Surviving the Pandemic With Music and Arts
by Jim Bea Sampaga
A music school teacher in the morning and a jazz club director at night, Carolyn Stanton is one of Honolulu’s top educators when it comes to everything music.
Born to Filipino parents and raised in Kalihi, Stanton started teaching private piano lessons at her Manoa home in 1988 after retiring from 19 years of teaching piano and music at Punahou School.
She eventually moved her music school, Manoa School of Music and the Arts, to Manoa Marketplace in 2012, where she hired more teachers and offered classes in dance, acting, art and music. According to a 2019 Hawaii Business Magazine article, the school has 14 teachers and 300 students at the time.
In 2014, Stanton and her husband Tim opened the Medici’s Supper Club at the large loft area above the school.
The 112-seat jazz and blues club features nightly live entertainment and concerts from top jazz, classical and pop musicians on Oahu. They also pride themselves on giving guests an intimate feel with its dance floor, cozy booths and delectable culinary buffet menu.
Medici’s easily became a favorite hangout spot among the community. In 2015, Honolulu Magazine awarded Medici’s with “Best of Honolulu – The City’s Best” Award in Jazz & Blues Venue.
With themed musical nights throughout the week from jazz and blues to tango and karaoke night, Medici’s is always fully booked for reserved guests and private parties.
But happy hour at Medici’s was cut short overnight.
March 2020’s announcement
“We had an event scheduled for March 6th,” Stanton told Hawaii Filipino Chronicle, as she recalls the few days before the COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in 2020.
“The bandleader of the group called us up that afternoon to let us know that two of his band members were sick, and what should we do?” Stanton said. “We decided initially to still do the show, after all, it was a sold-out performance.”
However, 15-minutes after the call, Stanton and her team decided to cancel the event as a cautionary action against the threat of COVID-19.
“We had to individually call, text and email everyone who had bought tickets that it was to be canceled. [We] kept calling until we got a response that they received the message,” she explained.
About a week later, then-Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced Oahu’s stay-at-home order will begin on March 23, 2020.
“After that night [of March 6th], there were no more concerts at Medici’s for the rest of the year,” said Stanton.
Unlike Medici’s, the music school was still able to teach in-person classes until spring break on March 15, 2020. However, Stanton extended spring break for one more week to dedicate time to figuring out how to keep their school afloat.
Adapting strict protocols
With the urgent and growing need for distance learning setups, Stanton and her husband bought school equipments such as laptops, web cameras, microphones and digital book copies. Stanton said she researched ways to effectively teach online and most importantly, the best ways to ensure that the sound quality of music classes would be great over distance learning.
In June 2020, they were able to reopen the school for one-on-one meetings while still offering online classes options to their students. Of course, Stanton made sure that the school follows the safety health protocol guidelines in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
“We purchased hand sanitation stations and installed HVC air purifiers in each teaching studio, and two more in the main recital hall. We bought several forehead thermometers and arranged for a “concierge” to greet students at the door, take temperatures and log in when students went in and out,” Stanton explained.
Parents weren’t allowed to hang out in the school as the school’s waiting area was off-limits. They were only allowed to drop off and pick up their children and the concierge made sure the students went with their parents safely.
Most importantly, masks are required at all times. Teachers even wore both face masks and face shields. They were also instructed to keep a distance of six feet at all times. Highly touched surfaces such as keyboards, doorknobs, and bathrooms were sanitized constantly.
“I believe we were the only music school open for in-person lessons in America [at that time],” she explained. “We did not have a single case of COVID at our school because of our carefully thought-out precautions.”
As the music school adapts strict measures for a safe reopening, Medici’s along with fellow restaurants across the state were required to remain closed for in-person dining throughout the lockdown.
But the Stanton’s took this time to upgrade and adopt the COVID-19 safety measures to their jazz and blues club. Along with sanitation stations and industrial-strength air purifiers, they revamped their menu from buffet to a plated meal service. Medici’s bought new cutlery, glasses, plates, utensils, kitchen equipment and even hired more servers to accommodate the club’s new kitchen service.
On February 5 this year, Medici’s Supper Club held its grand reopening with an all-inclusive four-course dinner show with a 50% operating capacity and strict health protocols in place.
