By Mike Thomas
Naperville Municipal Band leader hands off his baton
Ron Keller is more than just a Naperville native. The longtime conductor and music director of the 164-year-old Naperville Municipal Band is a Napervillian’s Napervillian whose local lineage stretches back to the late 1800s. In fact, many of his ancestors played in the band he began helming in 1966. Keller himself—a former teacher at Jefferson Junior High and Dwight High School—is an accomplished tuba player who started playing with the NMB in his early teens and performed his first solo in 1951. (His wife, Vicki, has been playing clarinet with the NMB for more than 50 years.)
But Keller’s leadership duties over the decades left him little time for his own instrument. That will change August 10, when he officially steps down from the podium he has occupied for 57 years. On that evening in Central Park he will conduct a program aptly titled, “Thanks for the Memories.” He’ll even perform a tuba solo.
Keller, 84, won’t vanish entirely, though. As director emeritus, he’ll make occasional guest appearances as his schedule allows between visits to grandkids and great-grandkids and fishing in the freshwater stream that runs near his daughter’s backyard in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Q: You were basically born into this band you’ve conducted for nearly six decades. Tell us about that.
A: My aunt would walk with me down to Central Park and hear the concerts when my mom and dad were still playing. We’d always stop and get a bag of popcorn and a root beer. And I said to my aunt, “I’m going to play in that band someday.” I don’t know if she believed me, but I got to do it. When I was a freshman in high school, my mom said, “You’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do to make a living when you get out of school. You sing in a choir, you play in an orchestra and a band. I think you should follow your great-grandfather’s footsteps and do something in music.” And I said, “You mean like be a band director?” And she said, “Yeah.” So as a freshman in high school, that was my goal.
Q: What have you learned about leadership?
A: You need to be prepared for the rehearsal. You don’t get up there and sight-read with the band. You have to know the piece well enough that you can rehearse it intelligently and make the demands where they’re supposed to be.
Q: Have you thought much about what your musical legacy will be?
A: I keep running into students in Jewel and elsewhere. I still have kids that I taught at Jefferson come up and talk to me who are probably in their middle 40s and early 50s. Eleven of my students have gone on to become band directors, and two made it really big. One is professor of bassoon at Vanderbilt, and the other made the Army Band in Washington for 28 years. [For NMB], I hope it will be how I programmed music for the people. I tried to do stuff that was well-known or popular for toe-tapping. You go to some of these band concerts where you don’t even hear a march. We play three or four, and people clap along with them, and it makes them feel good.
Photos: Ron Keller and Tim Penick