Ah, the gentle sounds of Christmas in Naperville.
Bells pealing softly in the distance through a veil of falling snow.
Rosy-cheeked carolers gathering outside your front door.
Eighty tubas thumping their way through “O, Come All Ye Faithful.”
Wait just a minute. Tubas? At Christmas? In the heart of downtown Naperville?
What in the name of John Philip Sousa is going on here?
Oh, don't act so surprised. If you've lived in or around Naperville for, say, the past 32 years or so, you know Tuba Christmas concerts are as much a part of the city's seasonal fabric as holiday sweaters — and every bit as loud.
Ron Keller, the longtime director of the Naperville Municipal Band, is the guy behind the performances that this year are scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, outside U.S. Bank on the northeast corner of Jefferson Avenue and Washington Street in Naperville, and 12:30 p.m. that same day in the food court at Westfield Fox Valley mall in Aurora.
The drill this year is the same as always: Keller invites anybody who plays the tuba or the euphonium (more about that later) to register between 9 and 10 a.m. that day at the Community Concert Center in Naperville's Central Park, 104 E. Benton Ave.
Rehearsal starts at 10 a.m., and within an hour the newly formed band makes its way to the bank to oom-pah-pah its way through a selection of carols and other holiday favorites.
What makes this a little weird — OK, what makes this a little weirder — is that the concerts are free but the musicians have to pay a $5 registration fee. They also can buy their sheet music for $15 ($20 for large print). And just in case lugging a tuba around downtown doesn't make it obvious they're a member of the band, musicians also can buy red, blue or green hats and scarves with the Tuba Christmas logo.
Keller urges performers, who range in age from sixth-graders to a guy who's 81, to bring their own music stands and a folding chair because, let's face it, those tubas can get a little heavy.
Last year's concert attracted 71 tuba and euphonium players, Keller says, and “we're hoping to get maybe 80 this year.”
“We play all the classic Christmas songs,” the director says, from “The First Noel” and “Silent Night” to a version of “Jingle Bells” that veers off in the middle into the “National Emblem March” before coming back around again.
“The arrangement of 'Jingle Bells' is a stunner,” Keller says. “That always gets the biggest applause.”
As far as just about anybody knows, the first Tuba Christmas was held Dec. 22, 1974, in New York City's Rockefeller Plaza. It was the brainchild of Harvey Phillips, a professor of tuba (really!) at Indiana University who pulled it together to honor his teacher, William Bell (“The Paganini of the tuba,” Keller says), who was born on Christmas Day in 1902.
“It was such a big success that Harvey started to hawk it to everybody,” Keller says.
Phillips performed as a soloist with the Naperville Municipal Band in 1979, and it was then he urged Keller to create his own Tuba Christmas. The next year Keller and about 22 other tuba players gathered for the first time.
Keller traces his own passion for the tuba back to his childhood in Naperville, where he grew up across the street from Kreger's grocery store. Jim Kreger played the sousaphone and would leave it hanging in the garage.
The store made its own ice cream back then and Keller's aunt frequently would take him across the street for a scoop or two. Young Ron would gaze up at the sousaphone and tell his aunt, “I'm going to play that some day.”
Someday came around pretty quickly because Keller was in the third grade at Ellsworth School when they brought a sousaphone in for him to try. His dad was confident young Ron would give up on the idea once he actually saw how difficult it was to make music come out of the darn thing.
“I let loose with a womp that scared pigeons for three blocks,” Keller says. “My father said, 'Well, I guess he can blow it,' and that's how I started to play.”
Music became an integral part of Keller's life, and he taught the subject for many years at Naperville's Jefferson Junior High. He's still very proud to tell you his band always had more tuba players than all the other Naperville junior highs combined.
If you mosey out to see the tuba concert Dec. 8, look closely and you'll notice there are really two types of instruments. The tubas play the low parts, the euphoniums (kind of a smaller version of the tubas) play the higher ones.
“My daughter plays the euphonium,” Keller says, “and I always tell her she picked it before it was ripe. It wasn't fully grown up.”
You'll also see that while the musicians run the gamut in terms of age, most of them will be what Keller calls “repeaters” — folks for whom Tuba Christmas is as much a part of the holiday season as stockings hung by the chimney with care.
That's a good thing, because with just an hour to practice before their performance, it helps to have some veterans around.
“I tell the sixth-graders not to worry, they're not going to be able to play all the music,” Keller says. “Just follow along and come in when you can.”
Finally, you'll notice everybody checking the temperature outside, because if there's one thing that can turn Tuba Christmas into one big Grinch Fest, it's cold, cold weather.
“We only had a problem one year when it was 13 degrees,” Keller says. “We played three numbers and the valves all froze up. We wound up having to go inside the bank and when everything warmed up we played in there.”
You'll know the concert is coming to an end when you're asked to sing along with “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” the traditional closing number.
Speaking of closing numbers, Keller laughs when you ask him how much longer he plans to lead Tuba Christmas. He joined the Naperville Municipal Band when he was 13, and he's been a member of the group for 60 years — including the past 48 as its director.
A woman sidled up to him this past summer and asked if he was ready to retire yet. “Do you want me to?” he asked. “Oh, no,” she said.
“As long as I have my health and it's fun, I'm going to do it,” says the man, who after all these years is still able to convince dozens of tuba players to stand outside on a December morning, freezing their spit valves off, belting out Christmas songs.
“You have to work at it,” he says, “but music is supposed to be fun.”Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.