Chris Howes
Musician

How a world-class jazz violinist went from Lincoln Center to building a business at home

When Chris Howes became a dad, his priorities changed. He traded in his fast-paced, highly successful NYC touring schedule to move back to Ohio and teach music online.

Chris Howes greets me over Zoom from the basement of his Asheville, North Carolina home. Behind him various violins and guitars are suspended against the paneled wall, and below his nearby desk are amps and pedals. As he shows me each piece, he can’t help but grab a violin and tap the pedal to show me a few loops, as if it’s just too unnatural for him to touch a violin without playing it or see a pedal without making something. 

He apologizes for the impromptu music session, and I assure him it’s exactly what I came for; his music is easy and exact, playful, and soothing. 

Chris is a master of his craft, a world-class jazz violinist who’s played all over the world, including headlining Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. 

But I mostly have to look at his website bio to find all of his accolades…he’s more concerned with the music, the classes and communities he’s built, and the students he teaches online. 

Chris could easily make his full-time living from playing alone, and he did for a while. But years back he chose a different route, and I’m about to find out why. 

“You’ve got to make a choice.”

Chris started playing the violin at the suggestion of his parents when he was five years old. He didn’t love practicing, and by the time he was eight, he’d had enough; he told his mom he didn’t want to practice.

So she called in the big guns, which was my dad. And he would always use my full name, Christian, when I was in trouble.

He came down the stairs and said, “Look, you’ve got to make a choice. You're either going to practice or I'm taking the violin back to the shop. That's it. So you decide. Do you want to practice or do you want me to take the violin away?” 

And that was the first time I decided for myself that I would rather practice, because I wanted to play the violin.

Chris spent many summers at art camps and dreamed of being a great classical violinist. But as he got older, his concerns shifted. The oldest of four kids, his parents didn’t have as much disposable income as the kids around him seemed to have, and he started to feel bereft.

I used to ask my mom to drop me down the block from youth orchestra rehearsal so other kids wouldn't see our car.

He got picked on in middle school for wearing second-hand clothes and not having the latest T-shirts or shoes. 

And so at some point I just had this feeling that people were looking down on me.

By the end of high school, Chris was dealing with depression and felt powerless.  

You walk into school and you hope someone is going to notice you, want to talk to you, find something you did funny, or pay attention to you. To some degree, we're powerless over that. People will notice you or they won't notice you; and we can internalize that or react in different ways.

Chris graduated at the age of 17 and went to college, hoping he’d find the acceptance he was craving.

He still played violin, and even became the youngest member of a chamber orchestra at 18, but he felt “tapped out” by then, and instead put all his energy into playing bass with the rock band he joined with guys in their mid-20’s.

He thrived in the stereotypical rock ‘n roll lifestyle: playing nights and staying out late, drinking and smoking weed, and most of all reveling in the acceptance he found in this group.  

I was looking for that social something, some misplaced seeking to fill a void.

One day, the drug dealer who serviced the gigs in the local band scene told Chris: “You don't have to buy a quarter just to smoke weed yourself. You could buy an ounce and then you smoke for free.” Chris thought, “Oh, that makes sense.”

Then the word around campus got out, and people would come to my apartment to hang out. I think that was a way I could feel powerful, needed, liked. Although obviously it wasn't necessarily that; they were coming to my apartment for one reason.

One night an old friend from high school asked, “Hey, I've got this uncle and he wants some acid. Can you get a bunch of it?” 

“I don't know,” Chris answered. “I'll make a call.” 

Chris was able to get it. 

And it turned out his friend’s “uncle” was really an undercover cop. 

Chris spent the next four years in jail.

“What can I do to make the most of my time to better myself?”

“The transition,” Chris remembers, “is just massive. It's traumatic, it's life changing. Life gets turned upside down.”

But even in jail, music is where he found connection. 

A lot of times in prison, just like in the movies, people are in gangs. There's racial gangs, neighborhood-based gangs, city-based gangs, stuff like that. 

But being a musician, I was able to meet other musicians from within that diverse population and connect with people from different subsets. 

Every morning for those four years Chris woke up and asked himself: “What can I do to make the most of my time to better myself?”

He played music, worked out, boxed, ran, took college courses, read, and wrote letters. 

