IamA staff pianist at the Juilliard School in NYC. AMA!
My short bio: I press buttons that make sounds, and for some reason they hired me here to do that for people.
My Proof: mugshot!
Edit: Sleep time. See you in a few hours!
Edit 2: Whoa! So many amazing questions! I'll get to as many as I can.
Edit 3: Broke musicians work on Sundays, but I haven't forgotten about you guys. I'll be back later!
Edit 4: Thanks for all the questions! Unfortunately I have more sounds to make. It's been great. See you sometime.
What is the best part about working in such a famous and well-known institute like the Juilliard School?
Definitely the people here, and by that I mean the students in particular. Yes, we're blessed with world-class luminaries, but due to the nature of my work, I also spend a lot of time working with undergraduate students and kids in the pre-college program.
Surprisingly, I'm not surrounded by assholes! It's so inspiring to make music with genuinely talented, hard-working, and humble people. I am constantly surrounded by some of the best artists in the world, but 95% of us have serious Imposter Syndrome and we all feel like the one who doesn't deserve to go here.
Musicians also universally have an unmistakable streak of cynicism (ranging from healthy to...not) which makes them pretty awesome people to share drinks with on weekends.
How well can you sight-read? Any tips? Reading notes vs reading intervals , for example, or memorizing entire patterns? Would the approach differ if you're playing jazz instead of classical?
I can sight-read fairly well; most of my job involves showing up at lessons/rehearsals and being given music on the spot. It's not really a fault of the system or anything I'd change - it's just protocol. Things happen fast here and it's the best we can do. It would've definitely psyched me out if I didn't have prior experience sight-reading; in fact, it was a required portion of my audition here.
Reading intervals, when it comes to sight-reading, is always better than reading individual notes. With enough experience, you almost kind of turn your brain off and just scan. Unfortunately, there isn't really a "method"...you just get used to reading music and it gets easier over time.
When it comes to jazz, pop, or 18th-century classical music (think Mozart, Haydn, or "lighter" music) I find myself thinking more harmonically than worrying about melodic lines. When you get to more gnarly writing like early 17th-century complicated stuff (think Bach and "mathematic" music) or 19th-century classical also-complicated stuff, it becomes slightly more melody-focused. But harmonies are always the most important part of sight-reading.
Leave out the complicated stuff and just play harmonies if you have to. I do that a third of the time, at least.
edit: brb retaking Music History 101
Huh? Bach and Handel were contemporaries and from my limited understanding of classical music, are stylistically very similar...
*Haydn! My bad.
Haha, why are you still awake? I have an excuse, my 1.5 year old is up and sick. Hello from the upper west side btw...
I dunno dude I just finished playing juries and finals are next week so I'm in a weird limbo state of feeling finished but also in denial of the rest of the work I have to do
Any truth to that old story that students hid razor blades between the keys of practice room pianos to take out the competition?
Is it hard to keep from geeking out with all of the legendary faculty walking around Julliard's hallowed halls?
As you move in to the accompanying world, whats your pipe dream? Do you hope to score a satisfying relationship with one particular soloist and make influential music with them? Or move chameleon-like from one soloist to another quietly making them sound 10 times better? The latter case seems to be more common in the commercial music world anyway...
Is boredom a problem with your practicing, or has it ever been? How did/do you deal with it?
Are you ever bothered by how little people care about classical music? On one hand, I suppose that an artist plays for their self, but on the other, a musician is a performer and tied to the interest of their public.
What do you think about classical music audiences today?
Thanks for doing a cool AMA
- Totally not true, but I've heard that before and it's hilarious.
- Totally true and I still do it. I've seen Perlman twice and both times I had to physically remind myself what maintaining a normal face feels like.
- That's so hard to say. I just want to be the kind of pianist people like to work with and respect, wherever that takes me. The more specific the goal, the easier it is to set yourself up for disappointment.
- Definitely, especially when I was younger. Sometimes you literally have to consciously force yourself to start. Sitting down to practice is the hardest part, but once I start, I usually find something to enjoy and work with.
- I only play a little bit for myself, so of course it bothers me that people at large don't seem to care. But I'm a true believer in the value of beautiful music, and I know that it can communicate something unique and profound. I live for the listener who says he felt something deep and doesn't know why. I really don't know why, either, and that's the amazing part.
