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Help with "priority organization"

Discussion in 'Tips, Tricks & Talk' started by Rohann van Rensburg, May 5, 2018.

  1. Hi folks,

    Every once in a while I'm struck by Ye Olde Existential Crisis, and start wondering about my future with composition. I started quite late (age 25), not having really written much of anything other than a really lame riff or two when I was 12 (on guitar). I took piano for a handful of months around age 7-8, and dabbled with drums, guitar lessons and not really putting any effort into music throughout my teen years. Started electric guitar and some very basic acoustic guitar at 24 again and practiced much more intently. I'm 28 now and have been playing piano again for the last year and a half, and have been taking classical/jazz lessons weekly for a few months.

    In any case -- I realize it's a late start into the composing game, and I'm at a disadvantage in the sense that I hadn't been very musically focused throughout my life compared to many others. Being a decent piano player, and altogether an actual musician, seems to be mandatory.

    While it's tempting to look for validation ("Can I make it?/Will I ever get a composing gig?/etc"), what's likely a more useful question is -- if I want to achieve compositional competency in my lifetime, viewing it as my main chosen "craft" and approaching it like an art form and pseudo-"if I can get gigs I'm passionate about I'll do them" media composer:
    Does anyone have any guiding advice for how to best spend my time?

    Currently, I have available to me (trying to be really realistic and take into account my personality flaws [distraction, mainly]) about 4.5h 4 days a week, 1.5h 2 days a week, and 2-3h 1 day a week. Grand total is about 21-23h a week.

    First off, is this enough time, or should I be re-prioritizing?

    How I typically spend time:
    4.5h day -- 20-30min piano technique, ~30min working on pieces, 45-2h on guitar (transcribing, technique and writing, depends on the day; 2h days are only if I get caught up with writing), 1-2h writing, 30m-1h transcribing. Sometimes that fluctuates depending on focus, though I'm working on being more organized in terms of what I'm studying and working on.
    2-3h day -- 20-30min piano tech, 30min pieces, 30min guitar, 30-45min transcribing, 30-1h writing. Depending on time available, guitar will typically get cut (I've been playing for around 4 years and daily practice seems less vital).
    1.5 day -- 20min piano, and interchange 30min guitar and transcription, usually leaving around 30-40min for writing.

    Times fluctuate depending on discipline, and sometimes focusing on a particular area will leave less time for others.
    TL;DR -- with about 21-23 hours a week availble:
    a) is this enough to become a competent (i.e. capable of delivering a decent video game or film score, in terms of skill) composer when one only started seriously at the age of 26?
    b) how should one prioritize one's time?

    I'm not interested in being the next Williams or writing incredible pieces of concert music, for what it's worth (right now anyway).

    What I have noticed:
    -I sense my lack of piano skill is holding me back from writing more interesting, cohesive pieces. I can start with a line on some instrument and compose in my DAW, but it usually suffers structurally and from knowing what's actually happening in the piece
    -Being spread out too much doesn't seem to be that helpful at times, though I suspect having more focused periods of working on a particular type of score/writing/analysis might help (i.e. studying module writing ala Herrmann).
  2. Every person is different and answering your questions is pretty hard for me, but perhaps I can offer some advice that may help you.

    How much time you spend isn't as important as how you approach it. What do you feel you're lacking? I know I'm not spending enough time practicing piano and even though my keyboard skills aren't very good, I don't have much trouble composing. Are you running into any walls while composing? What are they? Where are you with your composition? It's hard to offer any concrete advice without knowing where you are with your skill.

    For starters, post your piece, since composition is your primary goal.

    Transcription notwithstanding, my composition skills have improved the most by actually composing and doing the best I can at that moment, then posting the piece here. All advice from people here was helpful in one way or another and it's safe to say that Doug was of immense help. He commented on every one of my pieces and offered fantastic advice and commentary. I think he comments on most, if not all pieces that get posted here. You have a great opportunity of having someone like him giving you commentary and critique. I also learned a lot from reading various critique on other people's pieces. I assume Mike's currently neck deep in work so he's not commenting much, but there'll be Unleashed for Christmas probably. Speaking of Unleashed, these are also fantastic learning moments. You can hear pieces falling into the same trap and once you hear it 10 times and hear Mike repeating the same thing over and over again, you kinda pick up on the clue. There's 40+ hours of Mike commenting on pieces, and you can learn from every minute. I sent a piece back in July to Mike and got schooled hard. It was on air, too. I didn't write a single note for about 3 weeks (I was also on vacation at the time, but nevertheless), it sent me on a transcription spree and I had to rethink my entire approach to composition. Turns out it was exactly what I needed.

