FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions

Can you define singing?

Singing is a form of musical expression or communication using your speaking voice over a greater pitch and dynamic range to relate ideas and emotions to an audience.

What are the indicators of a good technique?

A singer with good technique has a uniform sound from high to low and the ability to sing at any dynamic level on any pitch. Good technique also involves clear diction of consonants as well as vowels and a variety of colours in order to express a wide range of emotions while singing. Good technique will allow you to sing easily for an hour or two per day without fatigue the following day.

How do I choose a singing teacher?

Firstly you must understand that there are two types of teacher: one who primarily teaches vocal technique (how to sing) and one who is primarily a vocal coach (teaches what to sing). Of the two types, the one who teaches vocal technique is the most important because without the ability to sing easily and with flexibility in all parts of your range you are limited in what you can perform well.

Teachers of good vocal technique are very rare and hard to find. Many ‘voice teachers’ are really coaches who will help you sing through songs, addressing certain problem spots, without developing and honing your basic ability to sing. They work on the premise that the more you sing the better you will become. Unfortunately this is not always the case. They may inadvertently be reinforcing bad habits which over time may get you into vocal trouble.

When meeting a new voice teacher, ask them for a demonstration of their ability. Make sure they have a large range (can sing high notes and low notes) and can easily negotiate the changes of register. Can they sing high as well as low at any dynamic level? Is their basic sound clear or breathy? How comfortable does it sound for them? Do they look like they are straining? You may not be an expert at singing yet but you will certainly be able to tell if their voice sounds pushed, strained, or if their neck veins are popping out. They obviously can’t teach you what they haven’t mastered themselves. You may ask them to explain their technique briefly. Again, you may not be an expert, but does their approach make sense to you? If the lessons don’t deepen your understanding of how the voice works and improve your ability to sing within the first few weeks, it’s OK to shop around.

How often should I have a voice lesson?

That depends on you; how quickly you want to develop and, of course, your budget. Most students take one lesson per week. A more advanced student may require 2-3 lessons per week if they are getting ready for an important performance, audition and/or competition. If someone is coming from out of town to study for a short period of time (for example 2-3 weeks) they may want 3-4 lessons per week or more, depending on their need. If you are in the same city as the teacher and are looking at developing your voice over a longer period of time, once per week is sufficient. You will advance more quickly with increased concentration and a concerted effort to apply what is taught. This does not mean practicing hours per day. I teach a number of concepts based on body awareness and muscle control which require no singing at all.

What kind of music should I sing to develop my voice?

When learning to sing, it is best to choose pieces of music that are not too demanding. Don’t choose anything that requires an overly large range (pitches that go too high or too low) or extreme dynamics (too loud or too soft). The songs you choose should be melodic and not too taxing vocally.

How much should I practice?

It is good to practice at least a little bit every day. If you are concentrating and apply the concepts well, even a half an hour per day is sufficient. Singers tend to over-sing (sing too much) which tires out their voice. Many people have the misconception that if they sing more they will strengthen their voice. One of your primary jobs as a singer is learning how to protect your voice from overuse and abuse. You need to begin to develop a sensitivity towards your voice so that you notice when it is tired, when the cords are swollen, when you’re dehydrated in general, etc. as all of these conditions affect your singing.

When should I not practice?

It’s better not to practice first thing in the morning when you get up. If you can, wait a few hours. The vocal cords become mildly swollen during the night which is why your speaking voice can be somewhat lower in the morning. This usually goes away with normal conversation and activity. You should not practice when your speaking voice is very low due to cold or allergies or when your throat is sore due to overuse or infection. If you practice during these times it will take longer for your voice to return to normal. There is a way of working the voice in these conditions to reduce swelling but it takes mastering the artenoid muscles which is a very advanced stage of development.

How should I learn my songs?

It is best to learn your songs without singing full voice. You can learn the melody by humming lightly or using an open-mouth hum which is like ‘ng’ in the word ‘sing’. Don’t bother with the dynamics at this time and keep it as light as possible. Working in this way you are training the vocal cords to adjust to the series of pitches contained in the melody without effort. It also helps to develop a smooth tone and melodic line.

The next stage is to sing through the melody using the proper vowel for each note without singing the consonants. This takes a little practice to develop because you are thinking each word but only singing the vowel of that word. This is a very good practice especially in classical music.

