Many degrees of musical fun: Cy Barlow takes to the top

click to enlarge Many degrees of musical fun: Cy Barlow takes to the top
Submitted photo
Cy Barlow is the founder, coach and accompanist of From The Top, Arizona’s only musical improv ensemble.

When Cy Barlow earned her two undergraduate degrees in music theory and composition, her brother gifted her with a defining photo. She made it the poster for her graduation requirement, a recital featuring her original compositions for percussion and bassoon.

“I was sitting at my brother’s drum set,” she said, “wailing away wearing nothing but a diaper.”

The image perfectly synopsizes Barlow’s approach to music: it’s supposed to be fun. A stronger foundation for musical improv coaching would be hard to define, especially for one who studied and played piano for as long as she’s been able to reach it.

It’s a computer keyboard, though, that pays Barlow’s bills. She’s a principal IT manager for Arizona Arts at the UArizona. The department includes music, dance, photography, fine arts and all their extensions into Tucson’s public life.

On the side, she also performs with her professional steel drum band, Apocalypso. “I’ve band-ed a lot,” she said, with a laugh, referring to her middle school marching band, assorted other opportunistic performances and an undergrad sojourn as a country-band drummer. “Country music is not my pop genre of choice,” Barlow said. “But I’ll play what pays.”

For all that, Barlow is most prominent locally as the founder, coach and accompanist for From the Top, Arizona’s only musical improv ensemble. The ensemble presents an hour-long, family-friendly, Broadway-style musical improvised around a fantastical title the audience suggests. Presented both live and streaming, the show costs $8 for adults and $5 for children. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. on the first Friday of every month at Unscrewed Theater, 4500 E Speedway Boulevard #39. Visit unscrewedtheater.org for reservations. The next show is Friday, Aug. 5.

It was inevitable that Barlow would study music, she said. Two of her 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 the UA for graduate school. There she earned master’s degrees in both music theory and percussion performance. She said, “When you get a degree in music theory, the only thing you can do with that is get a PhD in music theory and the only thing you can do with that is teach music theory.”

“I love teaching,” she said. “I was raised by a wild pack of teachers.” Her father taught early childhood development and statistics for over 35 years. Her mother taught grammar school and later became a counselor and therapist, and her siblings were all teachers at some point. A brother taught physics and math at the university level. Barlow confessed she’s a math nerd.

Now, that passion for teaching is a gift to her musical improv students. But how did she get here? Given the long-term planning and commitment she dedicated to her music education and training, coaching rank novices in how to improvise on a black box theatre stage on Speedway seems... off trajectory.

Barlow was a latecomer to improv, but, she said, “I’ve been obsessed with short form improv since I discovered the British ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ in the ’80s, but my (limited) spare time was devoted to music. Then I found Unscrewed, but it was years before they had a class that fit my schedule.”

After a run of classes there, Barlow became a regular cast member of the Unscrewed house team, Not Burnt Out, Just Unscrewed. She also evolved quickly into an essential volunteer, taking on critical technical and marketing tasks. Eventually she persuaded the company to invite Laura Hall into its lineup of workshop series. Hall is the legendary accompanist who improvises music for the songs composed in real time by the “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” cast. Barlow was over the moon.

“My feeling comfortable to coach and lead a team can be directly traced to the influence of Laura Hall and her way of mentoring other people to understand musical improv,” Barlow said. “It’s just improv and music and finding the places where those two circles overlap in a Venn diagram.” From the Top was born when Barlow began teaching musical improv classes.

She said she is awed by how much she’s learned from her students. “They’ve taught me to find new ways to adjust and represent information so it clicks, to get them to that ‘eureka’ moment. I celebrate the fact that they had the courage to sign up. 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 the once. If you don’t get it right, whatever right is, you won’t be able to fix it and do it over.”

“Yet every single improv class, I’ve had someone who’s never done it before,” Barlow said. She describes them as daredevils. “They’re running toward the fear and they’re choosing to do something that scares them, because they want to break out of their comfort zone.”

“Those are the best, because even by the first lesson they’re saying, ‘This was fun’.”

That person might just one day wind up in the cast of From the Top. Visit unscrewedtheater.org for information about the next musical improv class, possibly as soon as October.

Late Night at the Screening Room

Landry lands likeably at Laffs

Leading with what he refers to as “likeable hair, sprouting from charismatic follicles” Landry promises to serve up a “comedy goulash” from his slightly dysfunctional life as a mixed-race Canadian. With a writing style that’s been described as unique and passionate, he’s won multiple awards in Canada, Boston and Atlanta, and appeared on Season 3 of TVONE’s “Bill Bellamy’s Who’s Got Jokes?” as well as Sirius XM.

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. Make reservations and see the menu at laffstucson.com. There is a two-item minimum.

The Drive, Tucson, presents Jeff Allen

Local radio station The Drive (101.7 FM, 830 AM), home of longtime favorite Tucson radio personality Bobby Rich, presents comedian Jeff Allen at The Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress St., on Saturday, August 6. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $44 to $84 via foxtucson.com.

Allen jokes clean about the humor of everyday life in marriage, raising children, grandparenting and the unexpected joys and challenges of the empty nest. His show is for all ages.

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