    I am absolutely 1000% sure that I wouldn't be at my current composition level if I never stuck up and finished that shitty piece back in July, never sent it to Mike, and never finished and posted all my pieces here because I thought they're not good enough. It would have been the same as I were to try and learn a new language but never actually attempt to communicate with anyone using it. I can't guarantee that you'll learn as much (or as little), but you'll definitely learn more than if you never post any of your music in the first place, that's for sure.
    Aaron Olson and Doug Gibson like this.
  3. Yes, and no. The book that opened my ears/eyes was simply called Structural Hearing by Felix Salzer. It's Schenkerian ...... and for me was the
    most helpful form of theory. Outside of NYC Schenkerian analysis gets a pretty bad rap. But then again, people use moveable do in schools outside of NYC...so.....

    This times 100. Of course I would comment on it when I can.

    Aside from the many things I have told you in the past, the thing that strikes me is you are thinking about too many things separately and not yet seeing
    how they integrate with each other.

    If you have ever seen Karate Kid, you are in "Wax on, Wax off mode, and going "What the hell does this have to do with my goals"
    That's normal. Chill out a little. Smoke some weed. (Actually I was talking to myself for the last sentence)

    Being serious now: Combine your writing/composing exercises with your transcribing. Make variations on what you are transcribing.
    This will also free you up a little from the time grid.

    Let's say you have 90 minutes for your longer days. You wrote "1-2h writing, 30m-1h transcribing"

    So you pick a song you really admire ( aka: 1399 dungeon "dilly, dilly" dirge)

    Say you spend 10-15 minutes transcribing a phrase. Now..... write your own variations on that phrase for 15 minutes.

    Perhaps you hear a phrase and you can't figure out how to transcribe a passage. Search for it on the piano, and notice if in your transcribing pursuit
    you come up with something..... that's not the recording, but that you like. Write it out. That counts for your time writing.

    Also...... know that writing 4-8 measures can be just as valuable as a whole piece. Don't get caught in the "bang it out" fetish.
    Better a mile deep and inch wide I say.

    I posted this a while back so I will re-do. Perhaps some day I make a video on transcribing and creating variations.

    I will, at some point, answer you in more detail about modules and Hermann.

    So below is an example of what I mean. Say we began and we transcribed the opening of the "Firebird" by Stravinsky.

    Just in case ...... here it is. No one will be fooled by our source. It's iconic.

    I outline below some possible ways to make variations. How you can include with your transcribing even further is where I suggest later on, mixing sources. So in this case I grabbed the opening to the Harry Potter, the sweeping strings. Then I mix Harry potter with the Firebird. So you can use each as a transcribing exercise and a composition exercise. This way you will also be less on the "clock" and hopefully more immersed. Nothing is better than not know where the time went because your were composing.

  4. My check is in the mail !

    (now where is my favorite coffee mug ? )
  5. Ahh, wonderful advice, both of you! Thank you kindly.

    Aaron: I think you're dead on. I've been rather cowardly about posting things, I think largely in part to knowing my pieces are missing something I don't yet have the skill to write. I've been thinking this has been holding me back for a while now, and have been trying to work on finishing pieces as of late. I'll make this a goal.

    Doug: I'm going to re-read and play with this a while to try and internalize it, thank you! While all these skills are obviously helping me head towards a goal, I do find myself attempting to "structure" it out a little too rigidly, at least in my mind, so being conscious of blending them is inspiring. I've been trying to keep better track of what I've been working on lately too, in order to focus on completing a "study" of sorts that involves transcription, analysis and composition related to specific ideas or pieces, largely thanks to your Herrmann post.

    Well I do live in BC, Canada, so I can't say I haven't heard this recommendation dozens of times before ;)

    Hahaha, I'll never live this down.
  6. Do you keep a practice journal ?

    Not only for planning, but keeping a log of what you actually practiced, and also just blank pages to free flow thoughts.