I ask him where his drive came from during that time, considering it had waned so heavily in college. 

I think when you're confronted with a situation like prison, you're confronted with two very obvious choices. One is to give your all, and the other is to just give up. 

Any given day, you can wake up and think, “Am I going to seize the day or am I just going to lay back down and give up?” In prison, it feels like the stakes are higher. 

There's a lot of fear and desperation. I thought, “I don't want to be stuck in this feeling or in this place forever, so I've got to do something about it. I've got to create distance from this place.”

On his first day out of jail his parents picked him up and took him home. 

They ordered a pizza. And I saw my siblings. And we all cried and ate a pizza.

“I'll help you learn how to make money.”

After jail, Chris decided he’d work in construction. His parents' response?

“Well, don't you want to be a violinist?” 

“Well, yeah,” he said. “But I have no idea how to do that. How I'm actually going to work doing that.” 

“Well,” his dad responded, “why don't you stay with us and I'll help you learn how to make money?” 

By then his dad had a successful life insurance business and his mom had helped him market that business. They wanted to teach him how to turn his music into a business. 

Chris accepted their help, faith, and advice. 

The first thing my dad said was, “Why don't you call up the managers of restaurants and hotels and coffee shops? Call up the manager, offer to do a performance once for free. Then dress up, go do the performance, and tell them if they like it, you could do it weekly.”

So I did that. 

I called 15 managers. Of those 15, eight gave me an audition. From the eight, I ended up with four who booked me weekly. One of those four gave me two gigs a week.

A month after getting out of jail Chris was making $600 a week from his violin. 

Plus, when I would go play at these restaurants, everybody would come up and want to meet me and would ask me to play at their weddings and parties. And I would charge three times as much for that. 

Soon he got a full-time job offer from the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. But he turned it down – he loved being able to play whatever music he wanted, charge what he wanted, and connect directly with his audience. In short, he loved being a creator. 

My name was on the marquee. I was in charge. It was my business.

“It was all about getting contact information and following up.”

Chris credits his parents for teaching him what he needed to know to turn his music into a career on his own terms. 

The single best way you can affect the odds of succeeding is by offering your services appropriately and consistently to the right people, period. 

It was all about getting contact information and following up. That's it. That's everything. 

And that's what I've done for 26 years. I just keep knocking on doors. And the way you knock on doors is you get their email address, and you send them emails.

Chris was motivated to send emails and market not only to book more gigs, but also to sell his courses as he began to teach music online, an early adopter. 

Five years after I got out of jail, I was getting acclaim as being one of the top jazz violinists in the world. I was being called that by people. And I realized that acclaim plus five bucks will get you a latte at Starbucks. Because nobody cares, and nobody knows the difference anyway.

Artists are sometimes trapped in their own prison of this idea of what it is to be an artist. 

You've got to get free of that. You've got to get free of your pride, you've got to get free of the story you tell yourself about what it means to be an artist.

I never thought I was going to be a teacher. I thought real artists don't teach; “I'm a great violinist, I don't need this.” And so I had to come to grips with that and be like, no, it's all about service. It's all about value, and to give that value however I can, while continuing to grow and while continuing to fuel whatever dream I have. 

“I left it all.”

Chris didn’t have to teach to make a full-time living as a musician, though. He could have made a living just from performing, so why was this the path he chose?

After rising to the highest heights as a violinist in New York City, spending 10 years performing in the city and touring the world, Chris realized something else was even more important than his ultimate acceptance as an accomplished musician. 

He wanted to be a good dad.

About a year after he got out of jail he had his first child, and for years he commuted back and forth from New York to Ohio to see his kid. 

But after 10 years, he realized his kid was growing up fast and he didn’t want to miss any more of it. 

So I left it all. I left New York, I left the tours. I quit it all because I wanted to be a dad. 

He also knew there were so many other ways to make money with his music that would allow him to be home.

He started by making ebooks on recording and producing, and was one of the first people to do remote orchestra recordings in 2008. He also started a membership and then created online courses and started coaching. 

He found it all incredibly stimulating: 

Monetizing my creative work makes me go much deeper into the creative process and into my own personal development. It's one thing to create whatever you want, and that's great. But it's another thing altogether when you create something that's you and you figure out how to get paid for it.