The third stage is to add the consonants back still without dynamics. Lastly you can add the dynamics.

Young singers tend to over-sing and emphasize the dynamics right off the bat. This is very tiring for the voice. Remember you are just practicing; there’s no need to go all out. Save that for the performance.

How should I sing during a rehearsal?

During a rehearsal its best to do what we call ‘marking’. When you are marking you sing lightly, maybe half voice, and omit the dynamics. If there is a high passage you may also drop it down an octave to a more comfortable range. When rehearsing you are generally working on the ensemble. The musicians get the opportunity to hear all the other parts, getting them to work well together and following the conductor, if there is one. Its a time to discover the singer’s unique style and timing, for example where they want to take it a bit slower, and where they want to speed up. It’s not a performance, so its best to save your voice. You can indicate your timing without singing full out. If it’s a choral rehearsal, you are probably learning notes or working on when different parts enter (Sopranos, Altos, Tenors, Basses). No need to sing out, even if you know your part well. Perhaps the other parts are still working on getting the right notes. Again, this is ensemble work, so take it easy.

I see singers cupping their ear. Why do they do this?

Singers cup their ear in order to hear their own voice. The cupped hand catches some of the sound vibrations leaving their mouth and channels them backwards toward their ear. This is a bit of a bad habit to get into. Rather than wanting to hear your own voice it is better to learn to sing by feel. That way you will not be disturbed by different acoustics as they change from room to room, location to location.

What is projection?

Projection is how your voice carries or fills a room. Opera singers learn maximize ‘resonance’ and to ‘focus’ their voice which helps them project to fill a concert hall of 5000 people or more. Jazz singers, on the other hand, learn to sing in a more intimate way which requires the use of a microphone to fill a much smaller concert hall, restaurant or bar. With a lot of ‘focus’ in the voice we say that it ‘cuts’, which means it can be heard from far away even though the singer is not pushing to increase the volume. A jazz or pop singer brings the mic close to their mouth whereas on opera singer must hold it further away in order not to overwhelm the sound system.

What is belting vs. classical singing?

Belting is a ‘style’ that developed out of the Broadway Musical genre. Early Broadway singers were classically trained and you can tell this clearly by how the songs are written. ‘Summertime’, from Porgy and Bess, starts on a high F# (F#4). No untrained singer can manage it in the original key because it starts in head register and bridges a woman’s upper register change several times (sometimes called an upper bridge or break). Other songs were developed to be kind-of spoken on pitch. They were sometimes called ‘talk-songs’ such as, ‘I’m just a girl who can’t say no’ from Oklahoma. Two styles, both early Musical Theatre productions. (Porgie and Bess was called an Opera in its day, but is now generally referred to as Musical Theatre.)

Belting is the result of pushing. It’s a bad mix of your lower register or chest voice taken up into the middle register. As you take the voice up with a heavy chest-mix (pure pop style) the voice will jam-up and sound throaty and pushed at the top. Unfortunately the more you train the chest voice to go up higher and higher the weaker the middle and head voices become (some singers take it to a C above middle C – C4). Some singers do it ‘better’ than others (i.e. they cover the fact that it’s jamming up in the throat with a lighter chest mix). For those singers who don’t know how to align their resonances they just try to sing louder in order to fill the theatre, club, etc. They generally don’t have much range since the belting, over time, sacrifices the middle and head voice registers. Even today at auditions for Broadway shows you will be asked for 2 selections: an example of ‘legit singing’ and your ‘belt voice’. Belting has become the ‘style’ of Musical Theatre today which is why there is such a rotation among cast members; it’s very taxing on the voice, especially with 9 shows per week. It’s rare to find someone who can keep up that pace in that style.

What is an attack in the mask?

To be honest, I’m really not quite sure. This is an idea promoted by some quite well known teachers, mostly in the US. If you know a little bit about the voice, it is strange for the following reasons. ‘The mask’ they are referring to are your nasal and sinus cavities located in the front of your face behind your nose, cheekbones, and forehead. These are resonating chambers, not muscles. Alternately, an attack in singing is quite simply how you initiate the sound or initiate the vibrations coming from the vocal cords. Vocal cords are small muscles located in your throat behind the ‘Adams apple’. All attacks therefore occur in the throat and cannot occur anywhere else. Phonation (vocal cord vibration) and resonance are two separate issues that, I believe, have been inter-mixed by the advocates of ‘attack in the mask’.