    One thing I use a journal for, that really can't be discussed in detail on a forum is the "creative" or what makes life interesting.
    Mine are so subjective and often just me rambling thoughts to myself. I will also include pictures or works of art I find interesting, or anything really
    that might provide inspiration for my music writing.
  7. I don't know why you're fixated on your age being a limiting factor.

    I like that your regimen addresses musicianship skills (ear training, performance proficiency) and transcription study, but there's a lot of skills to add and only so many hours in the day. @Rohann van Rensburg - Do you feel that film/games are the parts of the industry in which you most want to work? There's money in other sectors (published compositions, song writing, commissions, whatever). Also, there's lots of good advice above (and I have no idea how to make it in film/game), but a couple of general composition suggestions to add:
    • walk, drive, & do chores while singing
    • improvise.... a lot
    • record these musical snippets on your phone and transcribe them later, then catalog these ideas in your journal
    If you believe that you learn by doing, then consider applying for the numerous composition/commissioning contests that happen throughout the year. Don't expect to get feedback from the jury panel, but expect to learn about the process of composing, working under a deadline, setting your music to film or a fixed instrumentation, etc. There's usually low stakes ($25-$100 entry fees) and since you have some skin in the game, you may feel compelled to produce a product. The deliverables would typically include legible/playable score and parts, a recording of your score, and (if it is for film) the time code with a click track. You'd learn some invaluable skills about the process, how to better handle your DAW and notation software, and probably lots more. As long as you have some perspective about your desired outcomes, then it could be a rewarding experience. They typically have like a non-disclosure agreement about airing the film, but you could post your audio track/score here for feedback. There's similar events for chamber ensembles, orchestras, wind bands, chorus, professional instrument associations,...you name it. Eventually, you develop a portfolio of work (whether it was selected or not) and a more efficient workflow.
    Rohann van Rensburg likes this.
  8. You're so young you think 26 is a late start.

    Stop trying to work your personality flaws into your schedule. Eliminate the flaws. It's easy: just pretend to be somebody who's not easily distracted. Or lazy. Or easily discouraged. Or really, [insert flaw here]. Imagine that flawless persona, and act like they would. Fake it. It doesn't have to feel natural or "real," just do it anyway. Do it today and then again tomorrow and then again the next day until you die. Then, that's who you were. People who don't have discipline have discipline the second they start acting like a person with discipline. We are what we do.

    Your regimented scheduling, where you try to touch a little on several disciplines is not something I would permit if you were my apprentice. I would have you stay on a complex, single task and take it to completion. But this is largely academic anyway.

    We learn by doing. Stop talking and start posting pieces. Post bars; ideas. Take your mind out, let go of words and begin forcing yourself to learn the language of music through immersion - as though it were your only way of letting others know how you feel, what you want to say, and how to get what you want.
  9. If 26 is a late start, I'm fucked. I didn't get going until I was 29.

    As far as breaking things down, I used to have a very similar approach where I'd create different categories of things I needed to study. However, I found it largely unproductive. It didn't exist within a greater context and there were large gaps between learning something and using it. As a consequence I struggled to retain a what I learned and ended up retreading the same ground. Time was wasted.

    Now I've changed my approach and am having better success. Rather than viewing it as a bottom-up process, where I slowly build individual skills into (theoretically) a greater whole, I've inverted the process. I do two tasks - analyse music and write music. In order to complete those two tasks I deal with harmony, melody, bass, instrumentation, orchestration, piano work etc. It covers off on all the same bases as the previous bottom-up process, but simultaneously ticks many more: listening to more music, learning from other people's successes, writing more music, utilising what I've learned etc.

    So maybe you should try to achieve the same aims but with a different, more pragmatic approach to the division of labour.
    Rohann van Rensburg likes this.
  10. I can't agree more with Mike about we learn by doing. It's never too late. Start doing, and start listening. My dad has told me this ever since I asked him about music and Mike has expressed the same in many of his videos in a different text... "If you want to Output you need to Input". If you want to write music, you need to listen to music. Just do it.

    I was 11 when I started playing the piano and my dad started at 5. My dad refused to force me to learn music until I approached him on my own (i actually am still mad he did this because im sad I started so late lol). Since video games kind of took control of my young life (still does at times now), I approached him at 11 about playing piano. Only then, I approached him because I heard a solo piano track in a video game I was playing. I asked my dad that I wanted to play piano and that he teach me. I must've made my dad's day when I finally ask. Also, I didn't mention my dad is a music teacher and plays piano gigs almost every weekend, so I grew up listening to him play all the time -- but I didn't care because video games.