Although that’s not to say this was the first time he thought about sales. 

It was always about sales. All the things I did as an artist, I always put sales first, whether it was getting band leaders to hire me, getting a gig at a festival, getting producers to hire me, starting a festival and getting people to come – it's all sales. 

And I see marketing as the thing that makes sales possible. 

And you have to segment your customers and prospects. You need to get the relevant messages to them, follow up consistently and appropriately, and show proof the whole time that you're trustworthy and that you have value to bring. 

Email is the top way I do that now. It's definitely one of the best investments I've made. The 9,400 pruned people on my list…that’s a bank. It's the best channel for me to get money now, because I've been sending them so much value for so many years.

Back in the day, I'd have a database of 40 producers and I'd just be hitting them with follow up emails and then I'd have a database of festival people and I'd be trying a campaign with them and I'd have a database of educational student prospects and I'd be hitting them with emails. Now I do a lot of that segmentation with ConvertKit.

“What are people going to think?”

And yet writing emails isn’t always easy.

What I shared earlier about being 16 in high school, where we're constantly afraid about what people are going to think? I think this is one of the things that plagues us as email creators and storytellers too, this fear that we're going to be rejected.

But his commitment to learning about marketing, using a creator marketing platform, and his memory of writing letters in jail helped him realize that writing was key.

Because that's what we need to do to engage our audience. Write something that's real, and that connects, and that's valuable. 

And in fact, that's part of what I think is great about ConvertKit. I'm not an elite writer, but I can make a great connection with people. I can still be worthy and valid with the stories I tell.

He uses that same concept when it comes to getting people on his email list too, just like he did when he called those 15 managers. 

I pretty much use that strategy all the time, and that's what I think email marketing is. You just give somebody something for free, and it's a way of saying, “Have a sample.” Then we build trust, show that we're serious, show that we can be trusted, show people the sample of the quality of our work, and then we follow up with an offer. That's it.

He still considers each new potential subscriber a kind of audition.

Which also means it’s a chance for more rejection: 

When we make offers to people, there's a humbling aspect to it, because we're inviting people to spit in our face, to reject us, to criticize us, to give us feedback maybe we don't want to hear, but that's the greatest opportunity – the conversation, the dialogue, the exchange, the data, the analytics.

Because when someone unsubscribes from your list, some of that feedback is going to be useful. But really the best way to create that internal strength and validation is to hear people's feedback and take it as a chance to grow.

“I have a new chance today to just do a little bit better.” 

Chris has been making a living as a musician for over 20 years, and he’s grateful for the time he’s spent raising his now two kids. Next to Chris’ instruments hung on the wall he shows me the mountain bikes they ride together often. 

In addition to his courses and coaching, he also founded the Creative Strings festival and nonprofit to help bring music education around the world, and he has a podcast and a YouTube channel. 

But when I ask him what his biggest dream come true moment has been in his life so far, he answers that it’s his oldest child graduating from Oberlin College and Conservatory. 

He reflects back on who he was at that age, his relationship with music, and how being a creator has changed him.

Music has been a practice that I can have myself and it's a way I can connect with other people, but ultimately it's a reminder of my ability to improve.

You have this opportunity every morning to say, “Am I going to fight for this? I have a new chance today to just do a little bit better.” 

What kept him going all those years?

I think keeping your eyes on that prize, and not letting whether others notice you or approve be the only metric.

He uses other metrics now. 

As an artist and as a creator, there are times we're going to create for ourselves and that's important.

I think it's also important to create things for others, and measure the impact it has on a person. A lot of times people get unbalanced on either side of that equation. 

I say to my coaching clients, whether it's in their music practice or their business,“Your vision statement must include both the things you want to receive and the things you want to contribute.” 

Today, Chris gets his greatest satisfaction in creating belonging and meaningful connections among the musicians he teaches. 

It's really about making an impact. And we don't always understand that when we're young, but getting closer to the truth of that is powerful. 

You can connect with Chris on Instagram and YouTube, and subscribe to his email list and learn more at christianhowes.com.

 

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Isa Adney

Isa is an author and writer and has profiled incredible creators and artists, including Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, and Tony winners. When she’s not writing or interviewing creators, she’s probably walking her dog Stanley, working on her next book, or listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for the 300th time.

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