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Mavericks Personified: The 440 Alliance

Innovative band of alumni disturbs the peace with 16 strings (and drums)

The 440 Alliance on stage

You have to hear it to believe it, but 440 Alliance members play classic rock, hip-hop and other popular genres on their cellos.

A few years ago when he was in college, Andrew Walton was a counselor at a UT Arlington summer strings camp. The young musicians staged a talent show, and Walton wowed them with a cello rendition of Metallica's Enter Sandman.

Walton is one-fifth of the 440 Alliance, an inventive gang of cellists who merge classical training with classic rock. The musicians proclaim that they're "disturbing the peace with 16 strings" and to prove it offer their take on standards like the Beatles' I Am the Walrus, Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven and Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. They even tackle hip-hop.

Walton and band mates Drew Johnson, Neil Fong Gilfillan and Nathan Keefer play cellos modified with pickups, to sound like guitars. That's Brandon Vanderford on drums.

No magic moment marked the group's genesis. The cellists played together in an ensemble, and sometimes they'd play for fun. Blending talent, creativity and cohesiveness, they have become a popular draw at Fort Worth-Dallas venues.

"The 440 Alliance is a string quartet with a drummer," Vanderford says. "But everyone in the group works so well together, there just isn't a weak link."

Last summer they competed on Fox TV's Next Great American Band. After being selected from an entry tape, the musicians flew to Los Angeles for auditions. They got their tickets the day before departure and then realized the show's producer didn't buy tickets for the instruments.

They pleaded with airline representatives to allow their cellos on the plane. But the delicate instruments, each costing several thousand dollars, had to be checked like luggage.

Then there was airport security.

"We were traveling with one-way tickets purchased the day before, and we were checking these huge boxes," Johnson said. "It created a bit of suspicion."

After a few whirlwind days of auditioning in California, they advanced to the televised round in Las Vegas. They had to be in front of the hotel one morning at 7-again with one-way tickets and re-wrapped cellos. When they arrived at the Vegas airport, they boarded a bus to Lake Las Vegas, about 20 minutes away.

Their performance time was 3 p.m. in an outdoor arena. In August, in Nevada, that's an impossible environment for a wooden cello.

"I'm a Texan, and I'm certainly used to heat," Johnson said. "But I have never been so hot in my life. Forget playing in tune; I was just happy that my cello didn't come apart in my hands."

They drew praise from the judges but failed to advance to the final 12.

"Even if we hadn't had the problem with the heat, I don't think we would have won," said Johnson, explaining that the group seemed a bit sedate compared to the competition.

All of the cellists got their start in the Arlington Independent School District's orchestra program, which begins in fourth grade. Keefer, however, had a head start. His mother is the orchestra director at Arlington High School.

"I grew up around strings and started playing the cello when I was about 4," he said.

After finishing high school in Arlington, the band members attended UT Arlington. Gilfillan, Walton and Johnson all graduated from Elizabeth Morrow's cello studio.

"These guys took the ball and ran with it," said Dr. Morrow, a music associate professor. "They are extraordinarily creative, and they really spark each other."

Vanderford, the only non-cello player, is also the only non-music major. He earned an economics degree from the UT Arlington College of Business Administration. With his business education and passion for music, he opened a recording studio in Denton-before he graduated. He quickly outgrew his first studio and recently built a replacement in Fort Worth that is four times larger.

Gilfillan is pursuing a master's degree in performance at the University of North Texas. "I'm teaching now to earn a living while I'm still in school," he said. "It's what I want to do for the rest of my life."

Walton teaches orchestra at Arlington's Seguin High School. Keefer is student-teaching and soon will be looking for an orchestra teaching job. Johnson, who plays for Symphony Arlington, teaches private cello students from Arlington High and plays for weddings and other special events.

"When I have to fill in something that asks for my employment, I just write ‘cello,' " he says.

Online: www.The440Alliance.com or www.MySpace.com/The440Alliance

— Sue Stevens

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