The DSO's Musical Salute to Ron Keller

“Strike Up the Band!”:
The DuPage Symphony Orchestra’s Musical Salute to Ron Keller

If you venture through downtown Naperville on Saturday, July 22, follow the irresistible sounds of music whispering along the breeze and you will find yourself at the Naperville Community Concert Center. Families sit close together, picnicking as they nod their heads to the music. Kids laugh and play, stopping to twirl to a particularly exciting melody. An orchestra on stage plays in perfect harmony, mesmerizing all. You’ve stumbled upon the DuPage Symphony Orchestra’s tribute concert to Ron Keller, longtime Music Director of the Naperville Municipal Band (NMB).

“How many experiences can you have a three-year-old and a 90-year-old in the same space, hearing the same thing, and both having a wonderful time? The child is reacting in their body, moving to the music, and the older person is probably experiencing it in their mind, connecting to many different experiences across their lifetime. It’s incredible and it’s humbling. It’s out of our control, our body and emotions taking over, it’s a human reaction, unscripted,” said Emily Binder, incoming NMB Director.

Music proves time and time again to be intergenerational. Many have fond memories—sitting in their grandparents’ house listening to the radio; meeting their sweetheart at a dance; or taking their children to see the legendary Naperville Municipal Band perform. Ron Keller, Naperville Municipal Band’s faithful Music Director from 1966-2023, recalls his youthful experience with NMB: “I’d walk down to Central Park with my family, get some popcorn, and I told my aunt, ‘I’m going to play in that band someday!’”

His dream came true. “I was only 26 when I started conducting the band. Our director passed away and the board president asked if I could take this on. I said yes, but I hadn’t expected to take it on so soon. I told the board we needed to be more visible. We put together little groups—a brass band, a German band—and we posted up at the intersection and played until we couldn’t see the music!”

Before his legendary 57-year tenure with NMB, Ron spent years perfecting his craft while guiding children on their musical journeys:

My mom made me learn piano since I needed to read music, but at school they fitted me to a sousaphone and had me march up and down the band room. My dad said it was too heavy, but I said “I can do it!” I played it with such a WHOMP of air that I scared the pigeons! I never looked back. In 8th grade, Mom said I needed to think about how to earn money after school. I had family members who farmed so I thought maybe I’d be a farmer, or were carpenters so maybe I’d make cabinets…I love trains, so maybe an automotive engineer? Mom said, “You’re in the orchestra, you play tuba in the band, you sing in the choir—you should follow your great-grandfather’s path and teach music!” I saw a woman at my 25-year class reunion, and she asked what I did; I said band director, and she said, “You mean you stuck with it?” I love it. It’s not work. I go to school every day, not work.

His great passion for music, children, and the community at large has kept Ron coming back year after year, even through difficulties: “My first junior high teaching gig was brutal. The kids didn’t know how to read music, couldn’t play their instruments. I had no inventory, no music lists, and I had to have them concert ready in a few weeks for a town event. I get there to find out we were leading the parade! The parents went nuts—they said it was the best the band had sounded in years.”

Having been with the NMB through many seasons, Ron has led a band that stays current and doesn’t take itself too seriously: “We fought for three years to get a new Naperville Community Concert Center built [the roof collapsed in 2000]. The first piece we played there was “Supreme Triumph,” and when they built bathrooms a few years later, the band played “Royal Flush!”

A Keller hallmark is his great admiration for John Philip Sousa, aka “The March King.” Early in Ron’s career with the NMB, he began playing Sousa-inspired concerts: “Sousa’s birthday fell on a Sunday, and I said let’s play a concert like he would have programmed. We told the audience, “Close your eyes and think of John Philip Sousa,” and I walked out on stage dressed like him! One of the things I tried to emulate in Sousa is playing to the people. If the people prefer ‘Turkey in the Straw’ to Parsifal, we played ‘Turkey in the Straw.’ We played ragtime, Dixie…but Sousa always kept up with what was popular, and so did we.”

The DSO’s “Strike Up the Band” tribute concert is an homage to Ron Keller and everything he has given to the community. It will feature pieces from some of his favorite composers, and Ron will take the baton for the closing piece, Sousa’s iconic “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Grateful for the opportunity to do what he loves, Ron says, “I’d like to thank all of the people that have supported the Municipal Band over the years, especially the audiences. Elmer Koerner, my predecessor, had the band for 37 years, I had them for 57 years, so in 96 years there has been only two directors. You get to a point where you know it’s time. I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do and got paid for it! It’s going to be a very emotional farewell.”

Emily Binder will step into Ron’s role as conductor of the Naperville Municipal Band and says, “Ron leaves very big shoes to fill. He is someone that allowed us to be very grounded, a constant, a reminder of what is wonderful and historically stable about this community. He is an anchor for what this town is.”

Emily plans to continue stewarding the band as they move into the future. “Ron’s done such a great job, and I’ll just keep it rolling. It’s such a beautiful thing—we have an ideal situation: support from the city, leadership from the group, all of this is work Ron has done—it is a glorious setting to come into. I joined when I was 15 and have been a part of it ever since.”

The DSO and NMB play crucial roles in the atmosphere and culture of Naperville and surrounding communities. Both organizations hope to allow people to pursue their passion for music, whether as patrons or performers. As Emily looks toward the future, she leaves us with this: “I feel a strong compulsion to maintain or create a space where people feel like they can come in and have a beautiful experience. We are trying to create a safe, creative space in a way that feels organic and rewarding.”

We invite you to support these two pillars of Naperville’s community and witness the DSO’s tribute concert to Ron Keller, “Strike Up the Band!” on Saturday, July 22 at 7:30 PM. Pay your respects to a Naperville legend and enjoy many of his favorite tunes as we enjoy the past and present, and look toward the future together. Admission is free.