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June 2019 View more

Story by Karen Wojcik Berner
Illustrations by Cara Dunning

The Naperville Municipal Band is arguably one of the city’s greatest treasures. It’s one of only 10 community bands in the country to earn the prestigious Sudler Silver Scroll Historic Certificate from the John Philip Sousa Foundation, proving its high standards of excellence. But perhaps the band’s greatest appeal is the positive family atmosphere it creates, both on and off the stage.

From indoor concerts and parades to its highly anticipated outdoor concert series that kicks off June 6 in Central Park, these talented and dedicated musicians are a group that clearly loves performing together.

“Awesome people plus awesome music plus serving the people of Naperville equals a rewarding experience,” says Emily Binder, assistant conductor and tuba player. “Music brings people together like no other pursuit. We laugh together, cry together, and rely on each other every time we play.”

There is such a tight-knit family atmosphere that band members never want to leave. The turnover rate is only two or three musicians per year—which is pretty amazing for a band with numbers that have swelled to the current roster of 100 that literally spans generations. The oldest member is 87, while the youngest is 17.

“It’s the best team I’ve been on,” says assistant conductor René Rosas. “It’s a calling.”

To mark the group’s 160th season this year, Naperville magazine asked the leadership to reflect on their years with the Naperville Municipal Band. Some memories are poignant and some are humorous, but all are told with the heartfelt love of people who are truly grateful to be a part of it.

Five generations of Ron Keller’s family have played in the band since the 1870s, and Keller wouldn’t want it any other way. He has been a member for 66 years and is in his 54th year as conductor and music director. Keller is proud to follow in his great-grandfather’s footsteps and still gets butterflies when they perform new pieces.

“My favorite concert is around Independence Day. I love patriotic music. It’s the biggest crowd of the year. People come at 6 in the morning to put blankets down and stake out their territory. The largest crowd we ever had was in 1981, when we celebrated Naperville’s 150 years. We had 10,000 people. Central Park was filled all the way to Benton. Every year, we do the ‘1812 Overture’ and fire off real cannons. I have people stationed in the neighboring churches to ring the bells, so we have live church bells to accompany the music. The first year we played the piece, it was a request from then-mayor Chester Rybicki. I told him you really need cannons to do a great performance. The next day he called and said, ‘I have four 105 Howizers. What time do you want them?’ Naperville and Wheaton still had a little animosity between them from back when Naperville lost the DuPage county seat to Wheaton in the late 1800s. Rybicki invited the mayor of Wheaton to our concert. Little did he know that we’d faced the cannons in the direction of Wheaton and shot them off. We called it the official shelling of Wheaton—all in good fun, of course.”

Tracy Oliver joined the band in 1980 when he was student teaching with Ron Keller at Jefferson Junior High School. He has been a member of the Naperville Municipal Band for 30 years and served as assistant conductor for nine of those years. Oliver also has been a member of the offshoot Naperville Municipal Band Big Band—an ensemble with saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and a rhythm section—since its inception in 2004, first as lead alto sax player and then as director since 2011.

“I love it. Playing music is a joy. There are band members I have known since they were little kids. There are also former students of mine that are now members. It’s wonderful to share the love of music with people that I helped find that love of music in themselves. The first concert of the summer season, we share the program with our scholarship winners from District 203 and 204 schools who play two songs with the band that night. It’s a real pleasure to see young musicians interacting with more senior musicians. At one concert, we had a 17-year-old trumpet player sitting next to a 92-year-old band member. Where else would such an experience take place?”

Ann Lord has been the band’s concert moderator for 62 years. She also played clarinet for six years, bringing her total years with the group to 68. She collaborates with Ron Keller and René Rosas on the band’s year-round programs.

“There are so many wonderful memories, it’s hard to choose one. I do feel this one was very special to me, though. In 1997, I was performing for my 40th year and unbeknownst to me, Director Keller had planned a great surprise. He had commissioned a work by our favorite composer/conductor Jim Christensen, which included some of the pieces I had performed with the band—such as songs from ‘The Music Man’ I had sung with the barbershop quartet, other songs I did, and special piano pieces. The band put it together and called it ‘Annie.’ It was just spectacular, so excellently done. It was recorded, but it can’t be performed again because it would not be possible to get all of those people together, so I have to treasure it for myself. It was a real audience pleaser.”

Assistant conductor and tuba player Emily Binder joined the Naperville Municipal Band at age 15 in 1987. She is currently a band staff member at Neuqua Valley High School.

“Each show has rewarding moments. I would have to say the first outdoor concert in the park is my favorite. I get goosebumps and often tears when the stage door begins to open for the first time. I’m always struck by how lucky I am to be a part of this and how lucky the band is to have a park full of audience members as excited as we are. However, one time, at one of the outdoor shows, an elderly person didn’t seem to be engaged with the performance. I didn’t see them move or interact with anyone around them. This went on so long, I grew increasingly concerned for their well-being. One of the last pieces in the show was a medley from ‘The Sound of Music.’ The moment we started playing, this person came to life! They sang along with each song and had a blissful look on their face for the duration of the piece. I found myself overwhelmed with emotion when I saw what the music was doing for them. Music made a difference for that person, and so did the band. Every time we play, we have the opportunity to move someone. That’s what it is all about!”

Assistant conductor and clarinet player René Rosas has been with the Naperville Municipal Band since the summer of 2002. He’s also the director of the concert, jazz, and marching sections of the Marmion Rosary Band at Marmion Academy.

“Concert Moderator Ann Lord was out in the audience with a cordless microphone soliciting songs from the audience for our version of ‘Stump the Band.’ Audience members would pick a song. If the band knew how to play it, or if any one band member knew how to play the song, the band won. But if no band members knew the song and the audience member could sing it for us, the audience member would win a $25 Downtown Naperville gift card. A young girl wanted to know if we knew the Ellsworth Elementary School song. I turned around to the band members on the stage and asked if anyone knew it. Trumpet player Bob Hoffman raised his hand. ‘Really, Bob?’ I asked. ‘Can you play the Ellsworth School song?’ Bob answered, ‘I wrote it!’ and then proceeded to play it on his trumpet. Turns out, Bob was the band director at Ellsworth for many years before he retired.”