musings of a professional bassoonist

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dead Elvis postmortem

 

Elvis demonstrating the art of  brooding
What a letdown! Now that my performances of Michael Daugherty's Dead Elvis are finished, I'm facing the inevitable void. (By the way, I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, and have now moved on from impersonating Elvis to impersonating an old monk on a horse in Strauss's Don Quixote.) Months of preparation, followed by four short days of rehearsals and performances, are over. Dead Elvis was my reason for being for a long time. Now what??

I recall a non-musician friend telling me once that musicians are lucky because we regularly experience completion of our "projects". Well, maybe so, and while there's no denying the fact that it's a relief to finish the final performance, it's still disappointing to have all of the excitement come to an end. Perhaps I'll be able to cheer myself up by reviewing my Dead Elvis experience....

Memorize first; practice later

In an earlier post I explained the unusual process I used for memorizing and practicing Dead Elvis, and I promised to report on the results after the fact. I'm pleased to say that my experiment was successful. Not once did I experience even a hint of a memory slip, and I will definitely use this method the next time I memorize.

This new method was simple. I just memorized the piece first, before I could even play it accurately. Then I learned Dead Elvis without using the printed music. I never looked at the music again once I had it memorized. (That's only a slight exaggeration. In truth I did actually glance at the score a couple of times to be sure that I hadn't overlooked any details.)

I constantly checked my memorization by playing along with various YouTube recordings and also with the definitive recording featuring David Zinman conducting the London Sinfonietta with Charles Ullery as bassoon soloist. (The album is available on iTunes for $9.99.)
Michael Daugherty's American Icons


 



 In the past my approach was pretty much the opposite - I'd learn the concerto, wood-shedding the difficult passages, working out phrasing, breathing and musical ideas, before adding the icing on the cake - the memorization. I used to think that approach made sense because much of the memorization happened on its own as a result of time spent practicing.

However, my new method worked better, probably because a lot more time was spent playing from memory. I'm pretty sure that working on Dead Elvis without music caused me to use parts of my brain which are not normally activated. The visual aspect was missing this time, whereas normally the visual component is paramount.

To memorize or not to memorize

Wind players are not "brought up" memorizing their music the way that string players, pianists and singers are. Traditionally, wind players are not really expected to memorize concertos, and it's quite rare for wind players to memorize contemporary works. But I chose to memorize Dead Elvis because I knew it would help me feel as though I'd left no stone unturned in my preparation, and I thought that would ultimately contribute to my performance. Freedom from the printed page appealed to me.

The Elvis reed

In my experience, it was necessary to make lots and LOTS of reeds for Dead Elvis. The Dead Elvis reed had to be a one-in-a-million reed which could do anything: fast, slow, loud, high, low, double-tongued. Over the past 6 months I carefully set aside any reed showing Elvis potential. In a broad sense, that meant that I set aside any reed which played well in the extreme high range. More specifically, it meant that I was looking for a reed that would clearly and reliably articulate a high D# (4th line treble clef) without "cacking". (For anyone who doesn't know what cacking is, it's defined in Webster's dictionary as "a distinctive noise sounding like a hoarse duck in distress which can only be produced by a bassoonist failing to hit a high note".)

Southern Theatre
Taking the reeds to work (ie. the performance venue) often changes everything. I had precious few opportunities to try the reeds onstage before Elvis week. The stage at the Southern Theatre was very hot and dry, which brings out the worst in any reed. I was generally displeased with my reeds onstage; I ended up using one that was NOT brand new. This bothered me for two reasons: First of all, I always play on new reeds, and secondly my teacher K. David Van Hoesen always said that new reeds are best for high range playing. But there was no denying the fact that this particular reed (a reed that was not brand new, although it was in "like new" condition) was best for playing Dead Elvis on my particular bassoon (a new Heckel).

The attire


In the score, Daugherty states that an "Elvis Las Vegas 1970s jumpsuit is recommended, but optional". I ordered an Elvis jumpsuit from Amazon, along with a black Elvis wig complete with sideburns.The Columbus Symphony offered to rent a costume, but I preferred to take matters into my own hands. I wanted the outfit several months before the performances so that I could become accustomed to the idea of wearing it, and I also practiced in it a few times.

This may seem a bit over-the-top, but I wore my Elvis costume for the rehearsals with the orchestra. The costume changed the experience in several ways. The bassoon got caught in the costume  a couple of times and I nearly tripped over the large bell bottoms..The synthetic material of the costume was also really hot, and I had to get used to that. The wig was hot (temperature-wise) also, and I wore the wig and sunglasses during rehearsals so that I had a chance to get used to the whole package. The sunglasses were very dark and I couldn't see much. That exacerbated the challenge of traveling to and fro on the stage while playing! There was some concern that I might end up falling off the stage.

I knew that Elvis never, ever performed in sunglasses, so I wasn't originally intending to wear the Elvis sunglasses that some bassoonists on YouTube are wearing. But then our principal violist said something to me which made sense. He said it was great that I was aiming to be true to Elvis, but maybe from the perspective of the audience, sunglasses would add to the overall effect. In fact, he offered to loan me a pair of Elvis sunglasses. He brought them to the next day's rehearsal, and it was obvious that he was right. I looked more like Elvis with the sunglasses.

The research


As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, I researched Elvis very thoroughly by reading many of his biographies, watching videos of his performances and listening to his recordings. Truth be known, I became a bona fide Elvis fan. His rhythm was amazing, vibrato perfectly controlled, style captivating, lyricism just right. Had his career been managed differently, perhaps the world could have had the chance to truly appreciate the enormity of his talent. He loved classical music, including opera. At times he sounded like a great operatic tenor or baritone.

The vibrato

Throughout the score, Daugherty calls for "Elvis vibrato" mainly in the solo bassoon part but also in the other parts from time to time. What exactly is Elvis vibrato?

Well, since Elvis Presley's recordings remain ubiquitous to this day, it's easy enough to find out that he was masterful of vibrato. It was very even and controlled and varying in intensity. Like many classical musicians, Elvis spent countless hours listening to recordings (and live performances when possible) of great artists, figuring out what worked and what didn't, and then figuring out how to incorporate that information into his own artistry.

