By Karen Peterson
Jazz violinist and educator Christian Howes grew up middle class in the Ohio heartland, a child prodigy schooled in the Suzuki method, by his teens the recipient of a full college scholarship that leaned heavily toward academics. “I thought I was smart, I thought from my training that I was an expert musician,” says the award-winning performer, who, by his own admission, “quickly learned that I was full of [it].”
It was a tough lesson: At age 20, Howes was sentenced to six to 25 years in prison for selling a sheet of LSD to an undercover cop. He spent the next four years behind bars before being released early for good behavior.
Traumatic for anyone, for Howes his lock up was transformative. “Prison,” he says, “shaped who I am as a man, an educator, and an artist. And it helped form the underpinnings of the pedagogy I’ve worked on for many years—and the underpinnings of my expression as a player.”
In short, being locked up unlocked Howes, who this year marks 25 years since his incarceration and also the 15th year of what his prison experience birthed in external form: the Creative Strings Workshop, a five-day violin camp, which this year runs July 2–8 on the Ohio Wesleyan University campus in Columbus, Howes’ hometown.
Normally attracting upward of 70-plus students, teens to seniors, Creative Strings celebrates what Howes now champions: the unchained melody of music freed from the con-straints of social barriers or, more specifically for this classically trained musician, the boundaries imposed by the classical canon.
“The entire academy of classical music has a massive deficit in knowledge. It’s got blinders on,” says Howes, whose college major, completed post-prison, was philosophy. “The way we know ourselves and music is much deeper than what comes out of the western European canon, for as wonderful as it is, [the canon] is very, very limited, as is our approach to learning.”
In 2002, Howes founded Creative Strings, a nonprofit that extends into three branches: a summer workshop and conference, an online curriculum, and educational outreach. Howes’ father suggested the idea for the inaugural workshop. “He said, ‘You’ve really got stuff you want to share with people: Bring ’em to Columbus and just teach them,’” Howes recounts.
The first iteration had between six and eight attendees, and took place over three days. “It was a little messy [structurally],” he says, “but truly a labor of love.” He took the students to behind-the-scene practices and a wide array of performance venues (traditional and nontraditional), and noticed the “massive transformation” that had taken place in their playing.
In the following years, Howes brought in players from other traditions—a rhythm section, a drummer, and rock guitarists—in hopes of continuing to teach lessons he learned about music from his time in prison. Creative Strings has two tracks—an intensive track, for players older than 15, and a half-day “youth” program, which is geared toward local middle-school and high-school students. The faculty lineup for the 15th annual workshop includes players of varied disciplines, from fiddling to jazz to classical, including Alex Hargreaves, violinist in the Turtle Island String Quartet, violinist and mandolinist Jason Anick, and fiddlers Mike Barnett and Diana Ladio.
Howes plans to break down barriers by highlighting the significance of spontaneity in music: the opportunity to nurture and practice expressing oneself creatively; becoming more fearless in exploring the construction of music, or music theory; and the importance of multiculturalism and how enriching it can be to explore music from others’ viewpoints and perspectives. Howes hopes his camp attendees take away these lessons from the program.
For Minnie Jordan, former CSW attendee, Howes’ workshop led to a more accurate understanding of the life of a working musician. “Intense ensemble experiences”—like learning and arranging a song in the morning, and playing it for a live audience in the afternoon—offer valuable insights into the road ahead. “It’s also the only string camp I’ve been to that gives the students the opportunity to study not only with some of the best string players in the country, but also with other great instrumentalists,” Jordan says. “Last year, I was in an ensemble led by a percussionist, and I feel like I came away with a completely different understanding of time and groove than I would have studying with a string player.”
Throughout the week, Creative Strings divides the attendees up into ensembles and has them perform at various venues around Columbus. Attendees also dive into varied topics deeper than just exploring new genres of music. The workshop incorporates tips and discussions on bandleading, booking, communicating effectively, dealing with creative blocks, avoiding injury, and much more. After being exposed to hard-bop during her first camp, Jordan made the decision to delve into jazz.
“[I] saw the role a violinist could play in that style—hearing and seeing that opened my ears.
“Overall, I think that Chris’ approach to teaching varies a lot depending on the individual student,” she says. “For me, I think that Chris’ focus on honesty in life and music has been really important. Honesty is important to me personally, and focusing on approaching music in a completely honest way can be both difficult and helpful.”
Howes, as a performer and teacher, isn’t one to sit still. When not performing himself—his eclectic schedule ranges from shows at Lincoln Center to concerts in Ukraine and Montenegro at the invitation of the US State Department—Howes is teaching others through his online home study program, the Creative Strings Academy, or onsite in Columbus area schools and at national music festivals.
