Connecting the generations through music

When it comes to community orchestras, Lorraine Marks-Field is something of an impresario.

For years, she was a music teacher and music therapist in the Cranford public school system in New Jersey, but in 1994 when she heard that a community orchestra had folded, she saw an opportunity.

She wanted to start her own orchestra—but not just any orchestra. This would be a group that connected people of all ages, with no auditions and everyone welcome. The music mattered, of course, but ultimately it was about the people, and connecting the generations.

And so the New Jersey Intergenerational Orchestra of America was born.

She secured rehearsal space at her local school and put an ad in a local paper seeking players. She hoped to get 30 people for the first rehearsal; 72 showed up.

“We had to scramble for stands and music,” she said.

The first concert took place that December. Thirty years later, the orchestra is still going strong, with members who range from 10 years old to their late 80s. And now, after retiring and moving to Florida, she has a second group, the Florida Intergenerational Orchestra of America, which she started in 2005.

The players in her orchestras bring a range of abilities, so she has a beginner orchestra, a full orchestra, and a chamber orchestra.   

“We never turn anybody away,” she said. “We have people of special abilities.”

If anything, musicians in her Florida orchestra, some of them snowbirds from up north, schedule their winter trips around the orchestra’s concerts. “I call it a destination orchestra,” she said. “People plan for it.”

Celia Hirsch, a retiree living in Boca Raton, is a longtime violinist of the Florida Intergenerational Orchestra and has had stand partners as young as the second grade. Despite the difference in ages, they have conversations that go beyond the music.

For example, when a younger player pulled out a phone during rehearsal, Hirsch gently offered the thought that perhaps a rehearsal was not the place or time for checking the phone.

But Hirsch learns from her stand partners as well. One was a high school student who was a talented violinist. Being paired with such a good player inspired Hirsch to practice more diligently, she said.

To Marks-Field, this interplay of the generations is what her orchestra is all about.

Indeed, she has tapped into a bigger idea. A 2022 survey by CoGenerate, a nonprofit that seeks to connect generations, found that 81% of survey respondents ages 18 to 94 said they want to work with different generations to improve the world.

Marks-Field offers a story from her childhood. She was 14 and her teacher was a retired violist from the Radio City Orchestra.

“He invited me to play string quartets with a group of older musicians,” she said. “At 14 years old. I really wasn’t that good, but I got to play Haydn and other works. They were all retired and I learned from them.”

The experience planted a seed in Marks-Field that took decades to germinate, in her two intergenerational orchestras.

Today, stand partners in her orchestras may be 50 or even 60 years apart.

“If somebody sits next to somebody else who is not as proficient, it gives them an inspiration to improve, to be a part of it,” she said.

Marks-Field likes to talk about mentoring through music. She read off a list of her goals: “Fostering role modeling, character building, responsibility, self-esteem, confidence, maturity, team spirit, feeling of accomplishment, appreciation of the arts, desire to learn and improve, relating to and interacting with other generations and more.”

Margaret Binns is another long-time violinist in the Florida Intergenerational Orchestra. A retired nurse, she is what you would call a late bloomer when it comes to music. When she turned 60, she wrote a list of what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. At the top was to learn to read music.

She made that list on a Friday, she said. Two days later, in The Palm Beach Post, she saw an advertisement to learn to play violin, through a Suzuki class. The lessons had mostly children, but she began anyway.

“I made it through the 10th book” of the Suzuki method, she said.

Eventually, she would join the Florida Intergenerational Orchestra. Throughout her musical education, she has been around younger players who have helped her learn.

It’s this kind of connection that Marks-Field is seeking.

“The impact extends not only into the orchestra,” she said, but into people’s lives. “Of course we all want artistic excellence, but my orchestra is more about the people. It’s not just the music.”

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