Oftentimes bassoon vibrato sounds a bit undefined to me, or even haphazard. There is nothing haphazard about Elvis's vibrato - it's crystal clear, just like the vibrato of many of the great vocalists and string players. Perhaps such artists, including Elvis, have something to teach us bassoon players.

The choreography

One of the advantages of having the music memorized is that I wasn't tied down to a music stand, and I had the freedom to move all over the stage as Elvis would have. (I had to study tons of videos of Elvis performing to learn his moves.) Of course, it's very hard to walk or dance while playing the bassoon, but I sure had a good time figuring out how to move around as much as possible while still maintaining control of the bassoon. It was a new kind of challenge, that's for sure. But now I know why there are no bassoons in marching bands.

Unfortunately, there is no video recording of our performance. I'd like to see what it looked like to the audience! They were laughing throughout, especially when I had 4 bars of rest during which I engaged in some serious Elvis-style leg shaking. The intense jiggling would have jerked the reed right out of my mouth, so that particular move could only be done during a rest. I also attempted to engage the entire audience the way Elvis did. That required movement across the front of the stage so that no section of the audience would feel left out. I did some of this while playing. (I had to spend quite a bit of time practicing that. I had never before attempted to move across the front of the stage while playing the bassoon! I'm quite certain that after this experience, I actually WOULD be able to play the bassoon in a marching band.)

In the score, Daugherty directs the bassoonist to get down on one knee at the end of the piece, between the high D# and the low Bb. Only a bassoonist would understand that getting down on a knee is one thing, but getting down on a knee while successfully holding and balancing a bassoon after having just blown your brains out on a long, loud high D# is quite another matter. This was yet another of Dead Elvis's unusual challenges.

What I learned from Elvis himself

This may seem odd, but studying the biographies, recordings and videos of Elvis Presley taught me a thing or two. Elvis was a consummate performer. Not only was Elvis extremely intelligent, he also had an intuitive sense about what appealed to the masses. He died his hair black and wore black eye makeup. He dressed for success beginning when he was a teenager. He moved and danced in front of a mirror as a teen to figure out what would look good to an audience.

And he was a musical perfectionist. He totally ran the show during his recording sessions, so in essence he was also the producer of his own records. He insisted on take after take, with careful listening to the recording after each take. He was constantly tweaking the instrumentals, the background voices and his own singing.

As I mentioned, when he wasn't performing or recording or rehearsing, he spent many hours listening to recordings of other artists. He loved gospel, rhythm and blues, pop, ballads, country, rock and roll and classical. During the peak of his fame he took it upon himself to learn to play Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on the piano, by ear.  (He did not read music.)

One of the most remarkable aspects of Elvis's life to me was the fact that he sang and played piano and guitar in his spare time, just because making music was his favorite thing to do. When he showed up for his recording sessions, he would insist on spending hours warning up by singing spirituals in four part harmony with his backup singers. In fact, just a few short hours before his death he sat down at his piano and sang, just because that's what he did. Constantly. His love for music was that profound.

His extreme and tragic addiction to prescription medication certainly interfered with  his ability to perform optimally during his later years. At times he could barely walk, yet he still performed. But his recordings demonstrate his perfectionism as well as his gift for communicating musicially. His range of expression is something to aspire to.

During live performances (and all of the time) Elvis was very focused on his audience and on reaching each and every person in the venue. That's why he moved all over the stage (even dragging his microphone stand all over the stage during his early career). When I performed Dead Elvis, I tried to think like Elvis, focusing on the audience - the entire audience, and the overall effect (not just the music). I even tried to walk like Elvis. (Maybe it worked, because I was told that some audience members had no idea that I was an orchestra member.)

Conclusion

Dead Elvis provides a great opportunity for the bassoon soloist to step outside the box. Take my word for it - the farther outside you step, the more the audience will enjoy it, and the more you learn about Elvis Presley, the more YOU will enjoy it.



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Sunday, November 2, 2014

What Elvis taught me about bassoon reeds



This past week I had the privilege of performing Michael Daugherty's Dead Elvis on the Columbus Symphony's classical subscription series. What an experience it was!

Last night when I returned home following our final performance of Dead Elvis, I put my bassoon together and pulled out the reed I had used. Unaccustomed to soloing in front of the orchestra, I had been a bit more uptight about my reeds than usual. The reed I had used for the performances was pretty reliable, but I found that during the performances, the reed tip closed a bit due to the high temperature onstage and the dryness of the air, I think.  Now that the performances were finished, I had to satisfy my curiosity about the reed. Would the reed have responded well to having its tip opened slightly?

Normally the first thing I do when a reed tip closes is simply pull out the pliers, place the reed on a mandrel tip, and nudge the reed's tip open a little by gently squeezing the top wire at the sides. This simple procedure often gives the reed more fullness of sound throughout the range and enhances the reliability of the attacks of high notes such as the high D# at the end of Dead Elvis. A proper tip opening even allows for better control of the vibrato.

But things are not normal when a bassoonist is suddenly thrust into the spotlight. I lost my head, and decided that opening the tip of my reed would be too risky. (?????) As a result, I was uncomfortable with my reed throughout the performances, and I always had the sense that it could have been more ideal. The reed was OK, but could have been better.

My post-Elvis reed tip opening experiment was a revelation - the reed transformed from a pretty impressive one to an absolute dream-come-true, after just barely opening the tip with pliers. Too bad this magic occurred after the final concert!

I always tell my students not to be afraid to change the tip opening of a reed, explaining that it's the only reed alteration which can be reversed, and oftentimes the result of tip opening adjustment is that a mediocre reed becomes a good one. It's the easiest and most effective means of improving a bassoon reed. Why hadn't I heeded my own advice?  I guess I was so daunted by the concept of being a soloist, of being Elvis for heaven's sake, that my bassoon reed knowledge and experience flew out the window. Also, I had the notion in my head that since I had been playing such a taxing piece as Dead Elvis on the reed, I thought maybe I had worn out the reed, causing it to lose its flexibility to respond to wire adjustment. I thought that if I opened the tip and then wanted to change it back, the cane might not respond to the reversal. Now I think that's hogwash, since the reed responded so beautifully to having its tip opened.

