#ImmigrationMatters in Toronto, Ontario – From violence to violins: Teaching children life skills through music

From violence to violins: Teaching children life skills through music

May 18, 2023


Moshe Hammer

Toronto violinist Moshe Hammer loves his city. So, in the early 2000s, when headline after headline mentioned gun violence, it didn’t sit well with him—and the summer of 2005 marked a turning point.

“Children and youth were increasingly involved,” he says. “I started to think about whether I could channel my passion for music into something that could help.”

It occurred to him that, by shifting the focus from violence to violins, he could create safe spaces for children and perhaps give them something to be passionate about.

The result was The Hammer Band, a charity offering free violin lessons at schools in under-resourced communities in Toronto. Hammer launched his program at a school in North York with just 20 violins. By 2020, the program had 1,000 students enrolled across 42 schools and employed 8 instructors. To date, 8,000 students have participated.

We teach kids how to play music, but we also teach them life skills. The hope is that they will grow up and use those skills to contribute to a better society.

Moshe Hammer

More than just a music program, The Hammer Band teaches students the art of listening, self-discipline, tolerance, and the rewards of working together in harmony, while fostering a sense of belonging.

Hammer fell in love with the violin when he was 6 years old, when his parents brought him to a wedding with a klezmer band that featured a violinist.

“I stood by his side all night, mesmerized. The next day, I begged my parents to get me a violin,” Hammer says.

Born in Hungary, he was just an infant when he and his parents moved to Israel, where he grew up and studied music. He arrived in Canada in his early 20s to join the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. He later lived in Calgary for 10 years, then finally moved to Toronto and stayed there.

Hammer's career as a classical musician has taken him all over the world, but he’s not looking for a new home: “When I first moved to Canada, I was welcomed right away, and I still love being here,” says Hammer. “As far as I'm concerned, it’s the best country on this planet. The violin gave me the chance to live here, and now I can use it to give back through The Hammer Band.”

While lessons usually start in grade 3, The Hammer Band has a few university students—and even one parent.

Ui Chheng Quanh’s sons were enrolled for a number of years. Quanh had always had a passion for music, but couldn’t study it growing up. Eventually, she asked Hammer if he would consider teaching her—and in keeping with his view that music should be accessible to all, he readily took her on.

“Moshe gave me this opportunity,” she says. “When I play, I feel happier.”

Sukhwinder Singh Buall, principal of Beaumonde Heights Junior Middle School, notices the same effects among his students.

“The program improves their well-being, and their social and emotional health,” Buall says. “Moshe is inspiring, passionate, and open to working with students who are struggling.”

With the shift to virtual (or hybrid) lessons because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program can now reach more children. In the future, Hammer hopes to expand to more schools in Toronto and beyond.

“It’s just so rewarding to see the kids in the program grow—as musicians and as people—right before my eyes,” Hammer says.

Immigration profile: Toronto, Ontario

Quick facts:

  • Immigrants represent close to half (46.6%) of the total population in Toronto, which is the largest proportion of immigrants in Canada overall.
  • In Canada, 47% of the non-profit sector is comprised of immigrants.
  • Of Canada’s independent artists, performers, musicians, and writers, 29% are immigrants.

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