Sinuses and nasal cavities are resonating chambers, which colour the sound of your voice both in speech and in singing. You cannot manipulate them in any way as they are empty spaces and not muscles. The only thing you can do is make sure they are not plugged up with mucus due to allergies or a cold. How much air enters the nasal cavity is governed by the soft palate. If you manipulate the soft palate and the back of the tongue you can achieve various degrees of nasality in your sound. This is not a recommended practice since manipulating the soft palate becomes tiring and leads to pitch problems. The tongue should also be mostly relaxed while singing and when you think a pure vowel, it should make small adjustments automatically to articulate that vowel – the same as when you speak.

For a scholarly look at types of attack please consult Richard Miller’s, ‘The Structure of Singing’. Mr. Miller is one of the foremost authorities in the world of vocal pedagogy. His work is very well respected in the industry for how the vocal mechanism functions. You will not find ‘attack in the mask’ anywhere in his book.

What is a diaphragmatic attack?

Again, I’m not sure what is meant by this. It’s an idea promoted by the same teachers who promote ‘attack in the mask’; as we’ve already seen their ideas about singing are strange, to say the least. They say a ‘diaphragmatic attack’ has something to do with belting or shouting. If you’ve read my page about how the diaphragm functions you will realize that when you initiate phonation (vibration of the vocal cords) the diaphragm has finished its function and is relaxing. Therefore you cannot attack with the diaphragm or do anything else with it; it’s simply impossible. Shouting or belting has nothing to do with the diaphragm as the diaphragm has one job and one job only – to breathe in. After which it is on vacation until the next inhalation (breath in). I believe with a ‘diaphragmatic attack’ they are simply describing a heavy or glottal attack. Heavy singing with too many unneeded glottal attacks is a poor approach to breath management; it puts too much (sub-glottal) pressure on the voice. Please refer to ‘Attack’ in the section on ‘Method’ for a fuller description on the types of attack. Also see Belting vs. Classical Singing under FAQ’s and How does belting affect the attack?

For a more scholarly look at types of attack, please consult Richard Miller’s, ‘The Structure of Singing’. Mr. Miller is one of the foremost authorities in the world of vocal pedagogy. His work is very well respected in the industry for how the vocal mechanism functions. You will not find a ‘diaphragmatic attack’ anywhere in his book.

If belting is not an attack, does it affect the attack?

Yes, most definitely. Belting is the result of too much sub-glottal pressure during the attack; or too much air pressure from the lungs when you initiate vocal cord vibration. This heavy attack results in too much sub-glottal pressure during the whole phrase that follows. In layman’s terms you are pushing your voice beyond what is comfortable or sustainable. Pushing is a combination of 1) letting the weight of rib cage to fall onto the lungs thus forcing the air out too quickly and 2) pulling the abdominal muscles in to force the diaphragm to return to its fully relaxed state more quickly. Because of the huge increase in sub-glottal air pressure, you are forced to bring the vocal cords together more tightly which is very tiring for the voice and can do serious damage (as in bowed cords – causing chronic breathiness). When your cords have had enough of this aggressive way of singing they will quit and refuse to vibrate normally. In this case, we say a singer has ‘blown out their cords’. If this happens it takes a lot of rest and proper care to return them to normal.

How does tone develop?

Tone develops quite simply with good posture, proper breath management and improved phonation. Most people today think they need to take a huge breath when they start to sing. This notion is false. The bigger the breath the more stress you risk transmitting to your throat and ultimately to your singing voice. Breath management is mastered slowly over time. The key element is to avoid stress in the throat. Study the feeling in your throat when you breathe while resting. This feeling should be what you feel while you are breathing to sing (i.e. nothing or next to nothing). The other factor, which will improve tone, is learning to align your primary resonance located in the neck. This notion is somewhat known in the classical field but largely overlooked in the popular field of singing. Small postural adjustments can go a long way to improving tone. This alignment allows the throat to remain more relaxed even when moving up to higher notes in your range.

I have a big nose. Will this affect nasality?

