When you conduct an orchestra of all ages, the key is choosing the right music and mixing in the instruments in a way that is complex enough for experienced musicians but also accessible to amateurs.
“A lot of it is blending the musicians together at the right level of playing,” says Lorraine Marks-Field, founder and conductor of the Boca Raton-based Florida Intergenerational Orchestra, which has 65 volunteer musicians ranging in age from 9 to 97.
The group, which recently had its last performance of the season, plays songs from movies, operas and musicals — including “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Magnificent Seven."
“There’s a great need for bringing young people and older adults together, because there’s so much separation [in the community],” Marks-Field says.
The Boca Raton resident came up with the all-ages, orchestra concept in 1994, while working as a music teacher in New Jersey. The idea was to motivate her young music students to keep practicing.
“As I was teaching my students, I found that they really weren’t practicing that much, and I wanted to encourage them to practice. And so I thought about it, ‘What was encouraging me as a young student to practice?’” she recalls.
As a young viola player, she was invited to practice with a string quartet that her music teacher, in his 70s, played with. Her New Jersey school didn’t have an orchestra, nor many children who played string instruments, so she eagerly accepted the challenge.
“They invited me to play with them, and they encouraged me so much that I ended up going in the field of music, and becoming a string teacher and a string specialist and orchestra teacher,” she says.
She brought the concept to Florida in 2005, starting the nonprofit orchestra after moving here to teach at Pine Crest School in Boca Raton.
She holds no auditions. The only requirement to join is to already play an instrument, although she has made exceptions in the past. She pairs children with older musicians, who help them improve their playing, guiding them through rehearsals and performances.
“Everybody performs together. We never turn anybody down,” Marks-Field says.
Natalie O’Brien, of Lake Worth, joined the orchestra as a flute player at age 10. At the time, she was shy and a bit insecure, she said, even though she was already playing the instrument with her school’s band. Three years later, the orchestra has helped her improve as a musician and open up as a person.
“People my age have interactions with their teachers and their parents, and maybe their grandparents, but they don’t have a lot of adult interactions out of their family,” says O’Brien, 13. “Having all these people around me, who were so supportive, helped me become a more outgoing person.”
Marks-Field currently teaches at two Montessori schools in Boca Raton. She has run orchestra rehearsals every week at Edgewater Pointe Estates retirement community.
“We’ve become very friendly with some of the residents that live there. They follow our orchestra. We have a fan club, and then, when we have a break, we talk to them, and they’re very excited about each Thursday to have somewhere special to go,” she says. “Sometimes the rehearsal is more interesting than the concert.”
O’Brien agrees. Even though she has homework, she looks forward to rehearsals.
“I’ve learned a lot from the older members who have a lot more experience,” she says. “And I’ve even, a couple of times, helped the other kids and even the adults with some things. It’s a lot of different experiences. It’s a lot of interaction, learning and improving from what the other people know.”
Susan Feldman, the 77-year-old principal cellist, often asks the children for help. “If I’m in doubt, I will turn and ask one of them something, and they’ll know the answer,” she says.
For more information, call 561-482-8206, or go to flioa.org.