When Cy Barlow earned him two undergraduate degrees in music theory and composition, her brother gave her a defining shot. She made it the poster for her graduation, a recital featuring her original compositions for percussion and bassoon.
“I was sitting at my brother’s drums,” she said, “crying while wearing only a diaper.”
The image perfectly sums up Barlow’s approach to music: it’s meant to be fun. A stronger foundation for musical improvisation coaching would be hard to pin down, especially for someone who has studied and played the piano for as long as they could attain it.
It’s a computer keyboard, however, that pays Barlow’s bills. She is the Senior IT Manager for Arizona Arts at UArizona. The department includes music, dance, photography, fine arts, and all of their extensions into Tucson’s public life.
In parallel, she also performs with her professional steel drum group, Apocalypso. “I played with bands a lot,” she laughs, referring to her college marching band, other opportunistic performances, and an undergraduate stint as a country band drummer. “Country music is not my favorite pop genre,” Barlow said. “But I’ll play what pays.”
For all of this, Barlow is most prominent locally as the founder, coach and accompanist of From the Top, Arizona’s only musical improvisational ensemble. The set presents an hour-long family musical, Broadway style, improvised around a fantastic title suggested by the public. Presented live and streamed, the show costs $8 for adults and $5 for children. The show is at 7:30 p.m. the first Friday of each month at the Unscrewed Theater, 4500 E Speedway Boulevard #39. Visit unscrewedtheater.org for reservations. The next show will take place on Friday August 5th.
It was inevitable that Barlow would study music, she said. Two of his four siblings also earned music degrees, and one of the others eventually owned a recording studio. After graduating from West Texas State, she migrated to UA for her higher education. There she earned a master’s degree in music theory and percussion performance. She said: “When you get a degree in music theory, the only thing you can do with it is get a doctorate in music theory and the only thing you can do with it is teach music theory. ”
“I love teaching,” she says. “I was raised by a wild pack of teachers.” Her father taught early childhood development and statistics for over 35 years. Her mother taught in high school and later became a counselor and therapist, and her siblings were all teachers at some point. A brother taught physics and mathematics at the university level. Barlow confessed that she was a math freak.
Now this passion for teaching is a gift for his musical improvisation students. But how did she get here? Given the long-term planning and commitment she has put into her musical education and training, coaching high-level novices in how to improvise on a black box theater stage on Speedway seems … out of the way.
Barlow was an improvisational latecomer, but, she says, “I’ve been obsessed with short improvisation ever since I discovered the British ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ in the 80s, but my (limited) free time was devoted to music. Then I found Unscrewed, but it took years before they had a class that fit my schedule.
After a series of classes there, Barlow became a regular cast member of the house team Unscrewed, Not Burnt Out, Just Unscrewed. She also quickly became an essential volunteer, taking on critical technical and marketing tasks. Eventually, she persuaded the company to invite Laura Hall into its range of workshop series. Hall is the legendary accompanist who improvises the music for the songs composed in real time by “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” cast. Barlow was over the moon.
“The fact that I feel comfortable coaching and leading a team can be directly linked to the influence of Laura Hall and her way of guiding other people to understand musical improvisation,” Barlow said. “It’s just improvisation and music and finding where these two circles overlap in a Venn diagram.” From the Top was born when Barlow started giving lessons in musical improvisation.
She said she is impressed with everything she has learned from her students. “They taught me to find new ways to tweak and represent information so that it clicks, to bring them to that ‘eureka’ moment. I celebrate the fact that they had the courage to register. Singing is the most naked musical thing you can do, but making it up is even more vulnerable. You can’t learn the song. It only happens once. If you don’t do it right, whatever the law, you can’t fix it and do it again.
“Yet in every improv class I had someone who had never done it before,” Barlow said. She describes them as daredevils. “They run into fear and they choose to do something that scares them, because they want to get out of their comfort zone.”
“They’re the best, because even from the first lesson they say, ‘That was fun’.”
This person could one day end up in the cast of From the Top. Visit unscrewedtheater.org for more information on the upcoming Music Improv class, possibly as early as October.
Late at night Projection room
Landry lands nicely at Laffs
Leading with what he calls “sympathetic hair, growing from charismatic follicles,” Landry promises to serve up a “comic goulash” of his slightly dysfunctional life as a mixed-race Canadian. With a writing style described as unique and passionate, he has won numerous awards in Canada, Boston and Atlanta, and appeared on Season 3 of “Bill Bellamy’s Who’s Got Jokes?” as well as SiriusXM.
Landry performs Friday and Saturday, July 29 and 30 at 8 and 10:30 p.m. at Laff’s Comedy Cafe, 2900 E. Broadway Blvd. Doors are at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 or $20 for reserved seating. Reserve and view the menu at laffstucson.com. There is a minimum of two items.
The Drive, Tucson, presents Jeff Allen
Local radio station The Drive (101.7 FM, 830 AM), home of Tucson’s longtime favorite radio personality Bobby Rich, features comedian Jeff Allen at the Fox Tucson Theater, 17 W. Congress St., Saturday August 6th. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $44 to $84 through foxtucson.com.
Allen jokes about the humor of everyday life in marriage, parenting, grandparenting, and the unexpected joys and challenges of the empty nest. His show is for all ages.