- I think they're pretty rad, they give me money to make music for them.
- No problem! It's been fun :)
Thanks for your thoughtful response. I'm also torn between my desire to please an audience and the fact that the public at large likes what I think is really shitty music. I try to take some solace in the fact that many people move towards classical music as they grow older and maybe they'll come around.
I've been moving away from classical music since graduating school and at the same time, my mom started managing a smaller hall and symphony outside of the NYC. It's been pretty disheartening to see exactly how the classical music world works on a logistical/financial level. All orchestras run at a loss, and wealthy patrons foot the the lion's share of the bill for classical music to exist at all. Their reasons for doing so are... not what a young musician would hope for. Certainly, in her small community, they do so largely because of tax write-offs and because they like to have places like symphony halls to be fancy in.
Also, a lot of these people are older and very conservative, both musically and otherwise. So they like to hear some nice, relaxing classical music and they really don't want to be bothered by the poor or the non-white. Financially, the orchestra has to do whatever these people want in order to keep receiving their generous gifts. I'm only intimately familiar with the case of the hall my mom runs, but I understand it's a very common situation around the United States.
Most musicians on stage don't know or don't care about all this stuff. Indeed, mostly they are a young and hungry bunch making the trip out from the city, glad to have a (poorly) paying gig.
You mentioned cynicism in another answer you wrote. Are these the sorts of things that make you cynical? Or do you not find yourself thinking about them? Personally, learning about this sort of thing really discouraged me from trying to get into the professional classical career track.
Kind of an aimless reflection. If you have any thoughts of the topic, I'd be interested in what you think.
Oh, also, favorite Bach Invention?
That's very true, and very depressing. It's definitely something that people are cynical about, though I was initially referring to the self-deprecating habit you develop after years of being trained to look for faults in your own playing (which is the only way to improve and must be done in a healthy way).
I'm still here because...I don't like thinking about all that. Instead of worrying what the audience thinks, I really care most about what the person I'm accompanying thinks of me. If he/she feels like I make him/her sound better and has a genuine respect for my musicianship, that's enough to make my day.
The C minor is lovely!
What is one thing you wish you could tell your page turners?
For the love of God please do not wear shiny/jingling jewelry on your wrists.
I'm sorry, I know nothing about piano. What's a staff pianist?
Basically, I'm hired by the school to accompany students for a certain number of hours, whether it be in lessons, coachings, auditions, or recitals. Not the best pay in the world, but it's still an insane concept to me to get money for having fun.
Oh, ok! Sorry to bother you.
Oh my gosh no! I did say AMA. Not a bother at all.
what are some good online resources to use if i wanted to start learning piano as a hobby?
YouTube is a great place to start to familiarize yourself with notes and chords and such. There are also tons of apps - the 21st century is the best thing to happen to education.
Call me old school, but it's pretty difficult to really learn to play piano without private lessons. I'm sure plenty of college students would charge a low fee for a half hour every week or so!
You play beautifully. What's the hardest piece you've ever tackled? Is there one that you still feel is beyond your abilities?
Thank you so much!
This is going to sound like a cop-out answer, but I swear it's completely true - different music can be hard in so many different ways. Sometimes the pieces with the fewest notes can be the trickiest.
I guess a big piece I played once was Scriabin's B Minor Fantasy. It's one of my all-time favorites and one of the most beautiful melodies I've ever heard.
Another cop-out answer is that, since perfection is unattainable, I could probably "play" a lot of the music that's out there now. But a lot of the crazy stuff would probably sound like crap. If you want something really mind-boggling, Sorabji's Opus Clavicembalisticum is a riot.
Many thanks for the answer - I enjoyed listening to some of the Scriabin piece. I'm truly envious of people who seem to move each finger with complete independence, strength, dexterity, and speed. It is a wondrous and beautiful thing.
I'm just an amateur who plays for fun, but I find that when I'm playing my mind can think of pretty much anything, and I can even solve math problems in my head - but I'm unable to speak or answer questions while playing if it is not part of the song. For example, I could play and sing (badly), but I could not verbalize what year a song was released or discuss who wrote a song while playing. Are you able to play while talking or instructing others at the same time? If so, were you always able to do this, or did it come with practice?
I cannot for the life of me speak while playing the piano. It looks really funny - either my sentences break up or my playing does!
