Music program aims to prevent violence by teaching kids how to play violin

Concert violinist Moshe Hammer says he founded The Hammer Band, a free program that teaches students how to play the violin or cello, in response to Toronto's so-called Summer of the Gun in 2005.

Hammer Band program began as a response to Toronto's Summer of the Gun

Grade 5 student Chelsea Pokua has been playing violin with The Hammer Band for two years. "I love to play music. It gets me really relaxed," she said. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

It was during a sleepless night in 2005, Toronto's Summer of the Gun, when musician Moshe Hammer decided he needed to do something about violence gripping the city.

"Everyday, it was in the news that kids were shooting each other," the Hungarian-born, world-renowned concert violinist said on a break from class at Firgrove Public School, near Jane Street and Finch Avenue West. "It was horrendous."

"It came to me that violence and violins are interchangeable, so I decide to turn one into the other."

Moshe Hammer, a professional violinist who has played in orchestras all over the world, is the founder of The Hammer Band. It's a non-profit organization that brings music classes into schools in at-risk Toronto neighbourhoods. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

By 2007, Hammer had founded The Hammer Band — a free program that teaches students how to play the violin or cello.

It started that year with 20 violins and 20 students, and now, the program has expanded to employ eight part-time instructors who teach about 1,000 students in more than 40 public schools in neighbourhoods deemed at-risk.

"Just because you live in a certain postal code, we still want you to have the same opportunities," he explains.

Program important for 'social, emotional well-being'

The classes are welcome at Firgrove, Principal Sukhwinder Buall said, especially because the school is lacking in extracurricular programming. 

Buall said the program gives the students "strength" and helps to counter "negative stereotypes of our area" near Jane and Finch.

"They don't have access to those programs outside the school, and they're very important to our students for their social, emotional well-being," he told CBC Toronto.

Moshe Hammer teaches a violin class at Firgrove Public School in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

Firgrove Vice Principal Darlene Jones is new to the school. When she first met Grade 4 student Jahmoi Francis, she said he had "some challenging times" in her class. But when she saw him in The Hammer Band program, she said it is was like seeing a new person.

"He was confident. He was proud," Jones remembered.

Francis took to the violin quickly and has decided he wants to be a musician when he grows up. He even checks on his teacher, Ms. Jones, when she doesn't make it to music class, making sure she's been practicing.

"I just feel he's become a leader. And Hammer Band has helped him become that," Jones said.

Jahmoi Francis had never played violin before picking one up this year during a Hammer Band class. He now wants to be a musician when he grows up. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

'It gets me really relaxed'

Hammer said he sees the everyday stress that children deal with these days, particularly due to the internet and social media, and he thinks music can soothe the soul.

Grade 5 student Chelsea Pokua has been playing violin with the program for two years.

"I love to play music. It gets me really relaxed," she said.

Hammer said music classes teach kids lasting lessons and helps to prepare them for high school and university by making sure they are on time for class. The classes also give the children the responsibility of caring for their instruments.

"When I see kids behaving better, when I see kids smiling, when I see kids less anxious, I feel I'm on cloud 95," Hammer said.

"I never get tired of seeing the first time a kid learns how to play Twinkle Little Star — those seven notes — and their eyes go, "I just played Twinkle Little Star!" That in itself is priceless."

With files from Ali Chiasson