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February 14, 2014IM -
Although she has a master’s degree in classical performance, violinist Nina Di Gregorio of Local 369 (Las Vegas, NV) has spent the last several years plugged in with Bella Electric Strings, the quartet she formed, which is heavily influenced by rock ‘n’ roll.
“I never played rock music until about seven years ago,” says Di Gregorio. “I got a job in a band, and they asked me to take a solo one time, and I had no idea what to do—I was terrified.” The idea of playing without reading, without being able to study the notes beforehand as she did with classical pieces, was something Di Gregorio had never considered. “That made me realize there’s a whole area of music that, if I want to work, if I really want to be a master of what I do, I need to learn how to play by ear and improvise over chord changes.”
Plugging in and attempting to emulate the sounds of iconic guitarists helped Di Gregorio develop her unique approach to violin. She began transcribing guitar solos by the likes of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix, and she practiced obsessively.
“I’ve definitely formed my own sound and my own style, and a lot of it comes with the gear you use,” she says. “It doesn’t sound like I’m trying to copy a guitar player anymore; it sounds like I’ve morphed a lot of different things, into what works for me and what works on the violin. My big thing is soloing like a guitar player. I’ve played through hundreds of different effects, different violins, different amplifiers, and I’ve finally got the gear that’s just my gear. I have certain tones that are identifiable with the way I play now, and I think it’s very important to get to that point.”
Capturing her own sound is a large part of what separates Bella Electric Strings from the other handful of similar quartets performing around the world. “Some of the other electric string quartets are doing a lot of classic-themed tunes with techno-pop beats, so it’s a little different than what we’re doing,” Di Gregorio explains. “What we do is straight-up rock ‘n’ roll. I’m a purist, so when people want us to play classical, I want to play my acoustic instrument, and I want to play classical the right way. But when we’re playing electrics, I just want to do the rock stuff.”
Di Gregorio has never been one to sit still for very long. “I don’t sleep; I work,” she says with a laugh. “I like to be busy. I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I had free time.”
In high school, she was on four sports teams each year while also playing in orchestra. “I tired my parents out when I was a kid, I think,” she admits. “When I was an undergraduate, I was a music major, an English major, and a pre-med student, all at the same time. I took no fewer than 27 credit hours per semester for five years. I came out with almost enough credits for three degrees.”
Following a trip with her parents to Las Vegas during her senior year in college, Di Gregorio decided to move to the city to play music and study at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, instead of applying to Columbia’s creative writing program.
In Las Vegas, Di Gregorio met a lot of seasoned musicians, many of whom encouraged her to join the AFM local. “They said it would be good for me, ‘as a kid coming up in town,’” she remembers. She joined the union, and has had numerous achievements since. “I started doing some of the television shows that were all union contracts, like a David Foster PBS special.” She played in other union gigs that came around the city, such as a Toni Braxton show, and has recently had great success with Bella Electric Strings, which consists of Local 369 members Jennifer Eriksson (violin) and Mandy Andreasen (cello), as well as the most recent addition, Local 47 member Andrea Whitt (viola).
But now her quartet has become a full-time commitment, with the group sometimes spending two straight weeks playing gigs. “It’s the best version of the group we’ve ever had,” declares Di Gregorio, who is the only remaining member of the original lineup. “It’s always hard to fill the viola chair for some reason. The girl we have now is a fantastic violist from Los Angeles. She’s really good with improvisation, and she’s got a laid back attitude and great stage presence. We click well and it shows through when we’re on stage together.”
As the members of the quartet devoted more time to the group, and it became a larger part of their lives, they had to give up other commitments. And, they aren’t always able to play whatever type of music they’d like; many of their shows are in support of well-known artists. “We’re freelancers, right? We’re session players. We play other people’s music a lot of the time. And if you want to work more, you’ve got to be versatile,” she advises.
Getting work is the first priority, and as the quartet’s leader, Di Gregorio has helped them get through the recession. “We survived the drought,” she says of the way Bella Electric Strings has flourished, its bottom line increasing dramatically each year. “We get to do some really cool things and make good money doing it, being string players, which is not easy to do.”
She attributes this success to the group’s flexibility. “We’re chameleons,” she says. “Depending on what artist we’re playing with, our entire look changes, the instruments we play change—sometimes we’re acoustic, sometimes we’re electric—sometimes we wear really elegant gowns, sometimes we have to wear mini dresses. It all depends on the artist and what their image is. When we do our own thing, we get to be ourselves, but when we play for an artist, we’re kind of actors, in a way. You have to morph to what their image is, a little bit.”
Now that Bella Electric Strings has some high-profile gigging under its belt, Di Gregorio’s got even bigger plans for the group. In December, they were featured in the David Foster & Friends program and performed as Bella Electric Strings, which was a big deal for the group that so frequently works as supporting musicians.
In the next couple of months, they are going into the studio to record original songs, and Di Gregorio has been writing a stage show that will incorporate dialogue, comedy, and music. There are venues already expressing an interest in booking the quartet in what Di Gregorio hopes will be a city-to-city ticketed tour. She’s also in the middle of pitching a reality show, which would document Bella Electric String’s “crazy musical lives in Las Vegas,” as Di Gregorio puts it. “Some of the stuff, living in Las Vegas—like they say, you just can’t make this stuff up.” Making the leap from the stage to television would give Bella Electric Strings the kind of exposure ?Di Gregorio hopes for.
“There are three things I want to release that will all go hand-in-hand,” she says, and explains that the stage show, the reality show, and a memoir that she’s been working on will help Bella Electric Strings reach music lovers in a variety of media. “They’ll help each other out.”
“We’ve also been talking about releasing a live CD,” she adds. “My only concern about that is that you’re not always able to get the same recording quality that you can in a studio, and I’m such a perfectionist that I think our first original release has to be a studio-produced album. Then, possibly after we get our stage show going, we could do a live concert DVD.” Di Gregorio thinks that, because their shows are visual and aural, they are best seen as well as heard. “We don’t have any singers in our group, so it’s a little funny if you don’t see what we’re doing. If you just hear it, it’s cool, but if you see it and hear it, it’s a lot cooler, because of our instruments and the way we move around on stage and everything like that. Without lyrics you have to do different things to keep the audience’s attention.”
Interaction with the audience is another thing that makes Bella Electric Strings more like a rock group than any other quartet. “Certain things we do are choreographed, and other things we do, it’s just rock ‘n’ roll,” Di Gregorio says of the players’ stage movements. “It’s an integral part of what we do. We play off each other, we play off the crowd; we go into the crowd a lot when we perform—we’re all on wirelesses and in-ears, so we’ll jump off the stage and walk through the audience, or sit with people and play right next to them. A big part of our show is all the interaction—not just with each other but with the crowd, as well.” Di Gregorio notes that the group also likes to do this because it gives them the chance to show that they are actually playing their instruments. “A lot of times, people are like, ‘Are they really playing? I can’t tell if they’re playing.’ But if you come down and sit right next to someone, they can hear the music coming off the instrument.”
Nina Di Gregorio has had great success with Bella Electric Strings so far. Her ideas and enthusiasm are helping the quartet grow each year, and the possibility of the stage act and television show puts the group on the cusp of a different level of success.
“As a string group, you’re probably never a household name,” she says. “But we’ve gotten to the point where enough people and organizations know about us that we can do our thing and be respected for it.”
After relocating to Las Vegas, ?Di Gregorio met a lot of seasoned Las Vegas musicians, many of whom encouraged her to join the AFM local. “They said it would be good for me, ‘as a kid coming up in town,’” ?she remembers.