The size of your nose has nothing to do with nasality in speaking or singing. ‘Nasality’ is produced by a manipulation the soft palate, causing it to be lowered thus opening the back of the throat to allow air to enter the nasal cavity. Some people have a nasal voice due to a lazy soft palate. This can be corrected. Some teachers erroneously think that your voice is balanced by air flowing through both your nasal cavity and the mouth simultaneously. I have heard this referred to as ‘focusing’ the sound. This is just not true, both when you speak or sing. I highly discourage this approach as it leads to other problems. True ‘nasality’ is simply produced by being unable to hum and having a free nasal cavity to properly articulate nasal consonants such as M and N. The nasal cavity is closed, so to speak, by the soft palate for all vowels and many consonants so the size of your nasal cavity (or nose) is irrelevant. If you were to extend the logic, nasality would be more of a problem for people with small noses, not big ones. This, however, is not the case either, so relax and stop worrying about your nose. Everyone’s nose is perfect for them and it can’t be otherwise.

What is a healthy vibrato vs. a wobble or tremolo?

Vibrato is an acoustical phenomenon evident in a free singing voice. It is a requirement in classical singing. In the pop and jazz fields vibrato is used mostly for effect, at the ends of phrases or on notes that are more sustained. When the larynx is free and there is little pressure on the voice, it naturally makes a kind of wave, which we call vibrato. If the wave is too slow and/or wide we call it a wobble. A wobble occurs when the larynx is too free in the throat and your singing voice is not connecting to the flow of air properly. If the wave is too fast we call it a tremolo. A tremolo occurs when there is an excess of energy in the body (too much nervousness while performing) or when voice is not properly anchored. Both have to do with a dis-connect between the voice and the breath. Excess stress can cause the larynx to make the natural wave but it’s much faster than need be, that is to say faster than when the singer is more relaxed and grounded.

Why is technique necessary to project my voice when I’m using a mic?

Healthy technique is what you need to keep your voice in shape regardless of whether you use a microphone or not. If you are putting a lot of strain on the voice a mic will not save you from losing your voice. Even pop and jazz singers need to master technique to a level where they can comfortably sing several nights per week in line while being true to their style and without disturbing their overall vocal health. As we have seen already, projection is a result of proper alignment. Mastering alignment to a level you are comfortable with will keep your voice relaxed throughout an evening of singing and allow you to be more intimate with your audience as you replace alignment for pushing as an alternate way to increase your vocal dynamic.

Styles of singing – does the vocal technique change?

No, technique does not change as it is based on function, not sound. However, the level to which you master it is not the same and neither is the balance of elements. Classical singers must master technique to a very high degree and maintain a balanced of elements striving for perfection on every note, or most notes, that they sing. They don’t get to play around with different colours as much as we find in other genres. Pop, Jazz, R & B, Gospel, Soul and Country singers master technique to a lesser degree and are free to explore ‘unsupported’ sounds, ‘straight tone’ vs. singing with ‘vibrato’, various levels of ‘resonance’, etc. but the fundamentals of good technique remain the same.

Performers as teachers – does a good performer make a good teacher? Why or why not?

It does not necessarily follow that a good performer makes a good teacher. Vocal Pedagogy is both the study of singing and the singing. A singer masters singing to their desired level therefore they have studied singing as it pertains to themselves and their style. Their passion is singing, not necessarily teaching. ‘How to teach’ is equally as important as ‘how to sing’ within Vocal Pedagogy circles. Somebody who is passionate about teaching knows that not everyone feels, hears or imagines their singing voice in the same way, nor experiences their body in the same way. A good teacher of vocal technique often has a much deeper knowledge of physiology. Their job is to transcend vocabulary in order to convey the fundamentals of singing in any language that works for the student. They also develop the student’s kinesthetic ability as it pertains to singing. Vocal exercises should be assigned with a clear intent; it is possible to do different exercises with the same intention and the same exercise with different intentions. The student should clearly understand why they are doing each exercise within a framework of mastering different aspects of technique. When things are unclear or confusing to the student, their progress is naturally slower.