He also advises musicians and other artists on the art of self-promotion through his “Music Biz Mastermind” course, which is flush with inspirational and practical tips on success, delivered by blog, podcasts, and videos.
“I experienced a palpable recognition that the music on the yard was infusing humanity into this community.”
Breaking Down Boundaries
Listed among the top three jazz violinists by JazzTimes critics, nominated for violinist of the year by the Jazz Journalist Association, Howes does not think small, in his own life or in his pursuit of educational excellence. “I want to transform music education as a whole and through that to transform and impact culture,” he says—a big-picture vision that emerged within the confines of the Ohio State Prison system.
His own transformation began almost immediately: While in solitary confinement (part of the prison system’s orientation for new arrivals), Howes heard the guy in the next cell singing. “I started crying,” he says. “It was profound, and something I remember vividly.” It was a lesson in spontaneity that was in stark contrast to how Howes and his classically trained peers had approached performance, he says. Before even thinking of performing, “we’d be looking for the sheet music, wondering if the press release had gone out, asking if we had a conductor. We were inhibited by those boundaries.
“The guy singing in the next cell wasn’t concerned about boundaries,” says Howes. “It made me realize that I had created my own boundaries and that they needed to be questioned.”
While in prison, Howes was faced with the realities of his new environment: how to maneuver the all-too-real boundaries of prison life, including where to play his violin. Venturing out into the yard, Howes recalls his initial fear. “There I was in the middle of the prison yard, with guys walking all around. But I really wanted to play my violin.”
Howes’ trepidations were groundless. “I got the sense that people appreciated it, no matter what I was playing.” What’s more, he wasn’t alone. He saw other musicians, their art arising from whatever platform was available, whether that meant pounding a beat on a picnic table, singing gospel a cappella, rapping, playing bluegrass, or, in the case of Ali, “a muscle dude,” studiously working on Wes Montgomery guitar licks.
“I experienced a palpable recognition that the music on the yard was infusing humanity into this community,” says Howes, who spent his remaining years inside playing with a prison band. “The violence experienced in prison is not just about bashing heads in, but also about the absence of intimacy, trust, and freedom. That absence creates a void that you experience as violence.
“I realized then that the music was touching people directly and immediately.”
New Pathways to Knowledge
There was another boundary in prison, and overcoming it proved a lesson in the transcendent power of music. “Strong racial and other affiliations in prison can be a danger if you don’t ally yourself or if you don’t state those alliances,” says Howes. “Everything is in the open. And if you’re not with someone, you’re seen as the enemy or targeted in some way.”
Not so for a musician, as he discovered. “By making strong connections with other musicians [of any race or allegiance], I was affiliated with a different demographic, and [the other musicians] spoke on my behalf. That afforded me protection, which allowed me to walk freely among the prison communities.”
Protection also offered Howes what he considers one of the most important lessons learned during his time in prison, and it informs all that he has done and championed since: the realization that he could become a better musician “by exploring other pathways to knowledge.”
“I learned so much from the people there,” says Howes. “They wanted to know about music theory, but I wanted to learn from them. Dude! Teach me about music. My world was totally turned upside down. I realized I knew the opposite of what I needed to know in so many ways.”
On a metaphysical journey as well as an intellectual one, Howes began to question what constitutes knowledge as it applies to music—and not the knowledge that emerges from a classical education but one that arises from a specific culture and life experience. He not only wants to explore how culture shapes music, but how culture shapes how people learn music—how applicable theory develops, and how intercultural exchange of that theory can impact how all musicians learn music. The caveat: that his effort not be seen as co-opting a culture but rather, as he says, one that “celebrates it, shares it, learns from it.”
Howes’ goal is to inspire an honest and open intercultural conversation among musicians, but it can’t be done from the comfort of a gated community or a conservatory, he warns. “You have to go into the communities where the people are. You have to literally meet people, have a conversation with them.”
Howes and his Creative Strings students had that musical conversation last year, and Howes continues to marvel at its beauty—and its tragic timing: As a lone gunman took aim at Dallas police officers on July 8, 2016, killing five and injuring nine during a summer marked by racial tension, Howes’ students were performing at the 750-member, mostly African-American congregation of New Covenant Believers’ Church in Columbus.
“We had 100 string players celebrating gospel music at an integrated service,” says Howes. “It was transformative for so many people”—and it symbolized, starkly, for Howes what can be achieved when people and cultures come together in song.