By Preston Knight -- email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL -- Michael Jackson's death last summer sparked a resurgence in his popularity, particularly among the younger generation that did not grow up listening to him. They bought his music. They dressed up as him for Halloween. They embraced him for his once-heralded talents as a performer.
Rick Yeakle's comeback has preceded his death, but he is winning over that same impressionable group with the help of the "King of Pop." They buy into what he preaches. They -- or at least one of them -- have come to like his hair since first meeting him around Halloween. They are thankful that his skills as a communicator and teacher are still accessible firsthand.
Less than three months into his long-term substitute position as band director and music teacher at Skyline High School, Yeakle, 58, has brought new life into the program that is only in its infancy. His introduction of Jackson's "Thriller" to the 44-member marching band this week makes that clear.
Although some students seemed to know it was coming, Yeakle's handing out of the 1985 college-level sheet music for "Thriller" was met with "oohs," an "oh snap" and general unsuspecting excitement. Through Windows Media Player, he fired up a rendition performed by the University of Southern California's marching band, setting the bar high for what the Skyline group could accomplish with a little practice.
"I don't order the easy, baby stuff," Yeakle said to his students, "because you aren't the easy, baby players."
He spent winter break ordering new, more challenging pieces for the band. In addition to "Thriller," songs yet to be tackled include "Celebration," "Play That Funky Music" and "Rock Around the Clock," all of which break from the norm that the band has come to learn and has been known for at Skyline.
"We got made fun of," said senior Shelly Baker, adding that the group would focus its efforts before on "Disney stuff."
But Yeakle's arrival has changed the program's standing with the rest of the school. It was a chance partnership by way of Strasburg, his hometown.
Skyline Principal Andrew Keller was a Strasburg High School student when Yeakle, teaching fifth- through 12th-graders, was building the music program there. When the long-term substitute position became available in the fall, a parent informed Keller that Yeakle, who had been retired from teaching for 12 years, was available. That parent contacted Yeakle, who responded by asking, "Where's Skyline?"
"Out of the blue," he said. "I never expected to hop back into teaching."
It's been more like a giant leap, in terms of the impact. Keller said it was important to get someone with band experience into the music program, as the students were basically being self-taught under the guidance of a regular substitute.
"We were afraid we were going to make everything fall apart," said Coty Clowers, one of the senior drum majors put in charge.
Yeakle said a band program would die with a regular substitute at the helm.
"The band would implode," he said.
Skyline's students held together and eventually got the boost they needed in Yeakle, who spent two stints totaling 17 years at Strasburg. He built the music program there in the 1970s and '80s, and then left for seven years to focus on real estate. When he left Strasburg, the band -- including its drill team -- had 150 members.
In the time Yeakle was gone, however, that number dwindled to 22, as five directors came and went, he said. Consistency is crucial to a high school band's success, he added.
Yeakle went back to Strasburg for three years, but left again when his mother was ill. He met with Keller about Skyline's opening in late October.
"We were excited, of course," senior Todd Martin II said. "One of the biggest things is he doesn't let negativity get in the way. Everything is real positive."
Keller has given Yeakle full authority to take the band program where he wants to, which includes a new music theory class he will teach during the second semester and the development of a drill team that could push the band's membership to more than 100, including eighth-graders. He got permission from the principal to order the new music.
"They were so used to the old, faded music," Yeakle said. "The drummers would have to sit [sometimes]. If you aren't playing, you're bored."
From a personal standpoint, that has never been a problem for Yeakle -- with or without teaching. As a member of local band Ho-Kiss Po-Kiss, Yeakle plays virtually every weekend, performing on drums, saxophone and keyboards. The group had 110 gigs last year.
But Yeakle said when he got back into teaching he discovered he was filling a gap in his life he never realized was there. He has taught drummers the proper way to hold their drumsticks as they wait to play -- the "rest position," which means to hold the sticks in one hand and cross your arms, so there is no way to drop the sticks -- and preaches to his students to have a "game face," instilling confidence and focus in them.
With the jazz band, Yeakle has made students aware that it is OK to change the music and not feel boxed in to what is on the sheet.
"There's no such thing as the wrong note when doing a solo," he said. "It's only a bad choice."
If Yeakle is still around in the spring, he said he can save the school system money by writing and arranging his own halftime shows at football games. One ordered this past fall cost $3,100.
But "if" is the imperative word. Keller said Yeakle is still only a long-term substitute, and both are unsure how long the arrangement at Skyline will last.
"I'll be here every day as long as they want me," Yeakle said. "If the position becomes open, I will apply. ... Playing in a band is rewarding, but not as much fun as this."
If he's teaching come next fall, Yeakle plans to have three concerts, with one devoted to Michael Jackson. Yeakle said the current band should have "Thriller" down by the end of February.
About 15 minutes after class ended Tuesday and students had broken for lunch, two girls returned to Yeakle's room. They wanted to practice the new music they had just received.
"Giving up lunchtime to practice," Yeakle said, "it doesn't get any better than this."