Think saxophone and think jazz riffs, big band beats, bebop improv and rock and roll, and the greats like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Jimmy Dorsey and Branford Marsalis.
The University of New Mexico has Eric Lau and his classical sax. “In my field of classical saxophone, the prominent people are in academia,” he said. Now in his 11th year at UNM, he and his wife Jennifer, who is also a musician, met at band camp. They both attended Louisiana State University and played in the marching band.
Lau had an early reason for pursuing sax. “When I was in school in Gainesville, Florida, my best friend Matt Larsen played sax and I wanted to sit next to him in band. We were in sixth grade,” he said.
Beyond that, he had a little external pressure. “My mom made me play sax in the high school band, telling me to do it for a year and then quit if I wanted to. I discovered I was pretty good at it. Before that, I didn’t think so,” Lau said. By the time he was a senior in high school, he knew he would be a music major.
While at Louisiana State, in addition to the marching band, Lau played in the wind ensemble, jazz bands and a sax quartet, which were by invitation only. And while still an undergraduate, Lau knew he wanted to be a college professor. “I knew that before I knew I would teach music or sax,” he said.
After graduating from LSU, Lau attended Michigan State, where he got the chance to teach. “I received a graduate assistantship and two fellowships,” he said. And he continued to play while learning music history, performance and theory while earning a doctorate.
Of the 20 saxophone students Lau teaches at UNM, only five are not from New Mexico. “This is particularly true for the undergraduate students, but many of our graduate students come from all over the country and the world,” he said. After they finish their studies at UNM, “I encourage my graduates to audition for programs across the country. By the time they graduate, I’ve taught them all I can,” he said.
He’s hearing it all come together as his students come in to perform, which is the final in a performance class. “They play with piano accompaniment, essentially presenting one-fourth of a recital each semester. It is a way to assess their progression and determine quality of progress,” he said.
He likes the UNM experience. “It is a great place to work. Every student is different – different backgrounds, expectations, goals and needs. It’s constantly changing. It’s a cool part of the job,” he said, adding that unlike the diversity at UNM, traditional conservatory students are different because there’s uniformity behind their training and goals.
Lau is an active performer who gives concerts and has performed throughout the United States, Europe, Puerto Rico and Brazil. “My favorite thing about music is getting the opportunity to play and perform with others. I have met so many wonderful and interesting people. Having the opportunity to make music with them is priceless,” he said.
He notes that traveling with a saxophone and its equipment has its own challenges. He carries Teflon powder to keep the keys from sticking – we all know how TSA feels about powdery materials. And saxophones are expensive, ranging in price from several thousand dollars to well over $20,000. “When I travel with the large saxophone, it gets its own seat,” he explained.
He recently completed recording a CD on the Blue Griffin Recording label, funded by a grant from the Aaron Copland Fund for Music. The music features the Iridium Saxophone Quartet, an ensemble that includes two other college professors and one of Lau’s former students. The CD will be available mid-July through Albany Records’ catalog, he said. A couple of the numbers on the CD were written especially for the quartet, he said.
He holds as many 30 clinics each year, visiting schools across the state, often arriving at 6:30 in the morning to find those students who might want to take their musicianship to the next level. “I attend sectionals – traveling to Las Cruces, Los Lunas, Rio Rancho – now they know me,” he said. Lau said that he’s identified good teaching in Albuquerque and around the state. “There are really dedicated, wonderful people teaching in New Mexico,” he said. Lau also travels extensively to work with sax performance students and with composers who write music for sax.
In addition to teaching and performing, Lau’s administrative responsibilities as associate chair include recruitment. “I felt we could present ourselves better, get everyone pulling together,” he said. He worked with Sr. Graphic Designer Jana Fothergill in University Communication & Marketing to create departmental brochures, which required getting good photography of events and people within the college.
Lau’s wife Jennifer, a flutist, has also secured a full time position in music teaching music appreciation, theory and ear training. She also performs extensively. The Laus – with Eric on sax, Jennifer on flute and Associate Dean Keith Lemmons on clarinet – are scheduled to perform this summer at the International Clarinet Association Festival.
The Laus have two daughters, Madeleine, six, and Katherine, three. And yes, the girls are learning to play, but instead of wind instruments, they are learning violin via the Suzuki method.