Deepening the Love for Instruments and Culture #1
Nurturing Musical Culture in Latin America Through Instrument Maintenance
July 19, 2023
For a caring musician, a musical instrument is like a life-long partner. They begin with the process of learning to play the instrument. Over time, they will become a proficient player, only to discover that they are just beginning the journey of musical self-expression. Keeping their musical instrument in sound condition is a critical part of maintaining a healthy musical relationship. If a musician experiences any problems with an instrument, they should have a technician repair it before playing again.
Yamaha, in addition to manufacturing and selling instruments, devotes many resources to post-purchase customer support. This is to ensure that many music players can keep their instruments in good condition, and thus enjoy playing for a long time. To achieve this mission, Yamaha runs programs in which they send technicians to schools and music stores to not only repair people’s instruments, but also spread awareness on the importance of instrument maintenance.
In recent years, Yamaha has ramped up its effort to promote these programs in Latin America. The centerpiece of this ongoing effort is the “AMIGO Project,” which aims to give children the knowledge and skills to keep their instruments in sound condition, and more importantly, to nurture the spirit of tending to their instruments with love and care.
Tending to the Needs of Local Communities
The AMIGO Project was first launched in 2014, a time when Yamaha was laying the groundwork for promoting the use of musical instruments in developing countries. Yamaha understood that in order to inspire people to play musical instruments, they had to first make them feel an affinity to music. To gain a deeper understanding of the local cultures and perspectives they were working with, the project members decided to listen to the voices of people in the respective countries.
Through interviews with local people, Yamaha learned about the specific challenges that communities in Latin America face. For example, children who grow up in poverty are vulnerable to such risks as crime and delinquency. To combat such issues, some governments and organizations provide free music education to children and young adults. These youth orchestras create a safe community space for children to spend time during the day. Approximately 900,000 children participate in youth orchestras throughout Latin America.
“We learned that one of the biggest challenges faced by youth orchestras is keeping their instruments in good shape,” says Toshiaki Higuchi, a member of Yamaha’s B&O Business Unit.
*B&O stands for Band & Orchestra
Higuchi reflects on a realization he had at the time. “In Japan, most children who join brass bands have their own instruments, but the children in Latin America often need to share with others. Because the instruments are used more frequently, they inevitably require more maintenance. Combined with the lack of technicians with the right skills, the instruments are often in bad condition.”
The AMIGO Project, which was first launched to address this issue, is now run in five countries across the region – Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Panama. Through the program, Yamaha offers instrument maintenance workshops to youth orchestra directors, as well as repair training to local technicians. The directors and technicians who learn the correct maintenance methods can then pass these methods on to the children.
The AMIGO Project’s name embodies Yamaha’s hopes to create a friendly support network for local youth; the acronym spells the word “amigo,” meaning “friend” in Spanish, with the A standing for “apoyo,” meaning “support.”
*AMIGO stands for Apoyo Music Institute Government Orchestra
Higuchi played the Electone™ (electronic organ) since childhood and was a clarinetist in his high school brass band. In 2000, when he was a graduate school student majoring in education administration, he performed at a major sporting event held in Australia. To this day, he vividly remembers the sight of the crowd that gathered to see the band rehearsal. He was captivated by the incredible power of music and its ability to transcend borders. Reminiscing about this moving experience, he says, “I was amazed at how music can bring people together from around the world, across all borders and languages. I joined Yamaha because I wanted to pursue a career deeply involved with music.”
Nevertheless, he was taken by surprise when assigned to the Latin America division 10 years into his career at Yamaha. Not knowing anything about Latin American culture, let alone Spanish or Portuguese, he doubted whether he would be a good fit for the role. Despite his initial disorientation, however, the new assignment soon struck a chord with him. “I always wanted to be involved in music-related work overseas, so I found this to be a gratifying opportunity,” he says. After studying Spanish, he dedicated himself to the promotion of instrument maintenance in Costa Rica, Colombia, and Panama. He later worked in South Korea for a different project before eventually returning to Japan. With globe-spanning experience under his belt, Higuchi now supports the AMIGO Project through his role in marketing and sales.
Knowledge That Leads to Enjoyment
Teaching people the correct knowledge and techniques of instrument maintenance is easier said than done; every country and every culture requires a different approach. Italo Balbo, part of the AMIGO Project team in Yamaha Musical do Brasil (YMDB), says there are two major challenges.