The reason I'm kind of mad at myself about this is because I spent months searching for the ideal Elvis reed. I rejected literally hundreds of reeds. The Elvis reed had to excel in the extreme high range AND extreme low range AND double tonguing AND it had to play in tune AND it had to clearly articulate high D# (4th line treble clef). If you're a bassoonist, you know what a tall order that is.

My chosen reed was a darn good one which would have been even better if I'd taken the risk (which is not really a risk at all since it's reversible) of slightly opening the tip.

Let that be a lesson to us all.

Yours truly, rehearsing in costume

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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Michael Daugherty: Dead Elvis

Michael Daugherty's Dead Elvis (1993) has become an important staple of the solo bassoon repertoire. It is performed widely by chamber groups as well as orchestras. I'd be willing to hazard a guess that its popularity as a solo bassoon piece is second only to that of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto.
Dead Elvis
Most listeners, unless viewing the performance, do not realize that Dead Elvis is scored for only seven instruments since it sounds like a much larger group. In fact, even with only seven instruments the bassoon soloist is often drowned out when all are playing. As we know all too well, the bassoon doesn't easily project over other instruments. One bass trombone can so easily obliterate a bassoon, and one of the Dead Elvis instruments is indeed bass trombone.

When I was asked last spring to perform Dead Elvis with the Columbus Symphony in October, I was skeptical at first. I wasn't familiar with the piece......I didn't know what to think. I also didn't know much about Elvis Presley except that he had been a rock and roll megastar.  But solo opportunities are few and far between....I said yes after about 15 seconds of hesitation!

The first thing I did was order the bassoon part and score. Then I began listening to the many YouTube performances of Dead Elvis. When the music arrived, the first thing I did was memorize the bassoon part (even though soloists, especially wind soloists, usually don't memorize contemporary solos). I wanted to experiment with a different method of memorization. My approach was to memorize the music first, even before practicing it (I know this sounds crazy) so that all of my practicing would be done without music. I'll let you know how this experiment works.

Reedmaking is an important part of the preparation for Dead Elvis. The reed has to be a super high reed which also sounds good low AND also double tongues really, really well (INCLUDING in the low register!). Wow. I'm not sure how many bassoon reeds like that exist. I began searching for the Elvis reed months ago, and have set aside quite a few, with rankings. Above all, the reed must have a really reliable and in-tune high E which sustains for long periods without giving out. That in itself is a tall order!

There are a few very tricky challenges for the bassoon in Dead Elvis. I don't want to freak myself out, since my performances have yet to occur, so I'll just mention one of them: double tonguing 16ths at quarter = 168  in 3/4 for 18 consecutive measures without a rest. In case that means nothing to you, just try double tonguing (any notes) 16ths at 168 in 3/4 for 18 measures, and you'll see what I mean.

Once my commitment to performing Dead Elvis was made, I began thinking about about my teacher K. David Van Hoesen's assertion that "you can't play Tchaikowsky unless you've read Dostoyevsky". Getting to know the composer, the background information about a work, and any extra historical/social about the era and culture certainly can inspire optimal performance of a work. And since Dead Elvis was inspired by an American icon, I figured it was time for me to get to know Elvis.

Wow. I had no idea what I was in for. Let's just say that there's good reason for the seemingly infinite supply of biographies of Elvis. The man led a colorful and complicated, albeit brief, life.

The Dies Irae theme which permeates Dead Elvis suggests, perhaps, that any human being who ascends to such superstardom is doomed. His extreme wealth enabled him to live out his wildest fantasies. He regularly rented out Memphis movie theaters, skating rinks and amusement parks in the middle of the night for private parties. He was famous for buying brand new cars for friends, family, people he met on the street, and doctors with prescription pads.

Elvis was a talented and intelligent perfectionist. He did not read music, but he studied recordings religiously. (Many great classical musicians do the same thing!) Even as a child, he knew on some level that something was going to happen - he used to assure his parents, who were dirt poor, that soon everything would be all right.

There was an unusual innocence about him. When his career was just beginning, he'd claim that his goal was to buy a house for his mother (and his final house purchase for his mother, father and himself was, of course, Graceland).


Unbelievably, he was drafted in 1958 when he was 22 years old and already a major star. I didn't even know that drafting was going on at that point in U.S. history! Elvis was not arrogant, so he never thought he should be singled out as an exception to the draft. Besides, his manager, the infamous Colonel Tom Parker, though it would help Elvis' image to serve in the army. Yet Elvis was clearly not a good candidate for the army, since he was more of a mama's boy than a GI Joe, and he experienced great anxiety over his enlistment.

While serving in Germany, his commander introduced him to amphetamines, supposedly to keep the soldiers alert when they were driving tanks. He became hooked on the pills and brought back a huge supply to the U.S. when he was finished with his army stint. This was the beginning of the drug addiction which colored the rest of his life.

While reading his biographies, I often logged into YouTube to listen to the Elvis recordings from the period I was reading about, and watched videos of his performances. There is such a difference between his pre-army performances and his more recent videos from Vegas. His recordings were nearly always stellar, although his repertoire was unfortunately limited due to the restrictions imposed by his and Colonel Parker's contract with a publishing company. What a shame.

He was actually a talented actor who studied films much the same way he studied musical recordings. But the films he starred in lacked substance, which led many to wrongfully assume that he was a bad actor. He was asked to play the male lead in A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand, but negotiations between the movie studio and Colonel Parker failed. Again, what a shame. 

Now that I "know" Elvis, I am somewhat daunted by the prospect of impersonating him in Dead Elvis. He was such a master performer. He had the ability to draw in every last person in the venue, which often included tens of thousands of people in one show. He was unspeakably charismatic. Sometimes the shrieking from the audience was at such a roar that no music could be heard! People were passing out left and right. The Elvis experience was too much.

How does a bassoonist go about replicating that sort of performance? Well, you can see why I'm daunted. I'll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, here's an Elvis sample from his 1963 movie Fun in Acapulco:


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Sunday, September 14, 2014

The behavior of bassoon sound waves

Bassoonists beware! Every once in a while we are asked to step outside the box and do something unusual, such as perform as solo bassoonist for a funeral, as I did yesterday. I am one of those players who is hyper reactive to acoustics, much to my own detriment. So, one would assume that I'd be extremely careful about the placement of my chair, especially for a solo performance, and especially when I had options, right?

