And then what happened: Rockin’ in the schoolyard


Published: 8/30/2021 5:04:52 PM

From 1985 to 2000 I had the glittering and providential fortune to live in a neighborhood in New Orleans that boasted as one of its distinctions, a brass band second-line (which is New Orleans for “parade”) through the streets several times a month. One of my favorite comments of the era came from a neighbor, who, when asked what all had been going on at 7 that morning, said, “I don’t know — I looked out the door and all I saw was a marching band, so I went back to bed!”

Thus, a flood of shifted familiarity floated in my window a few days ago when, here in Ashfield, as I stood working, I heard brass band music. Just like the old days! Though, somehow different.

Just like the old days I danced outside and followed the gaiety until I came upon the Ashfield Community Band, winding back up after a year of silent separation, for their annual concert, projected for this past Sunday. And just as excited as I would have been back in the 1985 neighborhood, I, along with about 80 of my Ashfield neighbors showed up for the concert itself held on the lawn outside the old one-room schoolhouse on Baptist Corner Road.

Fifteen hundred miles from the funky brass sounds of New Orleans, this concert floated music from grand marches to medleys of Gershwin and Mancini, and 40 years up from the youngsters discovering their sound in the streets, these musicians were people coming back to it, all these years later.

Cynthia Mangsen, a descendant of the Gray family line of Ashfield generations, leads the ensemble that got its start in 2008 when the Mohawk Trail High School band couldn’t make it up for our annual Memorial Day events. Local high school music teacher Sandy Carter put out the call for anyone in town who still felt the wiggle in their fingers from any instrument they had played back in their own high school days, to come together and form a band for the ceremony, and people showed.

The rusty horns and flutes welcomed the chance to sing again, the players got to march in the parade and the band was born. The Mohawk Trail kids returned two years later but the players in this new, revitalized group got to thinking, you know? That was fun. Let’s continue. And the band got back together. Their annual gigs now include performing at Ashfield’s Fall Festival and at our film festival.

A gifted and classically trained music teacher, Cynthia taught in elementary schools in Massachusetts, and privately, first in Colorado and now in Ashfield since moving back here in 2005. Anyone can step up to join this band, and, where needed, Cynthia uses her teaching skills to quietly pull new applicants aside for lessons to bring them to the level the band has worked its way to, 11 years in. While most of the members hail from Ashfield, it’s open to musicians from other towns as well for a total band of about 25 players, including Ashfield bass drummer Luke Geiling, who lets nothing of his Down syndrome get in the way of his enthusiastic and on-target drumming. Cynthia says she began teaching Luke to read music, but found his natural ear for the beat was more effective, and truly, his feel for it serves the music and us, the audience well, as Luke gets into what he does.

Sunday’s event was the annual Ashfield Community Band Ice Cream Social where Cynthia entertained us with ice cream and Ashfield trivia between the songs, and the police chief and her deputy scooped the cones (donated by Ashfield Hardware, whose two owners are band members) post-concert. Children danced in the grass, parents and grandparents nodded their heads to the beat, and the show culminated with that 1950’s hit “Rock-Around-the Clock” as a grand finale.

We didn’t get last year’s excitement, when a bear shimmied in to enjoy the music; poor guy, who could blame him for wanting to attend, but a rural band knows how to get a bear to leave. They blew their horns, banged the drums, crashed the cymbals and made such a racket that the bear lumbered off to a far part of the woods to listen by himself, and the concert continued.

This year we got no bears, just sunshine, warmth, dancing children and happy community in a celebration of life, music and neighbors.

Near the end of the concert, as I was appreciating the reunion of generations surrounding me and smiling at the puppy-pile of the youngest Gray children and their friends tapping their little feet to the music, a leaf shaped like a tiny perfect green heart trickled out of the heavens and landed in my lap. I looked back up at the blue sky, I looked around at all the love in that old schoolhouse side-yard and whispered, as they used to say in the neighborhood in New Orleans, “Yeah, you right!”

Nan Parati lives and works in Ashfield, where she found home and community following Hurricane Katrina. She can be reached at

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