By Dilys Leman
Classical violinist Moshe Hammer is not a man of science. Nonetheless, he is excited about scientific research that affirms what he has long intuited: That musical training has enormous cognitive benefits, including improved memory, attention and communication. “But there’s a lot more to it,” he says, “and it’s keeping the scientists busy looking.”
Indeed, research projects worldwide are studying the benefits of school and community-based music programs on children’s development. The preliminary findings of one such initiative—the Harmony Project, led by Dr. Nina Kraus, a professor and neuroscientist at Northwestern University—suggest that such music programs can alter the structure and function of children’s brains to create “better learners,” and can even narrow the academic performance gap between rich and poor students.
Hammer believes that creating better learners is “a good thing,” but he is especially concerned about creating “better people.”
In 2006, in the wake of Toronto’s Summer of the Gun, he was near despair. “I asked myself, what can I possibly do to stop the violence, to protect children?”
Violence. Violins. He mulled the two words over, and soon an idea was born. That same year, he founded The Hammer Band: From Violence to Violins. The non-profit organization provides free, school-based violin lessons to children in Toronto’s underserved neighbourhoods. The program is not about finding “the next Heifetz” or forming “an orchestra of wunderkinds,” says Hammer. It is about helping children at risk of gang involvement develop critical life skills—listening, concentrating, problem solving, cooperating, communicating—skills that will help them become resilient, confident and empathetic adults. “You can’t simply hand these kids a dose of confidence on a shiny platter. They need to learn confidence, even earn it, through the challenging work of learning to play the violin.”
Many of the Hammer Band Kids, as they are called, were born outside of Canada and live in “priority” neighborhoods such as the Jane and Finch community, where there are high concentrations of criminal gangs.
Hammer says the violin lessons are helping students to integrate into their schools and build a sense of community and belonging.
To date, 23 schools are enrolled, with a total of 500 students participating. Offered as early as grade three, the program follows children as they progress from the primary-school years into secondary education. Each child is loaned an instrument and participates in free group lessons, thanks to the generosity of corporate, foundation and individual donors. The lessons, held weekly during school hours, are taught by Hammer and his team of highly professional musicians.
Throughout the year, students perform in concerts at their schools and in private homes, and even at special events—they opened last year’s ideacity conference at Koerner Hall. As neuroimaging so dramatically depicts, playing a musical instrument engages vast regions of the brain, literally lighting up areas considered important for language, memory, emotion, motor control and executive function.
Twelve-year-old Awab, who emigrated from Lebanon in 2004 and is in grade six at Toronto’s Brookview Middle School (located in the heart of Jane and Finch), joined the Hammer Band last school year. He has already noticed changes in the way he thinks and feels. “At first I found the violin really hard—I felt like quitting, I sounded so awful. But I kept practising, and I could tell I was improving. Even school got easier. Now I feel proud, like I’m really accomplishing something. I have friends doing the same thing, the violin. Everyone’s helping each other get better.”
Dilys Leman, MA, BEd, is a freelance writer and editor in Toronto. She serves on The Hammer Band Advisory Committee and has two grown daughters who are accomplished violinists. Leman’s poetry book, The Winter Count, is forthcoming from McGill-Queen’s University Press.