Max Schachter’s son Alex was like a lot of 14 year-olds: He loved watching pro and college basketball, playing in the school marching band, hanging out with his friends and trying to out-muscle his older brother.
Alex had a touchingly optimistic view of life, as evidenced by a poem he wrote called “Life is like a roller coaster,” which featured the lines: “Life is like a roller coaster/ It has some ups and downs/ Sometimes you can take it slow or very fast/ It maybe hard to breathe at times/ But you have to push yourself to keep going/ Your bar is your safety/ It’s like your family and friends/ You hold on tight and you don’t let go.”
The high school freshman wrote that poem two weeks before he was killed, along with 13 other students and three teachers, during the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14. His father says Alex was one of the first students attacked that day, when the shooter aimed his military-style AF-15 assault rifle through the window outside Alex’s classroom and opened fire, killing Alex and two other students.
In the days after, Max Schachter shared his beloved son’s words during a CNN town hall urging politicians to pass common-sense gun legislation. He also recently spoke to Billboard about his son’s legacy in the lead up to Saturday’s (March 24) massive March For Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. and detailed the music scholarship he’s setting up in Alex’s name to keep the music playing.
While the inspiring MSD students leading the charge for the March continue to put pressure on politicians to take action on guns, Schachter is paying tribute to his son by spreading the gift of music to another generation. “We’re not really a music family,” Schachter tells Billboard, explaining that he played saxophone in the middle school band and not-so-secretly wished his kids would follow in his footsteps. As it turned out, Alex was persuaded to give the trombone a try — thanks to a little bit of encouragement from his trombone-playing grandpa — and he ended up joining the MSD Eagle Regiment Marching band.
“He really took to it,” says Schachter. “He got connected with a Skype music teacher in Georgia during middle school and he created a love of music for Alex. Any music he listened to he would write the music out and he learned to play all these songs he loved.” So, while Alex was mastering Star Wars soundtrack songs on trombone and listening to his classic rock-loving dad’s favorite bands like Foreigner, Journey and, of course, horn-heavy Chicago, he realized he would have to learn a second instrument to be in marching band. So, in 7th grade he doubled up and learned to play the smaller, tuba-like euphonium as well.
Playing the trombone during concert season and the euphonium in marching band season became the norm for Alex, even though the schedule of practicing and keeping up with schoolwork — including AP classes such as Human Geography — was grueling. “He had to focus on time management, practicing multiple hours a day, then doing homework and then going to marching band competitions,” Schachter says. “Marching band would end in December, then he’d have marching band camp during the summer which went from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.”
The upside of all that hard work was all the hours Alex had to hold the euphonium up while marching, which, for a skinny kid like him, meant developing strong biceps. That bulk came in handy when he wrestled and played basketball with his adoring older brother, Ryan, 17 — but it was also a confidence booster for Alex, who would have competitions with Ryan to see who could hold the euphonium up the longest.
All the practice and flexing came in handy in November, when MSD went to the the Florida Marching Band Championships and finally bested longtime rival Park Vista High School. “For Alex as a freshman to see all his hard work pay off was an amazing experience,” says Schachter, who volunteered to work on the field crew to help with the props, so he could spend time with Alex and watch his son perform up close.
Schachter doesn’t know if Alex would have gone on to be a professional musician, or, as his grandpa had encouraged, attend Ohio State University and join his alma mater’s iconic marching band. “He could have gone on to do great things,” he says. After the tragicshooting, Schechter says he was determined to memorialize his son, so he created the Alex Schachter Scholarship Fund, setting up a GoFundMe page that has raised nearly half of its $500,000 goal to date.
Given the high costs of joining the marching band, the Fund will devote a portion of the money raised to establish scholarships for less fortunate students who want to play with the Eagle Regiment, as well as a college scholarship for one or two seniors per year. “My first goal was raising the money for the MSD Marching Band [scholarships] and the other part is about me burying my grief and anger in this other cause: school safety,” says Max Schachter. “If Alex’s classroom had had bulletproof glass windows, Alex and so many others would be alive.”
The other part of Max’s mission is to advocate for school safety, which began with a March 5 school safety commission meeting that drew 25 experts from across the country — including the chief of police of Los Angeles, as well as top police officials from Dallas, Denver, Houston and Atlanta — in an effort to identify state-of-the-art safety guidelines and best practices to develop a blueprint to keep school safer nationwide.
“I’m not a public person, but this is my mission,” he says. “Humanity has failed itself and I have to do something. I can’t sit back and let another school tragedy happen. If we can just make the schools safe we can save people’s lives.”