How Folksinger and Music Teacher Charlotte Thistle Makes It Work
On teaching, singing, a new CD and balancing a creative career with motherhood
Seattle musician Charlotte Thistle lives life like the folk music she sings to her audiences and students — full of heart and honesty, sharing a passion for life and its complexity through simple song. Thistle has been performing and teaching music in Seattle for more than 15 years and today leads Little Wings Music classes for parents and toddlers as her full-time gig.
Originally from London, Ontario, Thistle came to Seattle when she was a twentysomething musician, establishing herself first as a busker in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, then later as a singer and band leader in Seattle’s folk music scene. She has toured up and down the West Coast of the U.S., and still performs on occasion as her schedule allows. As a performer during this time, she produced two CDs, A Girl with a Guitar (2005) and Wild Wind (2010).
Motherhood changed her music career (she is the single mom of a 4-year-old daughter, Ella), reducing her touring capacity and altering her established teaching practice. She decided to focus her teaching on early childhood musical education, and today is known around town for her engaging song and movement classes for toddlers and their parents, called Little Wings Music. This year Thistle released a CD and songbook, both titled A Spoonful of Songs, comprising 21 of the most popular songs from her kids' music classes, all with original arrangements by Thistle; she also published an accompanying songbook.
Thistle recently exchanged emails with ParentMap to talk about her life, motherhood and her new CD and book.
How did you come to your creative profession?
I have always loved music and dancing. I was inspired by my Aunt Shelagh and my Uncle David who both sang and played guitar and other instruments as a regular activity in their home.
In the course of many years of teaching music to older children I became aware of the importance of early childhood music education and from this I wanted to change the focus of my teaching practice.
In the future I plan to expand and add more variety to my music class offerings. I intend to add a class for preschool-age kids as well as a ukelele class for ages 6 to 8.
You both perform and teach. What professional or personal achievement are you most proud of?
Right now I am most proud of the new book and CD I have just completed. It’s called A Spoonful of Songs and combines elements of teaching and performing in one project. The CD contains 21 super-fun classic songs for kids — all with original arrangements — recorded in the studio with some world-class guest musicians. The book contains the sheet music for all the songs on the CD, with guitar and ukelele chords and suggestions for teachers and parents for how to engage kids in music at home.
Are you classically trained or self taught?
Not much classical training, although I did study classical guitar briefly. I have an associates degree and have taken jazz-based guitar lessons for a number of years. I wish I had had more formal schooling but it didn’t work out for a number of reasons. As to busking, I would call that more of an adventure than a career. It’s a fun way to spend a summer but I definitely don’t recommend it as a long-term career choice.
Is your daughter also musical?
She likes to sing! She’s only four so I think it’s a little early to say what her life passions will be, but she has an interest in singing, dancing, swimming, piano, harmonica, etc. You know, normal 4-year-old stuff.
Do you work from home? If so how do you manage?
Most of the classes I teach are parent-tot classes in the mornings, when my daughter is in preschool, so I am able to spend most afternoons and evenings with her. [Note: Little Wings classes take place at various community centers or churches around Seattle.]
What are two or three solutions or strategies you use for balancing creative work and family life?
Well, my daughter is my best friend, and we pretty much do everything together. She has inspired or contributed to the creation of quite a few songs on this album, and sometimes comes to class with me.
When I need time on the computer, I let her watch movies or play on the iPad. If I’m making dinner she “helps.” She sets the table, puts away dishes, helps me mix and add ingredients while cooking. Often we do puzzles together or she colors while I read out loud.
What advice have you found helpful as a professional in a creative field who is also a parent?
In terms of making a living as a performer of folk music, I will quote Pete Seeger: “If you want to make a million dollars in folk music, you have to start with two million.”
There’s also another Pete Seeger quote that has a lot of personal resonance for me, but which I wasn’t able to find in a Google search. The essence of it was that while I obviously believe in the power of music to heal people and make the world a better place, music alone isn’t enough to do that; we have to make other contributions as well. In keeping with that conviction of mine, I’ve actually made a decision to apply to nursing school in the fall. I will still be involved in music, of course. I plan to keep classes running around my school schedule and continue teaching music after I complete the program.
When you became a parent you had to change your life. How?
I completely rearranged my schedule after my daughter was born. I used to work evenings and realized quickly that just wasn’t going to work anymore.
I did one short tour with my husband before we split up, while Ella was a baby. It was fun but exhausting. I hope that maybe when Ella is older I’ll be able to tour again, but no, I haven’t been touring since she was born other than that one time.
I’m really just enjoying teaching and spending time with my daughter. Frankly, it is more rewarding and fulfilling than being a touring folk singer ever was. Being a performer is kinda “all about me.” Teaching and parenting are shared activities where everyone gets to participate, and for that reason I find them more personally fulfilling.
If you could change one thing about your family/work situation what would it be?
Oh, well, I’d like to be signed by some big record label that would book me a European tour, with a salary that would allow me to hire a nanny and take my daughter with me. And I’d like my new book and CD to sell 10,000 copies. Did I mention they are both up on Amazon now?
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