Well, apparently not. I guess I lost my head due to the daunting nature of the event. When I was at home practicing my Bach cello suite for the funeral, I was imagining performing in a large old church replete with stone surfaces. We've all played in such churches before, and the sound is pleasantly flattering.

When I was a student at Eastman, I used to relish sneaking into the stairwell late at night to practice concertos. I sounded great in there, as anyone would. The reverberation was phenomenal, with nothing but hard metal and cement surfaces, and of course the stairway's height surely added to the effect. I sounded SO loud! I had to be judicious with my timing, though, waiting until nearly every other student had left the building. It was that loud! I found it incredibly inspiring to practice there, and I made sure to visit the stairwell before juries.

Well, I was expecting to experience similar acoustics in the funeral venue. I had never seen this particular church before. When I arrived, I was disappointed by its apparent 1950s or 1960s architecture. (Heaven knows why I had been expecting a stone cathedral from the 1800s....) Inside I found soft surfaces abounding, including fulling carpeted floors. I was even shocked by the lighting. The old stone churches I've enjoyed playing in have been notoriously dark, so I had brought a stand light. Well, I certainly didn't need it since the church was bright as could be.

My chair had been set up in the very front where it really stood out, especially considering the bright lighting. I didn't like that, since this was a funeral and I was not the one who was supposed to be the star of the show. So we moved my chair off to the side, near the organ. This being a funeral situation, I didn't think it would be appropriate for me to test the acoustics. What mourner would want to hear random bassoon sounds while entering the sanctuary for a funeral? I just didn't think it would be a good idea, nor did I consider it necessary.

This is where all of my better judgement flew out the window. How could I forget about the behavior of sound waves? My new chair placement was a few inches from the organ, so as to allow the people receiving communion to be able to pass by on the other side of my chair. The organ was located on my right, near the area from which the highest number of notes emit from the bassoon. That fact should have been a huge red flag for a person who obsesses over acoustics as I do. (The organ, incidentally, provided just about the only hard surface in the entire building.....)

Many bassoonists are aware of the problem that occurs when we are positioned too close to a hard surface. It becomes impossible for the player to achieve a consistent sound in which the tone qualities of the various notes on the bassoon match one another. This is because the sound waves are actually reflected, refracted, deflected, scattered and even absorbed by the hard surface. Each note emanates from a different position on the bassoon, thereby creating an unequal alteration of sound waves. Even changing notes by a half step creates a radically different sound.

When I began the Bach during the funeral, I was mortified by what I heard. The reed I had chosen had been mighty impressive at home - it had been focused, pleasant-sounding, easy to control and well in tune. But in the church it sounded like something plucked out of the trash heap. Each note took on a unique timbre of its own, unlike the timbre of any other note. The overall tone was alarmingly reedy, as if any one adjective could be applied to the heterogeneous cacophony.... Of course, there was nothing I could do but keep going, hoping desperately that it didn't sound as bad to others as it did to me. The fact that the deceased had been a professional music critic further exacerbated my horror.

There were two factors at play (and the reed actually wasn't one of them, as I confirmed when I arrived back home). One was that the church was shockingly dead acoustically, which obviously I could not control. But I could have controlled the other problem. Had I positioned myself in an open area away from any objects, at least I would have stood a fighting chance of matching sound from one note to the next. The resulting tone would have been dead and lifeless due to the acoustics of the venue, but at least the sound would have been homogenous.

When the Columbus Symphony plays in the pit for opera or ballet, I refuse to sit against the wall of the pit because of this phenomenon. Luckily our second bassoonist is willing to take the wall seat, causing his sound to be unevenly reflected, refracted, diffracted, scattered and absorbed by the wall. He's a good sport.

Similarly, I'm fussy about the placement of my music stand - the stand has to be far enough away from me that my sound cannot be affected by it. Although the issue would probably not be detectable during tuttis, it is noticeable during orchestral solos - yes, even a mere music stand can impede our efforts to evenly match our notes! (OK, I'll admit that that the problem created by the music stand being too close is barely noticeable, but still.......)

I think that producing a smooth, consistent sound is one of the primary challenges of bassoon playing. Yesterday I seriously undermined my efforts in that regard by ignoring the laws of physics!
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Monday, July 7, 2014

In the news today

Bravo! Vail is a Colorado-based summer music festival which features three top U.S. orchestras this summer: the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.  This week the Philadelphia Orchestra is in residence at the festival, and today Philadelphia Orchestra principal bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa was featured on the TV show Good Morning Vail.  He explains the bassoon, its reeds and how the altitude affects them.  The icing on the cake is his exemplary bassoon playing at the end of the segment:



Thank you, Danny Matsukawa, for doing such a fine job of informing the public about our instrument.



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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bassoon carry-on......an anachronism?



Have you tried to fly with your bassoon lately?   According to a June 10, 2014 article in USA Today, some airlines are cracking down on carry-on dimensions.   And there is no shortage of media coverage of instruments damaged during air travel.

This fact sheet published by the Future of Music Coalition explains that the American Federation of Musicians and other groups worked to include language in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 mandating that the FAA draft formal regulations creating uniform standards that all airlines must follow.  These regulations would stipulate three things:

1) Airlines must permit passengers “to carry a violin, guitar, or other musical instrument in the aircraft cabin, without charging the passenger a fee in addition to any standard fee that carrier may require for comparable carry-on baggage” if the instrument can be safely stowed in overhead bins and if there is room at the time the passenger boards.

2) For instruments that don’t fit in overhead bins (such as cellos), airlines must allow passengers to carry the instrument on board with the purchase of an extra ticket.

3) For larger instruments (still within applicable weight and size requirements), airlines must transport the instruments as checked baggage.

Unfortunately, the FAA has yet to draft the final regulations; therefore the new law cannot be enforced.  Even once the law does become enforceable, the words "if the instruments can be safely stowed in overhead bins and if there is room at the time the passenger boards" do not inspire confidence.  Some overhead bins are too small to hold a bassoon case (and of course regional jets such as the Embraer 145 require all passengers to gate check carry-ons).  Also, if the traveling bassoonist is not lucky enough to be one of the early boarders on a flight, it's entirely possible that the overhead bins could be full.  These days, it's common for flights to be booked to capacity.

