July 30, 2010 at 01:33 AM ·

So I've done a fair bit of reading on some of the discussions here (the technique ones are really helpful)...and I've seen a lot of discussions that are centered around "which piece should I do next" or "which piece is harder", etc. Whenever pieces like the Sibelius VC or any Mozart come up, they're always referred to as harder because of the "musicality" (is that a word?) that's needed to perform those pieces. Well, why aren't the technically difficult pieces (Paganini for example) considered tougher? I realize they're considered "showpiece pieces" or whatever, but has anyone ever really tried to study them and play them with the same musical depth as Sibelius or other pieces like that?

I guess what I'm trying to say is, why are some less technically challenging pieces considered more difficult because of the musicality required to perform them? Why doesn't that same principle apply to the (technically) virtuosic pieces; wouldn't it be even more difficult to play technically challenging pieces with the same amount of depth that "musically challenging" pieces are performed with?

If I had to answer my own question I'd guess that there's more emotion to be conveyed in Sibelius than the 24 Caprices - but still, this whole idea of a piece being more difficult in terms of "musical depth" is still a little confusing to me. I'm not trying to make a point here, I'm actually asking what it is that makes a piece harder because of a principle that seems like it should be applied to any piece of music no matter how virtuosic or otherwise. I understand what "musical depth" is (well, to the extent that an 18 year old can understand it anyway), I just don't understand how it can be used as a criteria in judging a piece's relative difficulty when it seems like we should be playing every piece with as much depth as we possibly can.

Feel free to criticize me and call me stupid, I don't mind as long as the insults come with an answer :)

Replies (36)

July 30, 2010 at 09:56 AM ·


actually I think the points you raise are very good.  Not so simple to answer either.

One could provide quite objective support for the idea that the technical difficulty of music can be quite easily understood by its chronological position.That is,  consider the exam requirements of decenr conservatoires  I can only cite the RCM but the exams went year one Bach, year 2 Mozart, year three romantic,   year four recital.   That, unintentially perhaps, sends quite a specific message to my mind.  Then, the standard rrequirements for getting in an orchestra often include Mozart for rank and file and then Mozart plus Romantic concerto for preumanly more demanding front desk positions (;););))!   

I suppose that one reason baroque is not included is that it is too problematic interms of how it should be done.

But this doesn`t really answer what you are asking.  Heifetz has said both in interviews and anecdotally that the Beethoven cocnerto and the Mozart present the most difficulties but he never really specified what.    I think that is worth mulling over.  One thing I have notice dover the years is that some of the brightest and best performers come unstuck -technically- in Mozart.  Not so thta you would be anyting les sthan impressed overall but it can be quite shocking.  One of the most unpredictable openings techncially is Mozart 4.  Then the probem with these errors is that somehow the transparency of Mozart tends to magnify the error whereas mising a few notes in passages where frankly te violin cannot be heard to well (cf Brahms cocnerto) makes no dfference whatsoever.   I think if one was going to bring every note of the Tchaikovsky,  Paginini or Sibelius up to the same precision equired in Mozart it would be a tall order.  A lot of players are nervous of doing Mozart and with good reason.

For some reason with Mozart one has to balance the relationship between all the notes, and the spaces between the notes perfectly to play it as one would wish.  this ideal can only be found by singing and translating that singing into playing, even assuming one can objectivley decide what one has produced -is- very hard.  It would nt be necessary to sing every note of a Paginin cocnerto to figure out what to do with every phrase.  The sheer number of notes makes the exercise redundant.  It is the reductionsim of Mozart which makes it necessary to know and produce exactly what you want.  This problem is increased b the realization that it is actually music caught between the violin,  opera and the piano.  With the bigger works one can get away with jut playing the violin, as it were.

But then this presupposes a very high level of tehcnique in the first place of course!   Perhaps at the end of the day excellent Mozart reuqires a manipulation of the bow in order to reproduce aspects of speech and singing wich are not commonly thought about.  A trend that has been going on from Flesch`s time and before to strongly emphasiz eleft hand technique coupled with good control of consistent bow speed , a smooth change and not a lot else leaves Mozart stuck in a lmbo and these kinds of problems can be classified a stechniqcal demands or deficiencies.  It may just be looking at the same object from a somewhat differnet perspective.