Retired singers make excellent vocal coaches in the style and repertoire (songs) that they performed during their career. As a musical coach and/or language coach they can be invaluable. They will also be able to share how they experience singing which may, or may not, be the same as your experience. For example, if the teacher likes to use imagery to explain technique this may work for the student if they also like the use of imagery. An example of this is ‘thread the needle as you go up through that register change’. How do you ‘thread the needle’ when you sing? Obviously you can’t. But if they say it and then demonstrate how they do it, perhaps something will ‘click’ for the student. Then again, perhaps it won’t. These types of images never worked for me but they did work for others. Other images such as ‘think down as you go up’ did work for me but I found them to be more feeling based and less purely imagery. Along with the ‘think down’ I was given something physical to do which helped keep the throat relaxed. As I worked with this idea I became more and more successful.

As you can see, it is important to find someone who works the same way you do. If the teacher has an excellent reputation but you just don’t get their teaching style there is nothing wrong with you. You simply have a different way of experiencing the world in general and your voice in particular. Look for a teacher that either teaches in a way you can relate to or is willing to try different approaches until you ‘get it’.

Voice science – technical books on singing are so difficult to understand. Why is this?

Unfortunately, many good books on singing are very difficult to understand unless you’ve already mastered your singing voice to a large degree. I find the scholarly texts often use a lot of medical terminology and in depth discussions on physiology that go way beyond the needs of the most singers. Knowledge should improve your ability to sing, not just your ability to intellectualize about anatomy as it pertains to singing. I studied physiology for one reason only: I wanted to sift through all the bad ideas I’d accumulated over the years and keep only those that were based on fact in order to improve my ability to sing. I needed some facts about human anatomy in order to judge which ideas were pointing me in the right direction as a singer and which where a waste of time. Good ideas help clarify various issues in order to improve more rapidly and to correct bad habits. Vocal anomalies are also more easily solved when you understand how the voice functions. Technical books are often the undertaking of singers doing a PhD in which the intellectual or scholarly language is seen as a big plus and/or requirement. They are written to please the panel judging your PhD and not the working singer. There is a big void when it comes to basic information geared towards the large population of amateur, aspiring and professional singers. It is my intention to bridge this gap by providing lots of good, easy-to-understand information, which is readily available via the internet and perhaps a singer’s handbook in the future.

Why do I always run out of breath when I sing?

Running out of breath is due to poor breath management; not knowing how to ‘support’ your singing voice. Learning to sing includes learning how to use the breath more efficiently. In other words, you take a smaller breath and learn to singing longer phrases using less air by ‘supporting’ that breath and improving your phonation (how the vocal cords vibrate). Untrained singers often take too much air then they cannot properly control it so it rushes out as they sing making their voice breathy. Alternately, they take additional breaths at strange places in relation to the poetry of the song. You hear this quite a lot in pop singing; the singer will typically take a breath before the last word of the phrase, which makes no sense to the phrase itself. You should be phrasing as you would speak. Nobody says, “I’m dreaming of a white. Christmas.” or “The look. Of love. Is in. Your eyes.” to exaggerate the point. We sometimes hear this type of phrasing in popular songs; in the classical field it’s not tolerated.

Why do I always go off-key when I sing? Do I have a hearing problem?

Going off-key is rarely the result of a hearing problem. It can be an inability of the vocal cords to adjust properly to match pitches or an inability of the singer to hear the difference between pitches. In this case, it’s a two-fold problem; one is mechanical and the other is a problem of perception. Some people have difficulty hearing the difference between notes that are lower and notes that are higher. We say someone has a ‘good ear’ or is ‘musical’ if they can match pitches easily; and say they have ‘a tin ear’ or are ‘not musical’ if they have difficulty in this area. Singers normally think a pitch and the cords adjust automatically to produce the same pitch. Singers are ‘thinking pitches’ therefore, before they actually sing them.

Matching pitches can be learned. It’s a matter of training the ear to hear the difference and letting the vocal cords get used to what that difference feels like. It’s a slow process but I have heard determined singers who drastically improved this ability with consistent practice. They are usually not given much encouragement and succeed with patience, determination and consistently working on it. Many teachers don’t see the point of working with a student who has so much going against them. Some singers, who have no problem matching pitches on a rising scale, have difficulty on a descending scale. This can be due to various reasons; the notes not being properly connected, overshooting the mark, or a delay between hearing the pitch and adjusting to match it.

