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Moshe Hammer works with students at Westview Centennial Secondary School. He hopes to expand to 30 schools in northwest Toronto within the next couple of years. (Handout)
Moshe Hammer works with students at Westview Centennial Secondary School. He hopes to expand to 30 schools in northwest Toronto within the next couple of years. (Handout)

Battling violence with violins Add to ...

Moshe Hammer

Artistic and executive director

The Hammer Band

Toronto

What do a violin and a gun have in common? To Moshe Hammer, they’re both instruments that change lives for the better or for the worse, depending on which one gets into a kid’s hands first. The Israeli-raised performer and teacher aims to get elementary and junior school students squeaking out Twinkle Twinkle Little Star instead of joining gangs, thanks to free music lessons in schools around Jane and Finch. The Hammer Band, founded in 2007, now comprises five musicians teaching 200 kids from Grade 4 and up.

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First steps

It started with Toronto’s Summer of the Gun in 2005, when it seemed like dozens of kids were shooting each other almost every day. I was losing sleep thinking about the young teens carrying weapons around. Then I thought of the fact that “violence” and “violins” sound almost the same. With that crazy idea, I decided I could do something about it.

The pitch

Right now only 30 per cent of Ontario schools have music programs. But when a kid learns to play an instrument, something more than music happens inside them. They get better marks, they learn teamwork, respect for their band mates, and how to listen.

What we do

We go into 15 schools, mainly in the Jane and Finch area, and teach violin and cello every week to 50 to 60 kids at a time. They each get a free violin for the year, and we ask them to practise 30 minutes a day. We hope they’ll stay with us through the end of high school.

What keeps you going?

The notes I get from parents. One just wrote to me: “Your program opens up a whole new world. Through the children, you bring joy and music to our hearts as well.”

Proudest moment

When a student first starts playing, they often struggle for months. Then suddenly they pull the bow just the right way, and they can play Hot Cross Buns. The look in their eyes is to live for. The appreciation, the sense of wonder, pride, the “I did it” moment.

My heroes

Mozart, not only for being one of the greatest composers ever, and because of what he stands for. He was a child prodigy but barely scraped by for the rest of his life. I also admire novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez for his mind-boggling imagination.

Next steps

My dream is to have music in all schools, everywhere. Within the next couple of years, we want to expand to 30 schools in northwest Toronto. But we need more resources, more donated violins, more teachers. We want more boys involved – they tend to think violin is not so cool. But when we get them playing, they feel supported and loved, and maybe they’ll be less likely to join a gang.

This interview has been condensedand edited. Send suggestions for the Action Figure to livebetter@globeandmail.com.

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