Surprisingly, I haven't heard of any bassoon-related airline incidents other than my own.   Am I the only bassoonist in the world who has actually experienced the horror of being denied the right to carry on my bassoon?   It happened a few years ago on a flight out of Columbus.  When the airline agents refused to allow the bassoon as my carry-on, I remained polite and calm, and even offered to buy a seat for the bassoon.  Yet the airline personnel insisted that if I wanted to take the flight, my bassoon would have to be checked as baggage and placed in cargo!

I was traveling to an audition, and had no time to spare.  At the time, it seemed that I had no choice but the unthinkable - allowing my bassoon to be placed in cargo.  In retrospect, it's clear that I would have been far better off canceling my trip, despite my non-refundable ticket.  The level of stress I experienced from allowing my bassoon in cargo was off the charts, and I was in no condition to perform a successful audition when I arrived (in a state of panic!) at my destination.

I no longer own that bassoon.  My new bassoon - a 15,000 series Heckel - will never be placed in an airplane cargo hold!   No trip is worth taking such risk with a cherished instrument.  


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Friday, March 21, 2014

Firebird (1945 version)

Rumor has it then when the Boston Symphony's retired principal bassoonist Sherman Walt died in 1989, the orchestra performed the Berceuse (Lullaby) of Stravinsky's Firebird in his memory.  It's hard to imagine a more fitting tribute from the BSO to its longtime principal bassoonist.

Sherman Walt
Stravinsky certainly did us bassoonists a favor when he featured our instrument this way in the oft-performed Firebird suite   But when performing the Firebird, we bassoonists must meet incredible technical demands en route to the Berceuse.  The Berceuse occurs just before the Finale, and is preceded by an aptly-named Infernal Dance.  There is one passage in particular of the Infernal Dance which is darn near unplayable up to tempo:


I have no words of advice for this passage.  It's fast, and the fingerings are treacherous.  If you have any helpful hints, let me know.  My approach was to be sure that I could play the passage accurately at a slower-than-realistic tempo.  That assuaged the guilt somewhat, and enabled me to fake it while actually hitting a few of the right notes along the way.

Leading up to that passage is a real high note workout, especially at 3 and 4 measures after 101 below:


Just eking out the high Eb is a major accomplishment.  It's so fast that the high Ab 16ths actually have to be double-tongued, especially if one wishes to attempt to match the dynamics and character of the other orchestral instruments.

The infamous passage at 106 is immediately preceded by exposed high flourishes between 104 and 106 below.  These flourishes are exposed and must be played accurately despite the tempo and the fingerings.  I know of only one fake fingering for this excerpt, which is for the high C# 3 measures after 104.  I just keep the high B fingering in place and lift the first two fingers of both hands for the C#.  It's necessary to lip the C# up to pitch with this fingering.


The Introduction (below) poses a counting challenge.  It's in 12, and I vividly recall how easy it was to lose my place the first time I played this in the orchestra.  This is one of those passages which truly becomes easier after you've played it once or twice.  It helps to keep in mind the obvious fact that there are four 32nds per beat.  (Sometimes it sounds as thought the woodwinds are playing the 32nds faster than they really are.)


The Columbus Symphony's recent Firebird performances featured the 1945 version, which is quite different from the more common 1919 suite.  The 1945 version contains more music from Stravinsky's original ballet score, including the Pas de Deux and the Scherzo, both of which are replete with exposed bassoon parts.  The Pas de Deux (below) is also a bit tricky rhythmically, especially at first.  It really helps to listen to recordings before your first rehearsal, so that if you end up getting off, you'll at least stand a chance of being able to figure out what's going on.  The solo one measure before 26 is an example of a passage where the bassoon should totally emerge from the orchestral texture.  In the Allegretto, the 16th note triplets must be accurately placed by subdivision of the beat.  Also, the triplets should be light and balanced with the other woodwinds. 


The bassoon playing in the Scherzo should also be ultra light, and the staccatos ultra short.  Yes, Stravinsky staccatos really are shorter than other composers' staccatos!  The reed I was playing for the recent performances was difficult to produce short staccato on,  but my priority for the reed was the Berceuse solo.


Once the orchestra finally reaches the Berceuse, it's time to forget about the short, loud, fast, high chaos from the preceding Infernal Dance (which was discussed at the beginning of this post).  It's time to completely chill.

My teacher at Eastman, K. David Van Hoesen, used to focus on finger motion, especially during my freshman year.  He insisted that I keep my fingers close to the bassoon for economy of movement, and he also spoke a great deal about the concept of imagining that you're molding clay with your fingers while playing legato passages.

Well, if there was ever a solo to mold clay on, it's this one.  To practice the Berceuse, I put the metronome on 60 (Stravinsky's tempo marking for the Berceuse), set the electronic drone on Bb, and set a goal of extreme smoothness.  I find it very easy to hear smoothness (or lack thereof) when playing with a drone. I suspect that the continuity of the drone encourages continuity of the player's phrasing.  Sometimes I record all of this, too, for good measure.  Sure, I've played the Berceuse before, but each time I play it has to be better than the last. 


If other musicians in the orchestra report that they dozed off during the Berceuse, then you'll know you've done your job.



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Thursday, February 20, 2014

High F (Bernstein Symphonic Dances)

I strongly suspect that professional bassoonists spend more time consulting fingering charts (for bassoon!) than any other professional instrumentalists.  Our instrument has infinite fingering options for many of the notes in our range.  In fact, I have even made up some of my own fingerings which I have never seen on any charts.

This past week I consulted my Cooper-Toplansky Essentials of Bassoon Technique once again to see about my high F options, as I prepared for a subscription concert featuring the Bernstein Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.  I was hoping that I would discover a fantastic high F fingering which had somehow eluded me until this point.

That hope was delusional!   The only fingering which even remotely works for me is the standard one:

Furthermore, it was rather unreliable, even with high reeds.  I had to resort to something I never do - switching bocals.  I am a minimalist when it comes to bocals.  I play on the same bocal all the time (a new Heckel C1), even for screech bassoon solos like the Ravel Piano Concerto.  But I do own a high bocal which was made by William Allgood.