Surviving pandemic challenges
Adapting distance learning, online food delivery, Zoom conference calls, sanitation stations and even physical distancing are difficult to get used to at first but these are essential to ensure our safety against COVID-19.
But are these measures enough for businesses and the community to survive the challenges brought by the pandemic?
“Medici’s provided about 25% of our total revenue and was close for an entire year, so we lost that,” Stanton explained. “At the school, a few teachers dropped out along with their students, so we experienced another 20-25% drop there.”
About 20 students didn’t want to continue with classes either online or in-person but they were gracious enough to not ask for a refund, according to Stanton.
Even though they lost about half of their total revenue, the couple never thought of closing the music school and the jazz club.
“I’m a fighter. We just made things work,” she said.
When asked if her life-long music career helped her tackle the challenges of running a business during the pandemic, Stanton said:
“Studying music helps a person to become a fantastic problem-solver, teaches patience and endurance, and enables one to establish long-term goals and take steps to accomplish those goals. These are all qualities which helped me manage Medici’s and our school during this time.”
Through two CARES grants, a Pivot grant and SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan, the Stantons were able to purchase the necessary equipment and employees for their school and club COVID-19 safety protocols upgrades.
A&B, their landlord, also helped them out by lowering and deferring their rent last year when the Stantons were unable to pay rent for their two business spaces.
Most importantly, Stanton is thankful for the community for being patient with their art school and jazz club.
“I would like to thank our wonderful parents at the school who have remained supportive and continued to pay for lessons while we were online. Our patrons at Medici’s, who had bought tickets last year did not request refunds and patiently waited until this year  when we reopened to redeem their tickets.”
An optimistic future
“I am optimistic that we will surpass the pre-pandemic levels,” Stanton said, as she believes that as the economy slowly reopens, the community will support the activities they missed doing pre-pandemic.
“I believe that once things feel safe and more or less normal again, people will ferociously try to bring back things to normal — they will eat out more, enjoy going to concerts and events more, travel more, play sports, and take more classes and lessons.”
She says the music school has been receiving inquiries for lessons and concerts at Medici’s are selling out while they are still operating at 50% capacity.
Stanton shares they have tentative plans to expand Medici’s once the economy opens up. Her goal is to offer their restaurant daily with more concert offerings throughout the week. However, the economy is currently having some setbacks due to the recent surge in Delta variant cases of COVID-19. Medici’s had to temporarily close again.
“We are hoping this is a temporary setback,” she said.
Currently, Medici’s is preparing to reopen with a set of weekend concerts for the rest of October. According to Stanton, performers include The Tommy James Trio, in which Honolulu-resident Tommy James is the director of the Duke Ellington Band in New York; long-time local talent the Shari Lynn Trio; Stephen Inglis Project Quartet; the John Valentine Trio; blues band Bluzilla; and Amber Ricci and her group, Dragon Fly.
Stanton’s Manoa School of Music and the Arts and Medici’s Supper Club are a few of the lucky establishments in Oahu that are still operating despite the challenges and setbacks brought by the pandemic. She said that small businesses shouldn’t take no for an answer.
“Be creative and imaginative in finding solutions for problems,” she said.
“We are all in this together and should support each other as much as possible. I also think that growing up as a Filipino girl, these were concepts which were ingrained into me — that is, to care about everyone around you and do what you can to lift up and support others around.”
According to Stanton, her grandparents from Aranio and Espina families came to Hawaii from the Philippines 100 years ago. Their families are spread over several islands.
“Filipinos have now come to prominence in a number of different fields, including medicine, politics, and yes, in music. I am very proud of my Filipino heritage and ask your Filipino readers to continue supporting Filipino-owned businesses like ours,” she said.
When asked about her message to the Filipino community, Stanton said:
“We wish to thank all of you from the bottom of our hearts for your support. We are a small mom-and-pop business still struggling to survive, and your support just means the world to us.”
Tickets for Medici’s Supper Club are now for sale. Visit medicissupperclub.com to purchase tickets. To learn more about Manoa School of Music and the Art’s available classes and tuition rates, visit manoasmarts.com.