July 30, 2010 at 12:21 PM ·

Interesting topic - and lovely reply Buri.

Musicallity to me has two main and very different contexts: depicting the piece as the composer intended, that is capturing the message s/he was trying to get accross and projecting the instrumentalists personal read of the music.  As such, musicallity includes but goes beyond interpretation and is really what makes it worthwhile and engaging to listen to the piece.

Perhaps one way to define it is to compare a piece played as a WAV file with one by a very able performer.  Excepting of course, that the latter can make a technical mistake whereas the former may be perfect, the difference - the reason you hang on the note by the latter is musicallity to my mind.

July 30, 2010 at 01:57 PM ·

re   Mozart concerto #4:  I knew many people who worked on this piece when I was in high school & college, and mentally I put them into two groups:  (1) those who could play those first 4 measures in tune, and (2) those who could play them without scratching.  Hardly anyone ever made it into both categories.  (Of course many people never made it into either one :P) 

A friend of mine, a soprano, studied with a famous voice teacher who would never let his students sing either "Porgi amor" (from The Marriage of Figaro) or "Ach, ich fuhl's" (from the Magic Flute) in a contest or audition, because they are too difficult -- the slightest flaw in your sound production is exposed mercilessly, and yet if you concentrate only on technique, the music is boring.

Mozart is really hard.


I think different pieces have different messages, or goals.  For some pieces (a lot of the Paganini/Sarasate/etc. showpieces for example), the message is "look at what I can do!" and the excitement of watching a performer actually pull off all those tricks before your very eyes is pretty much the whole point of the piece.  Your job as performer is to perform all those tricks.  Sometimes performers choose to make it look like something easy that they're just tossing off (Perlman), or something difficult that they're nailing (Salerno-Sonnenberg).  Either way it can be tremendously exciting to watch it happen.

For other pieces (most music that is not a showpiece), the composer is trying to put thoughts or emotions into music, and your job as the performer is to convey to the audience your idea of what those thoughts or emotions are. 

My view is: how much meaning you can find in a piece of music + how well  you can convey that meaning to listeners = musicality.

Come to think of it, even with showpieces that is the important thing.  If the main point of the piece is "Look at what I can do! Woo hoo, this is fun!" and you go out and give the audience the message "This is really hard - I hope I don't mess up," then you haven't really done full justice to the piece no matter how well you actually nail the notes.

On the other hand, if you hear someone play the Beethoven concerto and they have no interest in smooth bowing or solid intonation, then they're not really doing full justice to the piece no matter how profound their ideas were.

Regarding the two categories at the beginning of this post -- I guess there is a third category:  those who can play in tune, not scratch, and not sound like robots.  Good luck to everyone on getting into that category!

July 30, 2010 at 03:12 PM ·

Say this phrase ;

The rains in Spain falls mainly on the plains ;

  Sorry you sound like a metronome ; now sing it :

The r-a-i-n-s in S-p-a-i-n falls maainly on the Pil-lains 

By George you've got it.  By Jove you're musical !

but please improve you're diction

July 30, 2010 at 04:57 PM ·

My good man:

I doo believe it should be: The rain in spain falls mainly on the plain.

And if you have the correct Queen's English diction the spoken version is far more pleasant to the ear than the sung one (an abonination, what would Victoria have said).

And now I'll return to the Manor...  Have a lovely day.

July 30, 2010 at 05:18 PM ·

Elise I am not amused. 

July 30, 2010 at 05:29 PM ·

Buri: So would it be okay to assume that musicality is largely dependent on the composer's intentions (in addition to the player's own ability to convey emotion) when writing a piece? If that is the case, then this whole thing makes a lot more sense. Also, I've never thought of Mozart in that way. I know his pieces require tremendous control especially when it comes to bowing, but I've never given that much thought - thanks for bringing that to my attention as well! I think that with the composer's intent in mind, the whole idea of judging a piece's difficulty in terms of musicality makes a lot more sense for me :)

Elise: I've never looked at musicality from a composer's point of view, I've always thought of it as something that belonged to and was solely the responsibility of the performer. When you say WAV file vs. an able performer, do you mean an artificial recording of a piece versus a performer recording it (both audio-only), or do you mean listening to a piece by a performer vs. watching that performer playing the piece? On that note, is it concieveable to think of musicality in a visual sense as well as an auditory sense? I mean, do you think that the visual aspect of a performance contributes to musicality? Haha, I'm just rambling now...

