This article is part of a series of profiles of graduating seniors in Salem high schools. Read the full series here.
In the past year, McKay High School’s bands have placed at state for the first time in the school’s history, performed in a Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco and won the Oregon Music Educators Association’s jazz festival.
Band teacher Scott Avzaradel says none of it would have happened without Alex Sanchez.
Sanchez, 18, has been inseparable from his French horn since middle school. He started playing trumpet in fifth grade, then switched at the suggestion of his band teacher.
His family wasn’t musical, but Sanchez had gone to his older siblings’ band concerts and knew he wanted to be part of an ensemble. They later quit, but Sanchez had found his calling.
“It made me happy. I always look forward to being in class and it’s just the thing I love, basically,” he said.
Sanchez has a wide smile and is known around the band program for helping his classmates achieve their best.
“They all liked him as a friend, respected him as a musician and respected him as a leader too,” Avzaradel said. “He has this big heart for paying it back.”
Sanchez has taken lessons for years through the Music Lessons Project, a Salem nonprofit that covers the cost of private lessons for students who could otherwise not afford them. He’s driven to share his knowledge with others and runs sectionals, leading other students in small group rehearsals, and co-teaches beginning band with Avzaradel.
Once a week, Sanchez returns to his alma mater Stephens Middle School, helping newer horn players learn the basics.
“Seeing people improve it’s kind of what brings light to my day. Being able to know that I made a positive impact on people,” he said.
Snachez was the rare student who auditioned into McKay’s wind ensemble — the highest level band — during his freshman year.
When the pandemic hit that spring, he and other band students continued playing, but found their motivation lowered.
“The drive wasn’t there. Because really, what makes music fun is the people,” Sanchez said.
In the fall of 2021, Avzaradel restarted the school’s marching band, with students meeting for marching rehearsals at Waldo Middle School. Most of the band hadn’t marched before, and after over a year of online classes, even friends felt like strangers. Just 29 students did marching band that first year back.
But the ensemble worked together, and the following year drew 70 students, with Sanchez leading as drum major. Avzaradel had the band audition for the Chinese New Year parade, wanting their performance to serve as an announcement that McKay’s marching band was back.
They performed in the pouring rain, marching on a February evening as TV commentators lamented that an Oregon band had brought the weather with them to San Francisco.
Sanchez said the opportunity to travel is one of his favorite parts of band – but the show, broadcast to millions of people, also vindicated the work he’s put into helping McKay’s ensembles rebuild.
“People didn’t believe that we would be able to have a marching band. So being able to, you know, basically build back the program through marching band has been really cool. The work from the past four years, I think, has really led up to being able to do great, great things with music outside of just having concerts here,” Sanchez said.
Avzaradel said this year, McKay’s bands have enjoyed the sort of success people outside bands look to, winning trophies at competitions. But for him, that’s never been the goal.
“We found that (success) almost as a byproduct of focusing on a really positive culture, a culture of working for each other, being the best you can be at all times. And he was one of the main focal points of it,” Avzaradel said of Sanchez.
In the fall, Sanchez will attend the University of Oregon, studying music education after successfully auditioning for the music program. He’ll also perform in the school’s marching band.
Sanchez hopes to teach middle or high school band after he graduates, and would like to return to the Salem-Keizer School District because of the emphasis placed on music education.
“This is what I love to do and this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Sanchez said.
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.