Ron Keller—Someone You Should Know

August 2015 View more

NMAG0815_SYSK_If they made a movie about the history of Naperville, the sound track would have to be provided by the Naperville Municipal Band. For more than 150 years, the city with a small town feel has celebrated, honored, and shared its story with a blast of trumpets and the beat of the drum. There have only been two band directors in the past 86 years, Elmer Koerner, and since 1966, Ron Keller, who is celebrating his 50th anniversary with the band this summer.

You’ve been playing every Thursday evening in the summer for thousands of people in Naperville’s Central Park for 50 years. How do you keep things fresh?

I try to have a variety of music, something for everybody from big band music, movie scores and Broadway shows, to marches, polkas, guest conductors and soloists. The philosophy I’ve always used is to play to the people. If you can educate them while you are playing, that’s a plus. I’m a huge admirer of (John Phillip) Sousa, and if you look at what he did he was popular because he played to his audience.

What is the secret to the band’s longevity?

First of all, you have to promote the band, which we are always trying to do. Of course your band has to be good enough to promote. We exist for the musicians and the audience. A good conductor has to walk a fine line. To be successful, you must be visible in the community. We are always there for events like monument dedications and because of that, the band has become an integral part of the community. What other activity can be shared by a 19-year-old and a 93-year-old where they can perform equally well? We are also one of the few municipal bands that still March.

Do you remember your first experience with the band?

The municipal band has been part of our family for five generations. My great grandfather led the band and my mother and father played in it. We lived on North Ellsworth Street and my aunt would walk me over to the park when I was five years old. We stopped for Andy’s popcorn on the way. It was a ritual. It was my mother who encouraged me to become a music teacher. I went to the same school she did and the teachers would say I wasn’t as good as her. As a teacher, I resolved I would never compare a child to anyone in their family and I never have.

What was it like conducting the band for your very first time?

I was only 26 years old, coincidentally the same age as Sousa was when he led his band. My first concert in the park was very scary. In fact, I was scared to death! The band members were all older than me. The entire concert was in Elmer Koerner’s memory because he had just passed away and I wanted it to go well. We only had six really good players and I remember just before we started, the first clarinet came to me and said his reed was broken. He should have had a whole box of them but he didn’t!

The band is also well known outside Naperville. Tell us about that.

Yes. Last month (July) we were honored to perform at the Texas Bandmasters’ Association convention in San Antonio. I also gave a clinic on how community bands can promote themselves.

How would you like people to remember the Keller years?

I am consumed by the band. It’s been a labor of love. I’ve gone from teaching 8th grade, to being music coordinator for Naperville School District 203, to leading the band. It’s been a great career. I guess I would like people to remember that they got a lot of bang for their buck.

Photo by Robyn Sheldon