Bruce: Your comment about how different violinists perform showpieces is interesting, I feel like truly musical performances are seen as much as they are heard. As an aside, wouldn't intonation and scratching with the bow both fall under technique in a sense? Or would scratching be considered a musical aspect as well? I don't know, sometimes (for me) the line between technique and musicality blurs...

And Dion, I'll gladly improve my diction, if you improve *your* grammar. :)

July 30, 2010 at 06:26 PM ·

 I'm getting more unamused.

July 30, 2010 at 06:57 PM ·

Very good and interesting replies from everyone, even from Dion, who has gone in the huff :) :) I believe that good interpretation and musicality is always reducable to the level of the technical ability of the player - in other words, good musicality is almost totally dependent on good technique. How can it be any other way? Musicality (of the piece being played), expression, dynamics, playing with feeling, all the nuances, subtleties - they are all reducable to, dependent on, and are the result of the level of technical skill, in my book.


July 30, 2010 at 08:05 PM ·


I think Dion is right about `plains`



July 30, 2010 at 10:33 PM ·

 And where are those soddy plains?  In Spain in Spain

July 30, 2010 at 11:50 PM ·

 this brings back memories of our year 7 music teacher, who was so desperate to be cultured she had named her children Ophelia and Loch Byron.  This at Woy Woy High School, which enjoyed the reputation for the daggiest and dumbest school population in all of NSW.  Teachers fought tooth and nail to get transferred out. We heard their peers offering sympathy when we atended excursions to Sydney. the memories of that poor woman's horrified face as we,with our very flat vowels, gave her back 

"Thuhraiayn in Spaiayn falls maiaynly on thuh  plaiayn" .... her saying "round, look at my mouth, is it  flat  or round, do what I'm doing!" 

July 31, 2010 at 12:00 AM ·

"And now I'll return to the Manor...  Have a lovely day."

Thank you, Milady.

July 31, 2010 at 02:49 AM ·

As I remember it, the RAIN rhymes with SPAIN rhymes with PLAIN.  And the verb was "stays," not "falls."  I don't know (a) if I'm right, or (b) if the musical is different from the original play.

[EDIT:  I found it on YouTube, with lyrics.  However, there is a transcription error at 0:17.  The words say "plains" but you can clearly hear her say "plain." ]

Ashwin:  yes, I consider the ability to play in tune and the ability to avoid scratching with the bow to be matters of technique.  If someone thinks the opening of Mozart #4 sounds better with scratching, then it becomes a question of taste or judgment.

I always thought Kyung-Wha Chung was a great example of someone who made musical decisions about when, whether, and how much to scratch.  Her Lalo, Prokofiev and Stravinsky recordings are very scratchy; her Bach, Beethoven and Elgar are not.  (I <3 KWC)


July 31, 2010 at 07:38 AM ·

I distain 'plains', its against the main grain and a pain and drain even on the sane brain.

The phrase was invented by a certain Mr. Pascal who wrote My Fair Lady which was:

"The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain"  so I am afraid I did make a small error in wording (in not on).  However, on the main point, it can be clearly seen to the most critical and discerning eye that 'plain' is singular.  

I maintain.

July 31, 2010 at 09:38 AM ·

There was a young lady from Toronto 

Whose retorts were quick, fast and pronto,

She was in such pain

To rhyme plain with Spain

That she forgot music is a rhythmic appassionato.

July 31, 2010 at 09:45 AM ·

 fur Elise

>a small error in wording (in not on). 

On such fundamental errors whole worlds collapse.  Consider the following: one is flying at 20 000 meters. Would you rather be `in` or `on` the plane?



August 6, 2010 at 08:05 PM ·

 Any person who wants to know what musicality is should listen to Evelyn Glennie the worlds greatest percussionist. She is totally deaf, utterly amazing and no violinist can even be compared to her. I will vote for her as the musician of the 20th century. She hears through vibrations but her timing is immaculate, her sound color is astounding. I am totally in awe.

August 7, 2010 at 12:14 AM ·


John ,  my view of Scheherzade has a lot more to d with her hips than a camel. Seems I enjoy my music more than you.....