With the combination of a high reed, an embouchure adjusted for the extreme high range, the Allgood bocal, and the above fingering, high F became as reliable as it could be. Once set up with that combination, the only remaining factor influencing successful executions of the high Fs in the Bernstein was plenty of practice, in order to firmly incorporate the unfamiliar fingering and embouchure.  Biting the reed does not help (although biting does help for high G) but the reed must be shoved as far as possible into the mouth, and the lower jaw should be shoved out, making the embouchure more symmetrical than the typical overbite embouchure.

Some bassoons (not mine) have a high F key.  I didn't even know what a high F key would look like or where it would be placed, so I was glad to find this photo of a bassoon tenor joint on Robert Ronnes' website:



The keys near the left hand finger holes are (from left to right) high F#, high E, high F and high Eb.

I think it's accurate to state that keys for high E, Eb, F, F# and G (yes, they all  exist!) may be located in different places above and below the left hand finger holes on the tenor joint.  As many bassoonists know, the location of high E and Eb keys, both of which are common on professional bassoons, varies from bassoon to bassoon.  Bassoonists who order an instrument from a factory or maker must decide where they want the high note keys placed.

Ease of playing in the extreme high range varies greatly from bassoon to bassoon.  I'm willing to bet that on some bassoons, especially older Heckels, it is possible to play the high F without switching to a high bocal (although a high reed is surely necessary).  This may be true of other brands of bassoons as well.  

My bassoon is a new 15,000 series Heckel.  It's the ideal instrument for playing principal in the large, acoustically challenged hall where I perform, because it projects really well.  And its high range is exceptional too (although not easy), until we reach high F.  Once I sorted out the reed/bocal situation, even the high F was acceptable.  In fact, I was told by a clarinetist listening to my obsessive practicing that it sounded like a soprano sax.  (He didn't mean that as an insult - he didn't know that we spend our lifetimes trying not to sound like a saxophone!)

But I must admit - I'm not accustomed to working this hard to play the bassoon!  The high F became the focus of the week (and the preceding week as well).  Here is the passage containing the high Fs in the Bernstein:


The person playing this part before me must have had a really hard time, because as you can see, he or she had to write in the names of the notes!  There are 3 high Fs in the passage, and each is preceded by a high Bb and followed by a high E.  Therefore, practicing the 3 note pattern of high Bb, F and E is very helpful.  I practiced that pattern many times.

I also practiced the entire passage with a metronome, once the F fingering was well incorporated.  Of course, at first the metronome was set at a very slow tempo.  I didn't increase the metronome speed until the passage was flawless at the current tempo.  The reason I spent so much time working with the metronome is because in a passage like this, it would be all too easy to become overwhelmed by the difficulty of the fingerings, and to lose track of the tempo and rhythm.  (Besides, I practice with a metronome all the time anyway.)  I also practiced with an electronic tuning drone to be sure the intonation was accurate.

The first time I encountered this piece, I was in shock.  I wasn't at all sure whether or not the 1st bassoonist was really expected to play the high Fs!  Well, I now know that the answer is yes, the 1st bassoonist must find a way to pull it off.  If not, there are plenty of talented unemployed bassoonists waiting in the wings who would be more than happy to do it!  As orchestral jobs become more and more scarce, the standards for performing in those jobs must inevitably rise to a level near perfection.


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Friday, February 7, 2014

Respighi Trittico Botticelliano

Respighi and his wife Elsa in the garden of their idyllic Roman villa

Italian post-Romantic composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) is undoubtedly best known for his "Roman Trilogy" - Fountains of Rome (Fontane di Roma), Pines of Rome (I pini di Roma) and Roman Festivals (Feste romane) - which are massive, bombastic tone poems, full of color and contrast.  Personally, I prefer his chamber-like works for orchestra such as Ancient Airs and Dances, The Birds, and Botticelli Pictures (Trittico Botticelliano).

Trittico Botticelliano is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, triangle, campanelli (glockenspiel), celeste, harp, piano and strings.  Despite his obvious affinity for epic tone poems, Respighi was also quite drawn to the musical approaches of the Baroque and Classical periods and their smaller orchestra sizes.  But economical scoring does not take away any of his allure - his works for chamber orchestra are every bit as colorful and captivating as his huge tone poems.
e was drawn increasingly to the musical approaches of the Baroque and Classical eras, and the attendant smaller orchestras - See more at: http://content.thespco.org/music/compositions/trittico-botticelliano-ottorino-respighi/#sthash.9PSKft8l.dpuf

e was drawn increasingly to the musical approaches of the Baroque and Classical eras, and the attendant smaller orchestras - See more at: http://content.thespco.org/music/compositions/trittico-botticelliano-ottorino-respighi/#sthash.9PSKft8l.dpuf
e was drawn increasingly to the musical approaches of the Baroque and Classical eras, and the attendant smaller orchestras - See more at: http://content.thespco.org/music/compositions/trittico-botticelliano-ottorino-respighi/#sthash.9PSKft8l.dpuf
e was drawn increasingly to the musical approaches of the Baroque and Classical eras, and the attendant smaller orchestras - See more at: http://content.thespco.org/music/compositions/trittico-botticelliano-ottorino-respighi/#sthash.9PSKft8l.dpuf
Respighi admired and studied with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, which explains at least in part why he was unafraid to write bassoon solos in his orchestral music.  Respighi was a master orchestrator, and it's no shock to bassoonists that he took advantage of his smaller orchestral settings to feature the bassoon, indicating his comprehension of the projection challenges of the instrument.

Trittico Botticelliano demonstrates Respighi's reverence for the past, drawing its inspiration from historic paintings and making use of Gregorian chant and old church modes.   Trittico Botticelliano is a three-movement suite based on three specific paintings by the Florentine Renaissance master painter Sandro Botticelli.  These paintings are exhibited in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, in case anyone is interested in a live viewing.

Bassoonists are generally aware of the famous bassoon solos in the second movement (L'Adorazione dei Magi), and many of us have performed that movement by itself.  A few weeks ago I had my first experience with performing the entire three-movement suite.

