When she heard students grousing about a new computer program that was too challenging to learn, Professor C. K. Barlow saw a teaching moment. She prefaced her question with, “Sure, I know more about this software than you guys do right now. But why is that? What is the difference between you and me?”
One student ventured a guess: “You’re cooler?”
It wasn’t the answer Barlow expected, but it is easy to see why the student responded that way. The Montgomery College professor has a piece of music on television—roughly every day.
Barlow composes background music for national television ads, and feature films, spanning 140 series on MTV, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, HBO, BBC, VH1, Animal Planet, National Geographic, and the Discovery Channel.
Barlow says when she posed the question, the difference she was trying to elicit was the amount of time and effort one must invest in the craft—a lesson she repeats over and over to her students and one she knows firsthand.
The daughter of a pianist, Barlow was three or four years old when she started playing music. She has been in one band or another since she was 13 years old.
When it came time for college, she majored in computer programming. Her parents, Depression-era babies, insisted their children enroll in majors leading to steady, well-paying jobs. Undeterred by her parents’ requirement, Barlow visited the music department chair’s office every day until he signed papers, making Barlow the first-ever music minor at Miami University of Ohio.
She worked for many years as a technical writer and editor, but always played music. During that time, she earned a master’s degree in music composition and theory.
Barlow plays the piano—and is self-taught on the bass, mandolin, ukulele, harmonica, and drums. She especially enjoys using natural sounds, the hum of an air conditioner, for example, in her compositions.
It was the way she made music that impressed Alvin Trask, a jazz trumpeter and chair of Montgomery College’s performing arts department. “When I realized this professor could perform music with an iPad, I knew she was the right fit for our students,” he said.
In class, Barlow teaches technical skills students will need to make music, and moreover, the professional skills they will need to survive in the industry. Details matter. Points are deducted if music files are not labeled correctly because that’s how the business is. “If you want to do this, you need to hustle, you need to be focused,” she tells her students.
Barlow knows how challenging it is to make a living in music. Even as an experienced composer, she still runs into the occasional doubter. At a conference just a few years ago, Barlow played some of her music for a producer. After listening a bit, he pulled off his headphones, asking, “What part of this is yours?” Barlow told him she created all of it. She played the instruments, mixed the piece, and produced it. He said, “That’s pretty rocking. For a lady.”
Students appreciate these kinds of life lessons. “I like the class a lot. Professor Barlow is a real expert…and she has a lot of energy,” says music major Brian Berdan.
In spite of all her success, Barlow still has competition. She jokes, “My mother is more impressed with her church organist than with me.” As Barlow tells her students, she will put in more time and more effort into her craft. Fortunately, the public will get to hear it.