I had a -really- weird experience once. I was cocnertmaster of a very good amateur orchestra here and it was about the second rehearsal of the orchestral version of Carmen(never a good time...).  We got to the slow,  sexy dance thinngy with that cello undulation and it just sounded so awful I stopped the rehearsal and suggested we sounded like a duck quacking on a pond. Those guys are used to me so it was actually amusing rather than  rude.  I then went on to explain what kind of image might be used with some very unJapanes ereferneces to spllt skirts, little drops of sweat running into various places and so on.  Everyone seemed to find this rather interesting and we decided to attack the piece again with renewed aplomb.

Well,  I don`t know about this Jungian stuff but after about 6 bars I suddenly got an incredibly vivid image in my mind which really shook me.  Yes,  it was a starry night on amountain,  with drinking and campfire and so forth.   But the lady dancing around the fire was wearing a kimono and doing a traditional Japanese dance.  It was erotic but in te Japanese snese in which concealing rather than flaunting is used.  The orchestra never managed to move beyond that culture based sound ut it amazes me to this day how powerful a collective consciousmness can create and project an image.



August 7, 2010 at 01:27 AM ·

I have always found that musicality is the equivalent of "good taste" and the skill to apply that taste to the piece you are playing. Taste is not hard to "learn" but it might take some time. Find an expert in the style you are interested in and let him point out the recordings which are considered "good" (tasteful) based on the conventions of that music developed over decades. Be sure to understand what exactly makes something sound good.

Then it's time to start working on applying your developed taste on music and voila: you're a musical player (in that style/piece). This needs to be done for every style/piece you want to play "properly"! 

August 7, 2010 at 02:08 AM ·

Musicality to me has no images and no taste.  its the raw expression through my body of what the music means to me.  Its letting your subconscious listen to the composer and talk through her/his notes.  There is nothing 'meditated' about it - I hear my own 'musicallity' the same moment the listener does. 

I actually don't believe it can be taught - you can find your musicallity by removing other garbage, but you can't truly 'learn' it.  That said, I suppose everyone has musicallity in them - but its not always something anyone else wants to be exposed to! 

The problem with classical music is that too often the training process does not value or work towards exposing a musicians intrinsic musicallity - its much easier and quantifiable to teach technique.  In no way is this unique to music - we have the same problem in science where the training, which focuses on rational thought and technique, first filters out the creative individuals (they don't necessarily get high grades) and the creativity in each person (its not a trait that is valued).

August 7, 2010 at 02:19 AM ·

Hi, I might be totally biaised in my musical analysis because it eliminates many valuable versions right away but when I listen to a same piece from various violinists, for me, musicality is this and I eveluate it that way: (and this since my violin beginning in my late teens. Before even knowing any names of soloists and hearing recordings and concerts.)  I just want to mention though that I enjoy any performances although I have my musical tastes.  I could never complain of anyone because I couldn't even play what they play myself!!!

- Thick juicy sound. I want to hear a cake with 1 inch of icing on top of it, not two millimeters (this is my image of the situation!)  In other words, the cake must not be dry...  I often hear performers who think they put much icing on the cake but they just force the sound out in the most narrow and scratchy version possible.  I don't mind at all scratches but they have to be from something overpowerful that needs to be tamed not by someone alrady tamed who tries to play the powerful and chokes is/her violin. 

- big big dynamic range.  The difference between pp and ff must be absoluntly faboulous to really make me go crazy about a performance...

- Wide relaxed vibratos everywhere. I don't like "goat" or narrow vibrato sound.  Even in pp, I like something that is not too floating. 

- Character!  If it sounds without a quite strong direction and articulation, I find that it seems unsure and I get bored fast. 

- dark tone


When I heard famous violinists for the first time, I naturally almost always perfered versions of concertos and things from Oistrakh, Perlman etc  (or any violinist in that sound family although each one sounds unique within this type of sound)   I think I don't like anything that sounds too superficial. 

Odd thing, I really don't need an image in my head.  If these sound characteristics are there, my ears will go crazy and I will not even have time to think of any mental image. I will rather focus on, wwwwooooowwwww that is beautiful! (lol)  Perhaps this is also why I absoluntly don't care about the visual aspect of the performance: performer's look or facial expressions, color of the hall etc.  On the contrary, I see too much theatral gestures as a distraction from the music and I dislike it.  If I go to a live concert, the only thing I focus on is sound.  I never understood those who listen to different violinists at home than the ones they go see live. But I'm a visual learner at school, how weird???   