  The bassoon introduces the first theme of the movement:

It's rather difficult to project on this solo.  The high B often sharpens in pitch when the player blows hard enough to make the note sound forte and accented, as written.  That problem may cause the player to back off and not project well enough.  I experimented with using the little finger Eflat key - I sometimes play high B without the Eflat key because it lowers the pitch and seems to make the note blend better with other instruments.  However, that varies from reed to reed.  I ended up deciding to use the standard fingering, which includes the Eflat key because the pitch was more stable and accurate.   (Without the Eflat key, the note was uncontrollably sharp on the accented high Bs.)  Of course, a sudden and dramatic loosening of the embouchure is required to keep the pitch down on the accented high Bs, no matter what fingering one uses.

Later in the movement, the bassoon has the bass line of an ancient-sounding woodwind trio:

It's important for the bassoon to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and lay down the rhythms and pitches with confidence.  Any uncertainty from the bassoon player may cause this section to fall apart.

I found the following passage beginning in the 3rd measure of the Allegretto to be quite awkward when I first began practicing it:

The clarinet and bassoon play this together, and it should be played at a rather subdued piano dynamic level - no louder.   I think that the reason I encountered a bit of difficulty at first with the passage is because it is written in a range which is difficult to subdue, for one thing.  And the rhythmic figure is unusual.  If I had made the mistake of focusing entirely on the big solos in the next movement, I would have been sorry when playing this passage! 

Of course, this movement features one of the orchestral repertoire's most extensive bassoon solos.  It includes the medieval chant Veni, veni Emanuel, introduced by flute and bassoon as seen in the 5th line below:

The opening solo is unaccompanied until the oboe enters near the end of the second line.  Whenever a dotted eighth and sixteenth rhythm presents itself in a solo, I ask myself whether the rhythm should be strict and precise or flipped and more casual.  In this case, I chose to give the sixteenth full value (even though I've heard it played flipped).  It's a pretty serious solo - there's nothing light or casual about it.   There is definitely a reverent, religious tone to this movement, and to me that indicates taking a serious or "academic" approach to the rhythm. 

Other worthwhile goals for this solo are accurate intonation, smoothness, and matching of tone qualities of the notes.  For this solo I used the regular fingering for F#3 (which includes the right thumb Bflat key) instead of my usual "French" fingering, which includes the low F key.  The reason I chose the "regular" fingering is because I was using a reed which favored the high range, and those reeds tend to ride a little high on the pitch.  I was concerned that using my usual French F# would be risky because of the possibility of the pitch being high.

It can be challenging to make a solo like this sound relaxed.  It helps to put considerable effort into identifying a good reed, one which produces a desirable sound, with accurate intonation and ease of control.  It's helpful to practice the solo with a metronome and electronic pitch drone (without practicing too much on the good reed!).  I always record myself playing the solo, because only then can I be sure that things are sounding close to the way I want them to.  A steady airstream is important, as if the player is blowing up a balloon while playing the passages.

Later in the same movement, the bassoon plays the following melody, with a different mood and texture:


Here, I think it's best to focus on producing the best possible bassoon sound within the context of a simple line, while keeping the pitch down AND not slowing down.  (On most bassoons, the Bflat3 - the one just below middle C - will tend to ride high.)  I focused on those 2  issues: keeping the pitch down and keeping the tempo moving.  Then at 21 (pictured above), things become a bit easier as the bassoon and oboe share the spotlight.

The bassoon has the last word of the movement:
For the final C#, I had planned to use the "short" C# fingering (left hand only) in order to ensure that the pitch would not end up being too high.  Well, that seemed like a good idea until I actually played it with the orchestra.  Then I realized that it was too difficult to lip up the pitch of the short C# fingering, and I couldn't hold the last note as long as I wanted to because it was too hard to keep the pitch up for that long.  So finally, I ended up using the full fingering (adding RH: 2,3, and F key).  It was in tune, and because I didn't have to lip it up, it was easier to sustain and end with a long taper.

This movement depicts the rise of Venus from the sea, and the orchestra produces the waves which wash her oyster shell ashore.   The following passage (in three) requires some practice time:


I'm glad to have 3 performances of this piece from last fall under my belt.  It's always easier the second time around (as long as you have a good reed!).


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Monday, January 27, 2014

Columbus Symphony Young Musicians Competition 2014

 
Last night I had the privilege of adjudicating the final round of the Columbus Symphony Young Musicians Concerto Competition 2014.  Even though the weather was not cooperating, as evidenced by the polar vortex topped off with several inches of falling and blowing snow, the show went on as scheduled. 

Nineteen musicians in grades 8-12 participated in the concerto competition with six outstanding musicians moving on to the finals.  The finalists were Paul Schubert, cello; Blake Giesting, string bass; Alexandra Traini, bassoon; Phillip Nicol, marimba; Michael Chen, piano; and Abigail Bachelor, harp.  The judges were Mark Rudoff, professor of cello at The Ohio State University, Dr. Caroline B. Salido-Barta of Otterbein College, Jack Jenny, Columbus Symphony percussionist, and myself.


So what must a student do in order to participate?  Well, the first task is to fill out and send in the application.   Next is the fun part - the preparation.  How does a student go about preparing a winning performance?

First, it's important to choose repertoire carefully.  Often, a candidate's choice of repertoire influences the outcome.  My recommendation would be to choose your rep considering the audience or judges and the strengths in your playing.   If you are gifted with unusual technical facility, then it might be smart to choose a virtuosic showpiece, for example.

Once  you've chosen it, live with it.  I recall a musician friend of mine stating that when he prepared for a competition, he lived, breathed, ate, slept his concerto.  It became an ever-present focus in his life.   (He was always the winner of any competition he entered, so I took his advice seriously.)

Realistically, though, most students have other responsibilities, like, oh, homework, let's say.  Perhaps a compromise between complete obsession and inadequate preparation is possible.  That means at the very least a couple of hours of practice per day, just on the concerto.  (I believe that many successful young string players and pianists are accustomed to much more than a couple of hours of practice per day, however!)