“First of all, many musicians in Brazil do not realize the importance of instrument care and maintenance. More importantly, even people who do want to learn about maintenance often do not have access to the right information.” Balbo says these are very common issues in Brazil.
It is not uncommon for people to damage their instruments because they have a mistaken understanding of how to take care of them. For example, Balbo once met a musician who routinely cleaned their instrument using milk. When asked why, the musician replied that they had learned to do it that way from their father and grandfather, who were also musicians. “Many musicians love their instruments and want to take care of them,” Balbo explains. “The problem is that they are caring for them the wrong way. That’s why it is so important for us to teach them the correct methods.”
Providing access to information can be a challenge in itself. “During the pandemic, we conducted our instrument maintenance workshops online, but many people were unable to join because they didn’t have access to a computer or the Internet,” explains Balbo. “Brazil is a large country, and each state has its own unique characteristics and challenges. Every time we start working in a new region, we encounter a new set of issues. It’s important for us to tackle these problems step by step.”
Although he doesn’t play any instruments himself, music has always been an important part of Balbo’s life. He is especially passionate about film soundtracks and is a big fan of Hans Zimmer. For the AMIGO Project, Balbo mainly works on tender market and marketing activities. His tasks range from market research to planning and organizing events, as well as teaching Brazilians about the Yamaha brand and its history. Looking back on his nine years at Yamaha and seven years working on the AMIGO Project, he says, “the project has given me many opportunities to visit the various regions of Brazil. It has allowed me to learn and connect deeply with the music and history of my country.”
Caring for Instruments and for Well-being
Both Higuchi and Balbo feel that the most challenging aspect of the AMIGO Project is the time required for these activities to make a real impact. Even when a musician learns about instrument care and maintenance, it can take months or even years for them to truly understand its importance and incorporate it into their musical lives. “Teaching people about instrument maintenance is not a one-off endeavor,” says Higuchi. “It takes long-term commitment to see real effects.”
At the same time, the AMIGO Project team strongly believes that as long as they continue to make the effort, people will eventually understand the value of maintenance. Over the years, countless children and teachers have contacted Yamaha to share how instrument maintenance has impacted their lives. “Thank you,” they would say, “it’s like my instrument was reborn. I cared for it the way you taught me, and now it looks and feels brand new.” Sometimes, musicians reach out years after they joined a workshop in order to express their gratitude.
Higuchi and Balbo have seen first-hand how people change through instrument maintenance. “The act of caring for instruments teaches people the importance of care,” Higuchi says. “By caring for their instruments, they are also caring for themselves.”
In Balbo’s words, the AMIGO Project directly influences people’s well-being. “When you take care of your instrument, your relationship with the instrument changes. Your life starts to move in a good direction. We want to make that kind of impact in people’s lives.”
Nine years since the launch of the AMIGO Project, the number of technicians capable of maintenance has increased across the region. Now, in addition to providing repair services, some of these technicians have become trainers themselves, teaching people how to care for their instruments. In other words, they are becoming empowered individuals, contributing to a sustainable musical culture for a new generation of children.
“It circles back to my revelation in Australia all those years ago,” says Higuchi. “Music connects people across national borders and languages. I hope that we can keep this project going and enable more children to play musical instruments with smiles on their faces. There may be no end to this project, but we hope that the values we bring through it have a lasting impact on future generations.”
The AMIGO Project seeks to sow affection for instruments throughout Latin America by spreading awareness about instrument maintenance and care. On the other side of the globe, in India, Yamaha takes another very different approach to nurturing and cherishing affection for instruments. In the next part of the series, we will introduce the PSR-I Series, a portable keyboard series that tunes itself to the needs of musical instrument players in India.
(Interview date: March 2023)
Higuchi is a member of the B&O Business Unit, B&O Marketing & Sales Group. In 2014, he relocated to Panama to work on sales and marketing with local distributors across Latin America. During his time there, he also engaged in the “AMIGO Project,” promoting instrument maintenance activities throughout the region. He currently works in the Japan headquarters on sales and marketing while continuing to support the AMIGO Project.
Balbo is a member of Yamaha Musical do Brasil (YMDB). Since joining Yamaha, he has been in working on marketing and the development of tender markets. He has also been tasked with expanding the AMIGO Project in Brazil since 2016.
*Bio as of the time of the interview
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