When I coach, I have to play a little chunk and then speak a couple of sentences. Even that can be jarring for me, but it's gotten easier over time!
Total hippie response, but never say "just an amateur." If music brings you joy, you're making music just like everyone else is.
Can you sing and play?
Yep! It's a requirement as a vocal coach, for demonstration purposes. Not necessarily to make beautiful sounds, but to show vowel placement/linguistic or dynamic things, etc.
Why the piano?
When I was 3, I wanted to be a ballerina, so my parents got me involved in a dance program. A couple of years later, on Halloween night, the studio had a big costume party and I went dressed as a cat. But my costume was homemade, and this was the 90s. Apparently I looked a little disappointed, so my mother cheered me up by saying, "if another little girl makes fun of you, just show your claws and hiss at her!"
Long story short, I got into a fight with another ballerina and scratched up her face pretty badly. They kicked me out and I decided to use my hands for music and not violence. It's working out okay so far.
That was a very good story. Can you share yourself playing?
This is an odd question, but what's the dress code for performances like this? Most of the female performers I've seen wear gowns like yours, and most of the men wear suits.
What would happen if you rocked up to the place in Doc Martens and a T-shirt?
Yep, gowns for girls, suits for men.
People would probably gossip and I'd get some stern words, but I wouldn't get kicked out or anything. I should try it sometime.
One of my main problems when I learn a piano piece is that I commit certain passages to muscle memory when I know them rather well. I stop thinking about what I'm playing and then I lose some of the articulation and dynamics. Does this ever happen to you?
I straight up lose my place as I'm playing a piece sometimes. In a performance, too. With the music in front of me. It happens, no one dies! I think.
Muscle memory is definitely a valid part of memorizing music. It also, as you know, really shouldn't be high up there on the hierarchy of memorization techniques.
Always practice with your music. Your pencil is your friend. Circle or highlight important markings so that you have that visual cue. Make written notes in the music too, for that very purpose. And then, after practicing, run it a few times from memory, in small chunks and then the whole thing.
As a young classical musician (violinist), what can you say about the future of the classical music industry and how to succeed in it? What lessons have you learned on your path to being a professional classical musician?
This feels like a pageant question! I feel so pretty!
At the risk of sounding dismissive...I think we shouldn't worry about the future of classical music. At least openly. Imo, we're kind of experiencing a reverse-elephant-in-the-room phenomenon - talking about the "death" of classical music is contributing to its image as a dying art form. The answer isn't in pandering to our audiences or dumbing down concerts. People are smart and they can tell when they're being looked down on. We just need to continue to make honest, compelling, and emotionally charged music and it will touch people. The music is enough.
Among so many others, the biggest lesson I've learned is that it's way too easy to lie to yourself and tell yourself you don't need that extra hour of practice. You always do.
As a classical singer it's very disconcerting when the average age of the audience is greater than 50. Believe it or not, classical music is already dead to the vast majority of young people.
I'm willing to bet money that you're a young classical singer, though. And that's promising.
Do you see music in color in your mind?
Sometimes, yes! I associate certain chords with certain colors. I don't literally see the colors so much as I...sense them? It's hard to describe.
My dad has it also, to a stronger degree.
Musical synesthetes unite! Thanks for doing this AMA, I'll be attending Mannes in the fall. I'm extremely excited for the conservatory life.
Congrats! It'll be a blast, and you'll make lifelong friends. :)
What is a typical day for you?
It's different every day, which I love!
Getting up around 8 or so, getting breakfast and then practicing until my first class, or until I start working (I'm also a student here). The class is usually a language or diction course, since I'm aiming to be an opera coach when I graduate.
If it's work, then I'm running around school on the hour playing for lessons or classes. Plenty of hours spent sitting in studios of great teachers and learning through osmosis. Downside is, lunch is often from the snack machine. Sometimes I get off-campus jobs at high schools, churches or (every once in a while) the bigger halls like Carnegie.
I'm usually done with scheduled stuff around 7 or 8 pm. Then I pretend to have enough energy for a social life for a bit.
Sorry, I just know you were expecting something more interesting. As one of my mentors told me, "in this business, you just gotta sleep less and drink more."
Do you do any physical awareness work at Juilliard? Specifically, I heard that the Alexander Technique was taught there. Do you have any experiences with that?