Memorization is required for this competition.  Most contestants probably would have memorized anyway, but memorization is not always part of standard preparation for wind players.  Of course, it's a reasonable assumption that if a musician is adequately prepared for a concerto competition, the prep will have automatically resulted in memorization.  But like most skills, memorization ability varies from person to person. 

I suggest taking a three-pronged approach to memorization.  First, be able to write out the concerto on staff paper.  Second, be able to sing the entire concerto.  Third, be able to silently finger the entire concerto on your instrument.  If all three aspects are under control, then one can rest assured that memorization is complete.

Concerto prep can be greatly enhanced by endeavors away from the instrument.   Total preparation of a work includes obtaining knowledge of the composer and the background of the work.  What is its historical context?  Are there programmatic elements which may add to your interpretation?

It's wise to listen to lots of recordings and watch Youtube performances of the piece being prepared.   This is not for the purpose of imitating the performances of others, but rather for the development of one's own preferences regarding style, musicianship and technical nuances.

During a competition, it's likely that each contestant will display at least one area of weakness, such as tone quality, intonation, rhythmic, or dynamic contrast.  I think that tone quality is the one most often overlooked by performers and their teachers, since most students are already aware of shortcomings in intonation and rhythm.

I vividly recall a comment on my adjudication sheet from my high school days.  The judge wrote, "Tone is the first basic of any performance."   I don't think he was saying that to indicate that I had properly aligned my priorities - I think he was giving me advice!  Back then, I had no idea how to improve my sound on the bassoon.  (I had all I could do to just get the bassoon to work, since my instrument, a rickety old Linton bassoon belonging to my school, had a predilection for mechanical malfunction.) 
old Linton bassoon
If I had known then what I know now, I suppose I would have made sure that my reed was allowing me to play in tune with a relaxed (not tightly clenched!) embouchure.  I would have spent lots of time with tuners, using both the visual meter and the sound, to learn how to play the bassoon in tune and with a full sound.  I would  have made sure my embouchure was strong enough (from practicing scales and long tones) to sustain pitches at 440 and I would NOT have practiced on the day of the contest to ensure that my embouchure would be at its best.

Congratulations to Philip Nicol, a freshman at Marion Harding HS, whose performance on the marimba took first place.  Philip and his accompanist John Holsinger performed the first movement of the Rosauro Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra.  Phillip will receive a first prize purse of $500, generously provided by the Women’s Association of the Columbus Symphony.

Why was Phillip chosen as the winner?   I'd say it's because his performance was captivating, exciting and did not reveal any flaws or weaknesses.  (His competitors performed at a very high level as well, so Phillip had his work cut out for him!)

When he began playing, I had to glance at his accompanist to see whether the accompanist was playing.  Yes, both were playing - their blend was so amazing that it sounded almost like one instrument with one player.  What an incredible level of synchronization between soloist and pianist!  Philip used four mallets at once in his performance, and it sounded as though each voice balanced perfectly with the others (and also with the piano accompaniment).

My advice to future winners is to just follow Phillip's example.  Play with perfection and commitment.  Make the judges forget about writing on their score sheets - make them put down their pens to just sit back and enjoy your performance!


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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Reed Year

 Today is the day to begin numbering your reeds at 1 again.  I highly recommend this easy method of keeping track of the number of reeds you make each year.  My goal is to make a reed a day.   For an oboist, that goal would be more than reasonable.  For a bassoonist, though, that's a LOT of reeds, and I have never actually produced 365 in a year....not yet, anyway.  Usually I make approximately 200 reeds a year.  I sell a few of them, reject a lot of them, and play on the rest, at a rate of at least one reed per week because, as I often state on this blog, I don't like to play on old reeds.  Yes, I do have blanks left over at the end of the year, and for me, that's a necessity.  I must have a backlog (I still have a few untouched blanks from 2011) in order to avoid the dreaded reed crisis.
my first blank of 2014
There are many reasons why it behooves reed makers to attempt to make reeds daily.  I used to have a habit of reed cramming - making huge numbers of reeds in one fell swoop, and then not making reeds again for a long time after that marathon.   But sporadic reed making is not ideal because it's very possible for our reed making skills to become rusty.  For me it's especially noticeable with shaping and also with hand profiling which I always do before using the profiling machine.  (Pre-profiling by hand preserves the profiler blade.)  Also, I'm more likely to forget something, such as applying the bottom wire which I add temporarily during the forming stage, if I'm out of practice with reed making.  Furthermore, my profiler always seems a bit out-of-whack after a period of dormancy.  For me, reed making has to be constant in order for me to really stay on top of things.
this is what my blanks look like when my reedmaking skills are well-honed
And there's another really good (albeit strange) reason to make reeds regularly as opposed to sporadically.  A few days ago, a couple of my tools were suddenly missing.  My (expensive) reamer and rat tail file mysteriously disappeared
reamer and rat tail file

This was a serious problem, since I needed those two tools for finishing my reeds.  I looked everywhere.  Since I had just used those tools the day before, I couldn't imagine what had happened.  Finally, as a last resort, I decided to go through the trash.  Lo and behold, I had apparently tossed both tools into the garbage after reaming and filing the inside of a reed.  There they were,mingling with the unsavory items which really did belong in the trash.
the trash surrounding the missing reed tools
If I had not worked on reeds the next day after inexplicably tossing these items in the trash, my precious reed tools would have taken up permanent residence in the city dump, never to be found.  I took that as a sign that indeed, daily (or nearly daily) reed making is the way to go.

Yet another reason for constant, consistent reed making is that it enables experimentation.  I don't see how it would be possible to figure out which cane or which gouge is working best for you if you are not constantly monitoring your reeds.  The more regular reed making I engage in, the more aware I am of which cane, gouge, and profiler adjustment is really working.  The blanks I made in 2011 will be of some value, since I marked the cane source, but the passage of time has erased my knowledge of certain details such as what particular batch the cane was from, and whether or not the profiler blade was sharp or dull.  I am totally in touch with the blanks I made two weeks ago, and I know that the profiler blade had just been sharpened and that I was struggling with the height of the blade at that particular time.  Those details help me make better reeds because I have access to valuable information about what's working and what's not.  Reed making doesn't have to be a total crapshoot!

May the new year bring a deluge of responsive and resonant reeds to each of us.


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