Music school hits top note
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
Children of various ages from seven different families climbed off their stools on a recent Saturday afternoon and immediately started banging out rhythms on a bongo drum, pounding on keyboards to distinguish between low and high notes and singing together as a chorus.
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Camilla Corpuz Yamamoto conducts an introductory class for prospective students at her Keiki Kani Music Studio in 'Aiea. The Saturday workshops give parents a chance to see if they like the school's approach.
Bruce Asato The Honolulu Advertiser
She prefers games.
"We especially want the parents to know that while performance is the end result, getting there can be fun," she said.
Yamamoto believes music lessons fall victim to two formidable forces: family finances and youth soccer. So it's important that students enjoy themselves, she said, and that families see the benefits of lessons.
Yamamoto, 43, grew up in 'Aiea listening to her father play guitar, 'ukulele, accordion and concertina as he serenaded her mother each night with Filipino songs. "It was wonderful," she said.
She joined the 'Aiea High School choir, then studied music at the University of Hawai'i before graduating in 1981. Along the way, she began teaching piano and choir for private students and music programs throughout Central O'ahu.
She took the Pearl City Highland Elementary School's choir, Hui Na Leo, on tour around the Mainland and developed her own following of students.
Ruth Ann Fortuno had followed a similar path. Yamamoto and Fortuno had known each other years before, but didn't really keep in touch until 1990, when Fortuno was getting ready to graduate from UH with a music degree.
"Camilla just called out of the blue and asked me if I wanted to help her start a music studio," Fortuno said. "We had both worked for other studios, and she said, 'Let's open our own instead.' "
They took a $10,000 bank loan and sold $10,000 worth of shares to family members to renovate the 800-square-foot space on Kamehameha Highway, diamondhead of the Pearlridge Shopping Center.
Keiki Kani started with 20 of Yamamoto's students and 10 of Fortuno's. It opened for business just as U.S. troops began battling Iraqi forces, which sent Hawai'i's economy into a free fall that would last for much of the decade that followed.
Despite the statewide economic slowdown, Keiki Kani brought in $90,000 to $100,000 in revenue in each of the first three years.
The business did so well that all the loans were repaid. But family members who had invested were upset, Yamamoto said.
"They all wanted a write-off," she recalled. "They didn't necessarily want us to make a profit."
Although the business expanded from three instructors to five, the hours continued to wear on Fortuno. She needed a change after a long-term relationship ended.
"I was so depressed," said Fortuno, 36. "I felt I needed to get off of the island."
She answered a United Airlines ad for flight attendants and moved to Chicago, where she earned more money working fewer hours.
Yamamoto always had been the one to run the business, Fortuno said. But the departure left a void, which Yamamoto filled with UH music students.
Keiki Kani's enrollment has leveled off at about 175, and annual revenues remain at about $95,000.
But expenses and salaries have gone up, and some instructors now have advanced degrees and more experience.
Still, Yamamoto has tried to keep prices down. Rates range from $90 for 10 weeks of lessons for toddlers to $155 for 15 weeks of choir. Private piano and voice lessons for adults vary in price.
"I want to keep lessons affordable for working families," Yamamoto said. "The way the economy is, it's spooky, and you can't expect people to pay more for music lessons when they're trying to pay the mortgage and put food on the table."
Expenses limit her own options. Last year, she closed a weekly program offered for 10 years at the Leeward YMCA in Waipahu because she could no longer justify the rent.
Only about half of the 15 students signed up at the main studio in 'Aiea.
Didi and Brian Gascon brought their daughter to one of Yamamoto's regular Saturday demonstration workshops to see if they liked Keiki Kani's approach.
Lauren, 3 1/2, stayed focused on Yamamoto during the 45-minute workshop, Didi Gascon said.
"She really seemed interested," and the teacher "really had her attention," her mother said, while the girl was distracted in other music classes.
State Sen. Ron Menor, D-17th (Mililani, Waipi'o), brought his 12-year-old, Benjamin, a sixth-grader at Mililani Middle School who used to sing in the Honolulu Boy's Choir but gave it up for soccer.
"We want to keep his voice in training," Menor said.
Others who have stuck with the Keiki Kani program have enjoyed plenty of exposure. Piano students offer recitals each year at the 'Aiea United Methodist Church.
The Keiki Kani choir performs at retirement homes and shopping centers, sang a jingle for Zippy's that aired on local television, and recorded a song for the Department of Education called "Children Like Me."
Students receive instruction from teachers such as Veronica Conner, who plays bassoon for the O'ahu Civic Orchestra and has a master's degree in music from the University of Central Arkansas. She joined Keiki Kani in September and found a home in the environment.
"I really, really like Camilla's program," Conner said. "She makes everything fun for the kids, so it doesn't seem like work. I've probably learned as much as the kids have."
Starting in mid-February, Keiki Kani will see a new, familiar face when Fortuno rejoins the company not as co-owner this time, but as a part-time instructor.
"We worked it out," Fortuno said of her earlier defection. "Even though there were times we thought it would fold, Camilla stuck with it, bless her heart."
Reach Dan Nakaso at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8085.