role does music play in your life now?
It’s still very much an important part of my life! Since my defense I’ve taken a little break. I’ve been performing with other people in various gigs throughout the city. I also work closely with the New Music Edmonton as a board member, but also performing.
How did you get involved with AWE?
I worked one summer at the Service Canada Centre for Youth, where we would help students with resume and cover letter writing, or doing presentations to teach them how to look for summer jobs. What I learned is that career education is constantly changing; there is always a new challenge. Every student or youth who walked in the door had a different story.
So when this role came up, having the opportunity to be creative and collaborate with other people was really awesome. Working with Arts students is just an added bonus because it’s something that really resonates with me.
What is your role in AWE?
Kind of a mixed bag, because the program is still relatively young. I work with students, whether that’s career coaching, providing advice on resumés, cover letters, helping them understand the process of applying for jobs. And while they’re on a work term, facilitating that process. Checking in with them, going over the blog posts they do in e-class when they’re on a work term, planning events and workshops.
Do you find that employers are eager to work with Arts students?
Yeah, for sure. One of the challenges for Arts students is to understand how their skills are applicable to specific positions. But when the student realizes, “oh this is why I’m valuable to the employer “and the employer can see that they can write, have great verbal skills and can work with others – once that connection is made, it’s really quite exciting. It’s a great marriage once the two systems figure it out.
Did you have any similar work experiences when you were an undergrad?
No, and looking back I wish there had been that opportunity. In a lot of degrees, there isn’t a lot of time; 15 hours of class a week plus 30 hours of reading is a lot, but even something small makes a difference. I was a campus tour guide three hours a week which in the grand scheme of things wasn’t a lot of time, but the amount of skills gained from just that one position was invaluable.
As a tour guide you’re advising on what’s important to the university, and that role got me an assistantship at the University of Florida. I worked in an advising office because I had recruitment experience. You never know where these small little experiences will lead to.
As a grad student, it’s easy to get tunnel-vision, but if you volunteer a few hours a week, it often opens up opportunities. When I came to the University of Alberta I worked for the Career Centre part-time, and one thing I learned was that the opportunities that create your future career arrive through happenstance. I had all these little jobs that lead me to the Career Centre, which ultimately lead me to AWE. I was able to make that connection and really understand the position, and I’m so thankful everyday that I get to come to work and have these experiences.
About the University of Alberta Arts Work Experience (AWE) Program
To date, AWE has worked with more than 100 employer partners from the private, public and not-for-profit sectors and paired them up with Arts students from more than 20 departments and programs from across the Social Sciences, Humanities, Fine Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies
Check out the website: https://uofa.ualberta.ca/arts/student-services/arts-work-experience
AWE staff like Laura Kerslake are happy to answer student and employer questions anytime.