Well, it's very interesting to see what everyone sees or hears as musicality!  Very wide to not say wilde range and variety of responses!


August 7, 2010 at 02:24 AM ·

Oh Elise that I agree for science...  So true that they filter creativity to the profit of natural "calculators" nerds.

A good scientist must be a nerd calculator combined with an artistic and creative thinking.  Unfourtunately, those highly complex individuals sometimes need more adapted learning to fulfill their creativity. 

My violin teacher told me that some of the great composers weren't accepted in high standard music schools etc.  I don't know who she was talking about.  Just as an example, Fritz Kreisler was refused in the Vienna symphony and we all know that he could have beaten everyone there...  Refusing Kreisler would be like refusing Heifetzh or Oistrakh in a symphony... pure nonsense!    Why did they didn't see his incredible talent?  Maybe he was more complex than "play a tune for Mr. to get hired and play it as everyone usually does it" ?  (this last sentence is just a speculation from me!)

This Kreisler info comes from a bio that I read.  (if they say right)

August 7, 2010 at 06:16 AM ·

 @Anne-Marie ;

A good soloist is not necessarily a good orchestra player and vice versa. There are other skills involved as any symphony player will tell you.  Are they good team players, can they take the regimen and bickering?   There are always urban legends of who gets refused, but nobody asks the questions When and Why.  Frustrated soloists may not have the reading skills of  top symphony players as Menuhin attested in one of his books. Or are they all frustrated soloists?

August 7, 2010 at 09:46 AM ·

Dion - I had a topic on that earlier (and I think there was one that predated mine too),  That whether there are personal preferences - and undoubtedly natural skills too - that make us want to play solo, in chamber or in a large group.  I suppose thats why all variations still exist! 

What I hadn't thought about was the different forms of musicallity that are required - when we use the term I think most of us (or maybe this is a personal bias) think of a soloist but obviously musicality is an integral part of chamber music.  Is it also a part of orchestra playing?  Other, that is, than for the conductor and leads of each section?  Or is the whole point of an orchestra for each musician to stay thier individual musicallity for the whole sound (ie ideally the sound in the conductor's head)?

August 7, 2010 at 10:16 AM ·


Its letting your subconscious listen to the composer and talk through her/his notes. There is nothing 'meditated' about it - I hear my own 'musicality' the same moment the listener does.

I understand why you or someone else believes this to be true but there's a big problem with this concept: if you don't know the conventions of the music - i.e. what is necessary (the bare minimum) for the music to be true to sound, style and form - you have a very slim chance to be playing the music in a musical way or what others would call "musical".

A very good example are the tango CDs by Gidon Kremer. I think we can all agree he is phenomenal violinist and very musical in most of the stuff he's playing. His tango playing however is terrible, simply because he doesn't know the conventions of this particular style or maybe he knew them but wasn't able yet to apply them correctly. This is why you will not find any Argentineans or tango experts who like those CDs. People who like them probably do not know the conventions either.

I might be able to sight read a Chinese tune ("Han" music for example) and play it with a good tone and rhythm according to western conventions but without the help of someone who truly knows that music I have no clue whether or not I'm playing that piece correctly or what a Chinese musician might call "musical".


August 7, 2010 at 10:41 AM ·

Elise I am philosophically challenged, I can only perceive musicality when a performance "moves"  me. I must feel it in my DNA, the reason I do not know why. I can spot exceptional talent but I also know what miraculous talent is, as my post on Evelyn Glennie shows. Evelyn playing Czardas by Monti is a revelation in its self. She commissions more works from composers than any classical performer alive, she performs her own compositions, she is beyond phenomenal, she is supernatural. And she is totally deaf.

August 7, 2010 at 05:57 PM ·

@ Dion. I am aware of what you told since I have heard this too from others.  It was maybe a bad example! Sorry...

Just as amateurs, me and my sister (when she played clarinet in her teens) were different. I have been more exposed to solo, she has been more exposed to bands. I love solo more, she loves bands more.  Guess what??? She have always been better in maths than me but I am better in languages. Not surprizing...   I have more ear too so I have always memorized things the fastest possible to interpret them.  I'm a terrible sigh reader and she would have been a very good sigh reader if she would have continu her clarinet.  Despite beeing twins, our brains were clearly the opposite for music.