    Now, did my dad teach me piano? In retrospect the answer is no. I taught myself with a little guidance from my dad and a family piano chordal method created by my grandfather. My dad gave me the tools I needed to start learning and I was fascinated. In a few months time at my 8th grade graduation, I was performing the piano piece and my mother didn't even know I could play the piano until she came to the graduation (true story). Composition came rapidly after because I was inspired to write. Once again, my dad never taught me anything. My early compositions are hilarious but my dad never taught me how to compose or theory, he just kept telling me to listen. He would tell me go listen to this and that, go play this song and this... I remember specifically he mentioned about "Question and Answer, or call and response" about music -- I asked him what is that what does that mean, how do you write that? He said like always, go listen you'll get it what one day. It took me years but one day it literally clicked in my head. Overall, Mike is absolutely right in that if you just Do you'll learn. Its how we all learn. And I hope you just start messing around with stuff and be inspired to learn.

    I hope to hear your compositions and/ideas soon. We're all here to help each other. :D

    I believe thats why I came to Redbanned and started tuning into Mike's classes and lessons because if I could say anyone was like my father it would be Mike. I've learned alot from Mike's vids and only realized my dad has said the same things to me my whole life just in different words. Sometimes though you need to hear the same thing in a different context or different words for your brain to finally click and understand it. So thank you for teaching me Mike or Dad? lol. :D
    Rohann van Rensburg likes this.
  11. I immensely appreciate the replies, thank you all.

    I started doing that recently to be more honest with myself, as well as having a whiteboard of long and medium-term goals that I've been working backwards from. Good idea re: creative journal, I need to find where mine went (misplaced it in our move). I find it hard to contain ideas, inspirations, and pieces I intend to listen to, so perhaps writing it down vs. typing it will aid in that again.

    Good points; I'm going to have a look out for that more often. There have been some lovely people/conductors with local symphonies that have mentioned they would happily look over my works and even get certain pieces played, so I'm going to try and have that in place as a medium-term goal.
    In terms of film/games: quite honestly, I've financially planned to never make a penny off composing. My desire to hop in on game projects is purely out of my affection for the "genre". I just want to be good at writing music, everything else comes second (though I may well consider other things in the future). Good point re: staying immersed in music (I'm writing all these points down).
  12. #12 Rohann van Rensburg, May 9, 2018
    Last edited: May 9, 2018
    That's encouraging to hear!

    Thanks for this. It's funny how absurd something turns out to be when worded differently.

    I think this is actually rather important, as I'm not making the strides I'd like with my scheduling. Advice is greatly appreciated.
    So instead of attempting to hop between tasks (something I admittedly have a mentally difficult time doing, as opposed to getting into a groove with something for a few hours), would you instead recommend something like:
    "Transcribe/play (on piano) Psycho's Prelude, do a basic analysis of the modular approach (i.e. like in Doug's video), and write X amount of modules with variations", thereby covering all bases?
    I appreciate getting called out about posting pieces vs. talking; that will change.

    Thanks Sam, I'm finding myself running into the same issues. It feels scattered and difficult to stay focused on. Do you do something more akin to what I wrote above, i.e. combining a number of skills like Doug and Mike are recommending? I'm still going to write down what I practiced, but I'm going to avoid scheduling things in such a divided manner. I really should know better, considering my academic background, but it's funny how difficult it is to apply things to oneself.
  13. The two tasks I cycle through require me to use a range of skills, but the degree to which they're used depends on the piece. Same goes for the amount of time it takes to complete the task. Lately I've been working on excerpts from Holst's 'The Planets, and Brahms 'Gesang Der Parzen. So some parts are very quick because they're simple, but others are enormous, complex tutti chords.