Gahh I meant to take that class next semester but forgot at registration! Juilliard is lucky enough to have an embarrassment of riches regarding physical awareness courses, though.
I did some Alexander work at previous summer festivals, and I had a teacher who was really into Feldenkrais, but I'm no expert in the field. All I can advise is that music making should always feel easier than you expect, and even though some tension is natural and necessary, pain is not. I had issues with tendinitis in the past, but after months of physical therapy and careful practice, I can luckily say that's old news.
What kind of music do you like to listen to? That is to say, do you prefer to just listen to the kind of music that you play?
I had a great conversation with my friends from undergrad over spring break.
Friend 1: "kittykate816, are you still into Radiohead?"
me: I still listen every once in a while--
Friend 2: "Iron and Wine, Neutral Milk Hotel?"
me: Oh yeah, all the time! But lately I've been really into the Dirty Projectors--
Friend 1: OH NO YOU'RE A HIPSTER
Also Lemonade changed my life.
edit: formatting like what
Because the place has fairly high talented people, is there a lot of elitist, smug pretentious assholes? how do you deal with that sort of environment if so ?
Personally, as an elitist, smug, pretentious asshole, and due to the conflict of interest therein, I feel incapable of answering this question honestly.
I'm kidding (I hope). It's impossible to get into a school like this without a lot of hard work in addition to talent. Raw talent just isn't enough at a certain point. So getting in involves many...many years of learning how to teach yourself in the practice room. As a result, you train yourself to look for faults in your own playing every second of every day. It can be draining without the right attitude, but it's definitely humbling. I can't think of a single person here off the top of my head who actually thinks he's the best in the world.
But have you seen a person who you personally believe is the best in the world?
I'm turning into every corny old person I rolled my eyes at as a kid.
At a certain level, there really just isn't any comparison left. The very, very best artists in the world can express themselves almost perfectly, so it really does boil down to a matter of personal taste and whether one artist's choices reflect what you personally listen for.
So if they're the best, then what is their goal? Like, what is the best possible outcome for a world class pianist?
When Casals was 80 a reporter asked "why do you still practice?" His response was "I believe I'm making progress."
I almost typed that quote! But I was almost asleep, haha
Lots and lots of concerts and bigger and bigger audiences is a bottom line. Whether that means fame and monetary success or something more personal (Some believe in "serving" the music and composer, and digging for some sublime truth) is an individual thing.
Did you go to Juilliard to work at Juilliard?
I'm currently getting my master's there, and as part of my program (collaborative piano), they hired me as well. So I guess yes I did, kind of!
Hi, I'm a really late starter, I started when I was 18 but it's my objective to reach 10000 hours of practice by the time I'm 30. I'm now 25 with 6-7k hours and have been looking at music schools but I'm afraid I would get swamped by all the students that started at 10 or younger. Do you think I have any chance?
It's really hard to say without hearing you play. What does your teacher think?
So, I got into the Jacobs School of Music at IU, but I chose the University of Michigan to do Piano Performance because I want to explore my interests. Could you possibly tell me what to expect in an undergraduate piano education, and what to look out for when picking a school for graduate studies in music? Thanks!
Well, programs are very different at each school. Juilliard is very different from Eastman, where I did my undergrad. I would say to expect a lot more coursework than you would like to do, and thus a new need to restructure your practice habits. Personally, always put practice before homework. ;)
I've found that location is very important when it comes to grad school. I wanted a large city where I could meet lots of people and that had large audiences. New York is perfect for that and has several quality schools.
Guitarist here, why does the music community seem to shun electric guitars? I did my undergrad in classical playing, but I realized that wasn't for me. Had I decided to play electric guitar earlier, I would have been forced into a jazz program(no problem with that). I just wholly believe that not allowing the instrument to evolve stunts the evolution of music itself.
I'm getting a lot of questions about why x isn't classically accepted or why z isn't respected by the classical music community.
It's definitely an issue that "classical music community" is even a phrase. I live for classical music and of course it's my favorite genre of music, but let's not forget it's just that - a genre. You wouldn't expect a classical sound on a rock album and vice versa.
The fact that writing and performing classical music requires decades of training shouldn't give it a kind of ethical superiority compared to other genres of music. Sure, those years are definitely an investment to be proud of, but we aren't saints, nor do (I think) we want to be viewed as such.