Interesting point, 


August 7, 2010 at 06:15 PM ·

Cristiann wrote:


Its letting your subconscious listen to the composer and talk through her/his notes. There is nothing 'meditated' about it - I hear my own 'musicality' the same moment the listener does.

I understand why you or someone else believes this to be true but there's a big problem with this concept: if you don't know the conventions of the music - i.e. what is necessary (the bare minimum) for the music to be true to sound, style and form - you have a very slim chance to be playing the music in a musical way or what others would call "musical"."

I don't see the contradiction.  I did not say that what comes out of me is uninfluenced by whats in my brain, just by what is in my conscious brain.

To turn this around, each time you play a note do you think how the composer/era would have liked it played?  surely not.  By past knowledge and even more so, by listening to this piece and related ones you establish an understaning that serves as a guide/paintbox/filter (call it what you will) to how you play the piece.

That is how it is for me at least.  And its true whether I'm playing Handel or singing 'The Everley Brothers" greatest hits :D

August 7, 2010 at 06:26 PM ·

@ Dion:  "Elise I am philosophically challenged, I can only perceive musicality when a performance "moves"  me. I must feel it in my DNA, the reason I do not know why. I can spot exceptional talent but I also know what miraculous talent is, as my post on Evelyn Glennie shows. Evelyn playing Czardas by Monti is a revelation in its self. She commissions more works from composers than any classical performer alive, she performs her own compositions, she is beyond phenomenal, she is supernatural. And she is totally deaf."

I just looked her up and yes, she is described as 'profoundly deaf' and that she feels sounds through other parts of her body - like the soles of her feet.  However, its particularly signifincant that she was not born deaf but lost her hearing to a childhood disease.  Thus, she at least knows what sound is to the hearing ear.  I wonder if she could have been as successful if she had never heard...

On the other point, isn't that the only sincere measure of musicality - if it moves you?  How can one say something is musical if there is no inner reaction?  ]I use 'reaction' rather than 'stirring' because some playing may have as its musicallity to be bland ;) ]  Its the opposite a bit like saying 'even though the food was tasteless it was delicious'. 

August 7, 2010 at 09:16 PM ·

 @Elise on Dame Evelyn Glennie ;

It is significant that she was not born profoundly deaf but through illness became so at 12 years old. Her speech would have been severely affected which would have made essential communication very difficult in the music world. She also started with the mouth organ an the clarinet so she had a musical back ground although she only switched to percussion after illness. Perhaps because the vibrations are stronger in percussion. She must have exceptional sensitive feet and awareness of vibrations to play with groups and orchestras.

Her awards list is impressive as the 15 honorary doctorates will attest.


August 8, 2010 at 10:34 PM ·

There's a photo of Heifetz that I saw a few years ago, in a book.  It's stayed in my memory.  He had a frame on the wall, and in it, the words: "Where's the Melody?".

I think that if you really listen to a lot of the current violin soloists, you'll see how many of them just don't get the melody. And there are those that do.



August 9, 2010 at 07:05 AM ·

 Melody is the foster child of the Classical family. She is only seen at the table when all the other children have been fed. Luckily Tchaikovsky treated her as one of his own.

Melodic line needs talent to write and play. 

August 9, 2010 at 08:54 AM ·

 Well on a strictly technical level musicality = interpretation.  How accurately do you interpret the markings on the page and reproduce (to the best of your ability) what the composer intended?  Then on top of that how can you add your own personal touch without detracted anything from the composer's intention?  To my understanding that's the short-answer definition of musicality.

August 9, 2010 at 09:03 AM ·

I don't think there is a single definition to 'musicality'.  A person who played Mozart as Mozart intended with exactly the degree of personal creativity and expression that was acceptable at the time would indeed be very musical.  On the other hand someone that took the same piece as inspiration for a spectacular blue-grass recital, according to the limits of this genre of music is, to my mind, being just (and in some respects maybe even more) musical. 

Seems to me that musicallity has to be in the heart of the player and also in the ear of the listener. 

August 9, 2010 at 09:11 AM ·

@ I agree with Elise. Otherwise there would not be need for "bribers" during concerts, to feed the public.

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