    I'm still fine tuning what I analyse, but at the moment I'm borrowing from Samuel Adler and Peter Alexander. I'll look at what's happening harmonically and what the orchestration is (foreground, middleground, background). In order to understand the orchestration I'll often need to dive into instrumentation and look at what register/s the instruments are using, what the dynamics are etc.
    Rohann van Rensburg likes this.
  14. Good place to get over pride here, so here's a "first piece posted", if you will. Following Mike's advice and instead of posting some giant POS orchestral piece I conceived when I first started, I went for something awfully simple and subdued, so please pick away at any aspects, especially melody, harmony, etc. Super simple structure and orchestration. I want to get basics down, obviously. I've also noticed I have a hard time finishing pieces because I get "stuck", and as such have been trying to finish and salvage pieces I started a long time ago (this one is at least a year old, in terms of conception).

    Few things I've noticed: No intro, unsure if it needs one. Mix needs work but I didn't pay much attention to that yet (I also didn't bother fiddling with VI's for too long to get them to sound perfect, as will be evident). Counter-melodies are passable (at least I think so), but kind of lame in the C part , though it might just be hearing them too often. I didn't want to make it too busy, but some parts feel a little lacking in terms of colours. Also, I composed and mixed this on relatively detailed headphones (good ones, but still), and I think the lack of detail in some areas shows with monitors. I need to be careful with that and reference more, i.e. the music box in the A repetition is barely audible (orchestration issue, I think, more than anything), and the cello sounds "woofy" around 2:00.

    Aaron Venture likes this.
  15. First listen:

    Okay, got your melody on the second pass. I found it interesting and I think I should've gotten it on the first pass. Why is it "muted"? Bring it out!

    Vary your arpeggio. Jump the step up or down, switch direction, add a grace note. That's the easiest, simplest and most instantly gratifying way to have a development when an arp like that is your backbone. From 1:00 onward, take some of the variation ideas you just "teased" and make it permanent, then build on that. Then start adding variation to this part too after some time.

    1:23 to 1:28 — ritandando to half the tempo. Then just resume normally for the flute part. Simple and effective.

    Now you let the woodwinds take your melody. But it actually sounds simplified to me. That's fine, but you either need a more "soloistic" passage (with all the cool shit great solo lines have) or you need a lot of interesting counterpoint. If it were me, here off the top of my head, I'd do the relaxed flute melody with cool counterpoint first, then have the clarinet go wild and keep the counterpoint tamed, but still present.

    2:11 — we return to your arpeggio. Pick some of the variations you've made to your "variated" arpeggio and make it permanent. These variations don't have to be anything drastic. Could be just two descending 16th notes (given that you perceive the piece as 3/4) on the top of the last note of arpeggio figure. Whatever. Have it still be recognizable as the arpeggio you opened with, just a different version.

    Add some more variation to your melody in this part.

    At 2:55 I'd slow down to half the tempo again and play slightly more forcefully, then just end the piece at that - at half tempo.

    You're doing fine, mate :D
  16. Bravo for posting a piece.

    See..... I told you. You need someone to tell you when to shut the fuck up and get back to writing music.

    It's really nice ! Well.... I'll break your balls in a minute, but for now let's bask in your success. It has already a harmonic
    sophistication, and show the emergence of a thoughtful composer. It also, thankfully, was not a axe murderer journey into 1399 - dilly, dilly - dungeons.

    So write and post more.

    I don't know, but you don't have a opening yet. Your pacing is all off here. The spot at 2:14.....that's your opening texture.

    I am also, not sure of your mental image for the final version. Are you thinking full orchestra, or is this more a piano/string thing?

    Either way .... let's look at some examples. If orchestral then the color palette available is going to help with forward motion.

    Think about "timbre as a structural device". Who enters/exits when and where are mental landmarks in piece. People response to change, so be careful that your rate of change is not strangling your form.

    With steady ostinato pieces they can easily become a flat-land.
    Differentiating sections is needed to create a sense of journey.
    Key (modulation) and texture are, perhaps, the most important differentiators of form.

    Let's look at steady ostinato pieces

    If going for more of a chamber music vibe:

    Both examples, go all in on their idea. Remember "Anything worth doing is worth over-doing". While it sound pretty, I don't get the string/woodwind part from 1:30 to 2:10. It sort of goes fleeting by never to return.

    If this was a longer form (say film or opera) and other musical moments are in our ear than it could work. Here.....not so much.

    Remember musical form is about memory and expectation. Since I have no memory of that woodwind/string moment I was neither expecting it, nor did it really have any meaning.