I just wholly believe that not allowing the instrument to evolve stunts the evolution of music itself.
Interesting. I don't mean this in a confrontational way, but how is the electric guitar not allowed to "evolve"?
How does one get to Carnegie Hall?
I'm resisting every urge in my body to make a joke about public transportation, but I guess I already kind of did. Oops.
Lots of (smart) practice and taking the right auditions when you're ready!
For $15,000, you can rent Carnegie Hall. That's how high school bands get to play there; a travel group will rent the hall for a festival of some sort, and then high schools programs will each play short performances and share in the rental cost. The travel group makes some money, the high school students get to say they played Carnegie Hall...
Also this. Different times, these days!
How do international students practice? I doubt there're enough practice rooms since all of the students there are most likely practicing 8+ hourse a day.
I'd get my boyfriend to answer this (as he is Polish), but he's busy doing successful musician things in Europe at the moment. Psh.
Lots of the international students live in the residence hall, where there are a couple of practice rooms on every floor.
We do have a practice room shortage in the actual school during peak hours, but it's not impossible to get a room for at least a couple of hours per day if you're willing/able to wait around. Imo, practicing more than six hours a day is just impractical and unhealthy anyway (always quality over quantity).
How much devotion do you think the piano needs to be able to play moderately well? I love watching some people cover different songs, but I feel a bit discouraged knowing how long they've had to practice to get to that point when I have no experience myself.
That's hard to say - everyone learns at different speeds. I'd say at least an hour of concentrated practice every day is the standard. You can work you way up to that, of course, just like you would a workout routine.
The piano is the easiest instrument to just pick up and play. I mean not literally, the thing is pretty heavy. But you can literally make a sound at the push of a button.
You are totally awesome. It seems odd to an outsider to see how prodigiously skilled you are as a pianist, while wanting to be an opera coach. Are you planning on coaching from a piano?
Aww thank you so much! That's very kind of you.
I absolutely plan on coaching from the piano. The piano is my favorite 88-toothed automaton. I will never leave its side.
You know, I was at a real crossroads at the end of my undergrad degree. I had a solo career in my dreams for almost as long as I can remember, but more and more I was falling in love with making music with other people. That developed into falling in love with vocal music in particular, and in love with poetry, language, and helping people make music in a direct way. I'm really just doing what I love and regret absolutely nothing.
Fantabulous. I always dreamed of going to Juilliard as a cellist. Didn't turn out that way, but what you are doing/planning on sounds fantastic! Any plans to grab the baton when you bring in the orchestra for the show?
I took conducting for a semester in undergrad. Minus the clothes and hair, I looked and moved like Link from Wind Waker.
So I don't think that's in my future for the time being. ;)
Do you have a second favourite 88-toothed automaton?
An electric piano
Do you play for dance classes? What makes a class especially challenging?
I haven't played for the dance division (thus far), but some of my colleagues do. The shows here are gorgeous.
I'm really bad at following conductors, so large rehearsals are especially challenging for me. But legend has it that it's a learnable skill, so there's hope yet!
As someone who is completely untrained in this art, what queues could I pick up from the video you posted, that would show you're an above average player?
I wore a super sparkly and expensive dress
There's tons of detail work I could talk about for hours. But the bottom line really is, as corny as it sounds - if it makes you feel something, it's worth something.
Have you ever sung in a production about physics?
I feel like this is a reference I just whooshed. My bad!
I took voice lessons for a while. That was an amazing and terrifying experience. I have no idea how someone can stare an audience in the face and sing to them, since all my life I've treated them to a profile view. That takes guts.
I think he was referencing H, by Matt Curlee.
OH MY GOD. HI B** OFFICIAL
Were you at a Duane Reade yesterday?
new phone who dis
This is a general question, so please feel free to answer however you would like.
I got accepted to an undergrad program, transferring from a community college, that I don't feel like I am qualified for, and am totally terrified of either being driven into the ground, or laughed out of the department. I don't see how I could pass up the opportunity, but my brain keeps telling me I would be so much happier at one of the lesser known or less respected schools I got into.
Do you have any advice for convincing yourself that you are working amongst "fellow human beings", and not people who you will never be as good or smart as? Did you feel any unnatural or lingering nervousness when you heard you got accepted to Julliard, and if so, how did you overcome it?