The other cause of going off-key is bad technique. If a singer is singing ‘too heavy’ they will often go flat (sing slightly below the proper pitch). Singing ‘too heavy’ is a result of too much weight in the voice or a technique that has you raising, or otherwise manipulating, the soft palate. This particular problem of interfering with the soft palate is actually taught by well-intentioned teachers under many disguises; everything from ‘open your throat’ to ‘modify your vowel towards a hooty sound’ to ‘yawn when you sing’ to ‘sing with a long nose’ to the strangest one of all ‘attack in the mask’. All of the aforementioned imagery causes students to raise the soft palate to varying degrees causing tension. Eventually the muscles of the soft palate become tired which can cause pitch problems (singing flat).

Singing flat can also be caused by a lack of energy. This is less common but possible. Likewise if a singer has too much energy and cannot channel it properly, it can cause them to go sharp (sing slightly above the proper pitch). Going sharp is more rare than going flat; it’s usually the result of the abdominal muscles being too tight. Overly tight abdominals can be a result of nervous tension in a performance situation.

Should I use my nose or my mouth to breathe when singing?

This can be an important point for some teachers; for me it’s not. I am more concerned with where the air goes when you take it (how low is the breath) and how relaxed is the throat. Some people are overly concerned with how ‘noisy’ the breath is. If you concentrate on a silent breath through the mouth you can be creating a lot of tension in the throat by ‘opening’ it wider than normal. ‘Opening the throat’ causes tension in the glottis and in the soft palate and dries out your mouth. Try it. Your breath should be kind-of slow. Of course this is not always possible but when it is slow it tends to be more relaxed and lower. As you get more proficient at a low breath, you can take it quickly and keep it low. Of course the cardinal rule in breathing is to keep the throat relaxed. If your throat gets tight, especially at the end (or top) of the breath, it will transmit tension to your singing voice. This type of breath must be clearly avoided.

A noisy breath through the nose can be a result of sinus congestion or just the speed at which you take it. Quick breaths are better taken through the mouth. I generally breathe through the mouth although I don’t think much about it. If your mouth, including the tongue and soft palate, is relaxed, the breath will not dry out your mouth, even if it’s a quick one.

You should also be aware that it is normal for your audience to be breathing along with you, sympathetically. This is an unconscious phenomenon that happens all the time.

Would I able to extend my vocal range and hit higher notes, or should I be resigned to my current voice?

Firstly, I don’t know what your current voice is or its range. Most people have at least two and a half octaves. Range extension is a result of good technique. I have a couple of ways of checking your range without you actually singing. It gives me a clue as to your voice type and potential. I don’t push singers into their upper range until they can ‘support’ and ‘anchor’ their voice at least partially. Without being able to anchor the upper notes you can tire the voice very quickly which is not good. I want you to be able to go into your upper range in a healthy way, without straining.

Is rhythm really that important when singing?

Absolutely, rhythm is fundamental to music. Music, in essence, is the division of time into beats; it’s a way of organizing time. With the rhythm you may add notes and make a melody or you can make music, just with rhythms. Drumming ensembles are still considered music. When you are singing you are either singing ‘on the beat’ (as in classical, pop and country) or ‘off the beat’ (as in jazz, some pop, R&B, soul, etc.). It must be clear to the musicians you are working with, however, that even if you are playing with the beat, you are feeling it strongly. In classical music there is often a conductor who ‘keeps the beat’ for everyone to follow, in order to be together. Any way you look at it, rhythm is really important. The rhythm of a song must be intentionally learned in every detail, along with the melody and words, regardless of style.

How is rhythm different from tempo?

Tempo is the speed at which the beats are going by. You can have a fast tempo (sometimes called up-tempo in Jazz) or a slow tempo. Tempo (singular) or Tempi (plural) are indicated by two things: the basic beat of the piece and a number. For example, a quarter note = 80, which means 80 beats per minute. This is a very common tempo since it mimics the average person’s heartbeat. Tempos in classical music are often indicated by an Italian word such as Andante. Andante extends from 76 to108 beats per minute so it is less precise and gives the performer more liberty when interpreting the piece. Adagio is 66 to 76 beats per minute which would be a slower pace and lends itself towards a more relaxed heartbeat. Since music translates feelings into an organized way of dividing time, both rhythmically and with various pitches, changing the tempo can affect the feeling portrayed by the singer, artist or ensemble. Tempos in classical music are relatively stable. In Jazz they can vary widely; you can take a ballad and sing it up-tempo or take a fast song and sing it as a ballad. We rarely see this kind of flexibility in other genres of music.

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