    I'll leave it here. There is gold in them hills. The harmonies are beautiful and you have the makings of a really nice piece.

    Great to see you post your music
  17. FYI, the Hillary Hahn link did not work for me. This one might work. Hillary Hahn - always stunning.

    While I'm here. This is one of my favs from her Encores album. An inspired composition by Anton Garcia. Sorry for the slight diversion from Rohann's thread.

  18. #18 Rohann van Rensburg, Jun 20, 2018
    Last edited: Jun 20, 2018
    Thanks a bunch, all! This has been immensely encouraging, and helpful. Have been mulling over your input and ideas, and will try them out while retaining the kind of feel I was going for.

    @Aaron Venture : Thanks for the suggestions! I'll try these out -- while obvious (as good ideas often tend to be), including variations into the harmony and making them permanent is a good idea. I was getting bored with the pattern, but I'll see if I can retain a "dreamy", sort of "safe" feeling while making it more interesting.

    Yeah basically every day. My wife has been instrumental (ba-dum-tsh) in helping me with that too (on my request, she's quite gracious). I've mostly given up reading lately, in favour of dedicating 45 min a day to listening to music. Eventually I'll be completely mute, if all goes according to plan.

    Thank you! That really means a lot, this has been hugely encouraging and inspiring. I'm trying to write every day, but often find myself getting stuck with ideas, which is why I've been taking jazz piano lessons and trying to learn more pieces over the last few months. I'll take up Mike's advice and just post ideas and snippets too, as I'm sure it will help me get unstuck.

    Oh and I find myself frequently waffling between overly-vulnerable and 1399-called-they-want-their-beheadings-back in my pieces. I'm trying to transcribe more major-sounding pieces as I feel inept when trying to compose in a major key, for some reason. Don't worry, the axe-murderer journeys are coming ;), but I think getting a better handle on basic tonal writing will serve me better for the time being.

    That should have been obvious, I'll play with that.

    I'm thinking more hyper-simple -- piano and a few solo instruments, as well as ornaments and textures. The atmosphere's based around a simple character in a story I tell to my daughter.

    Ah, good points! I'll have to stew on this. I modulated more than I expected, I think in order to attempt to keep it interesting. Did you find any jarring/are there enough to maintain interest?

    The first piece is a great example for orchestra -- I hear the ostinato being passed around from section to section, as well as the melody, and the textures provide interesting, moving atmosphere.

    Second piece, while obviously a different mood, gets a bit more at what I was after.

    Trying to analyze the harmony functionally but I'm too slow and I'm not sure it's a helpful exercise the way I'm doing it. Beautiful song though, and the harmonic structure gives me ideas I'll play with.

    Hmm, good point. I think I wanted something with sustained notes continuing a sort-of variation on the melody and providing some "counterpoint", having the song sort of "blossom out" slightly, but it's obviously sitting in the middle with no reference in the beginning or end. Any ideas on how to capture this idea in a less ham-fisted manner? Tease woodwinds at the beginning/cut them out entirely? Let a flute take the melody at the end, etc?
    Thank you! And a sincere thanks for your help over the months; I keep feeling like I'm going to get a bill in the mail at some point.

    Thank you! And not at all, new and related music is never a diversion!
    Aaron Venture likes this.
  19. Just Karma. Return the favor when I post a piece, or others here on the forum do.

    You are on the right track here. First...... just look at duration. As of now they "photo-bomb" the piece and are only there for
    about 30. Also..... they are all there. It's like a party bus passed by.

    It could be any, or all of the suggestions you mentioned.

    Since it is more subtle, chamber music......... you might dig one of these. Each are pretty simple but have a nice mood to them
    that does not feel --- to me at least - too distant from the vibe/gist you are after. (* I am not suggesting you do any of the harmonic moves..... this is only in regards to instrumentation and who enters/exists our ears.....stay true to your piece and your harmonies)

  20. #20 Rohann van Rensburg, Jun 21, 2018
    Last edited: Jun 21, 2018
    I most certainly will! Although I would hesitate to comment on a piece by someone of your or other "senior members"' caliber (not blowing smoke).

    Hahaha such a vivid and effective way of describing the problem. Thank you. I can picture the piano getting irritated and wishing it lived in a quieter neighborhood.
    Thanks for these; not just for the ideas, but for new music in general! Lovely pieces.

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