P.S. I got into a Musicology program, which I understand is different from Performance, but I feel like we are all studying and love music, so the advice should be the same for both right?
The people that accepted you have been in the business for decades. They know what they're looking for. You'll regret what you didn't do, not what you did.
Of course I was petrified going to Juilliard. Everyone has that moment, and for some it's more than just a moment (sadly). But you have to trust that, even if you aren't at the polished perfect standard everyone else seems to be at, you have a special potential that was obvious to the people who admitted you into the program. And you owe it to yourself and to THEM to conserve your mental energy and spend it on realizing that potential instead of worrying whether or not you belong.
It's okay to freak out. Freak out a little bit. Soundproof rooms are great to just scream and swear in, but only do it for a couple of minutes. Then be cool and own your art!
Do you flip bacon?
I was actually making bacon two nights ago and thought of this very thing
What are some of your favourite piano pieces?
Any Brahms. The Brahms Intermezzi are life-changing. I'd also set aside an hour for each of the piano concertos.
I like my music like I like my men - a little inaccessible when you first meet, kind of intimidating, very emotional, totally annoying to figure out, and impossible to forget.
But God, so annoying to figure out.
Thanks for your AMA!
I've been a 'struggling' pianist for many, many years now and one of the things I have a hard time developing is solid technique. I can play pretty complicated things but I have a hard time staying relaxed while I play them.
Any tips/suggestions that even someone relatively experienced might not know? I understand it's not just about practicing scales over and over, nor is Hanon really accepted as the best go-to for technique practicing anymore anyway.
When you're practicing, what kinds of things are you focusing on to ensure proper form, or avoiding mistakes, etc?
Slow practice is never, ever a bad idea, nor is it ever done enough, by anyone. Practice in little chunks, and I mean little - a couple of bars at a time. Ask yourself if this really is the most efficient way to move, and analyze which muscles you're using and whether or not you have to. Check your shoulders and back to see if they're as relaxed as they can practically be. Check your bench height. Your arms should be parallel to the floor, and your wrists level. Look at your hands and arms often, and notice if anything seems to be at a sharp angle (sharp angles are, bar none, never natural).
Practicing in front of a mirror, or video recording yourself, are both invaluable teachers. You may not be in a place where you're anticipating switching teachers, but if your teacher is fine with it (always ask first!), I would recommend checking in with another teacher and getting their perspective on technique.
Hope this helps! I'm still a 'struggling' pianist myself. We're all getting there.
Pianist Angela Hewitt in a interview slow practice builds confidence, and yet should still stay intact. On the other hand, music should also be played quickly to exercise memorization and for efficiency.
What's your take on it?
It's definitely a healthy mixture of both. Your practice shouldn't be 100% under tempo, but at least 25% would be nice.
Favorite Beethoven sonata? Favorite jazz player?
Op. 111 and Jon Benjamin
Hello! Music student here (wind band side), hoping to be a teacher (high school hopefully to start, maybe work up to college when it's safe for grad school). It's a bit of a dream and maybe stretch to compose as a second job and I was curious what connections and successful methods you've seen in making your way up in that field? And any general composing tips? (I seem to be able to convey my general ideas very well, I seem to bog down on transitions and voice crossing issues as I try 'counterpuntal' lines occassionally)
I know absolutely nothing about composing, unfortunately!
But I do know that the most important thing is that when people hear/meet you, you must always present something you're proud of. Never accept a gig if you don't feel like you can fully represent the best thing about you. This goes counter to "omg EXPOSURE" but it's what makes people remember you in the long run.
Can you play some very hard ones like Lizst of Rachmaninoff's music?
Liszt and Rachmaninoff actually isn't the hardest music out there, technically speaking, so yes. Rachmaninoff's second sonata is a huge favorite of mine.
What's a juiliard?
it's where nerds go to make noise or move around or pretend to be other people
Sorry I don't know who you are. What do you do exactly? And are you well known?
I don't know who I am either. boooom
I press noise buttons for a living. The patterns are weird and complicated but it sounds okay. People give me money to do that.
My dog remembers me whenever I go home and sometimes he's so happy to see me that he pees. Does that count?
How do I pronounce pianist without it sounding like penis?
I mean I just say pee-ANN-ist because eff da popo
Are you rushing or are you dragging?
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