Pushing the tenor

If you can tear yourself away from the divorce-o-rama and Gloria Gaither impersonations going on in that most recent, festering open thread, you may have noticed RF’s comment in a more recent thread:

Years ago Guy Penrod pushed Jonathon Pierce right out of a job. Guy had such a big range and it put jonathon in a strain.What I am saying is sometimes a lead singer with a good high range can really push a tenor. Maybe that wouldnt be the case with a Baritone to lead. Am I making any sense? Does anybody understand what im trying to say.

I think I do get what he’s saying: small ensembles singing harmony – like quartets and trios – need balance, not just in intensity or volume and timbre or blend, but also in range. Not range in the sense of “can the guy above or below me sing my part.” At least not that exactly. Rather, it’s a question of how wide of a range each person at each part has. And it’s especially important (and can be especially tricky) for tenors and leads (and to a lesser extent leads and baritones … it’s not much of an issue for baritones and basses).

If the lead can comfortably sing into the tenor range, usually he will, either consciously, by dint of habit or showmanship, or both. And that effectively recalibrates the tenor part up, whether the tenor can sing further up or not. Arrangers will start arranging the group’s songs around the lead’s extended upper range, so that the combined effect will be to push the tenor up and up in order to make his part stand out. If he’s got a fairly low ceiling to his comfort zone, then he’ll pretty quickly end up either out of his range and out of a voice, or outsung by the lead – and both outcomes can mean he’ll soon be out of a job. Cause who wants a tenor who can’t keep up.

I don’t know if this is what happened with Jonathan Pierce or not (speaking of him, he seems to have fallen off the grid after that 2003 solo project, or have I missed something?). Like all quartets, the Gaither Vocal Band has gone through phases when their sound was higher and lower. But arguably one thing that has set them apart – among many, many other equally or more important factors – is that they have sung reliably sophisticated arrangements reliably well in a reliably higher range than most groups, since you can get a bigger bang out of your ending with David Phelps on an E above middle High C or whatever than you can singing a high B flat (I’m making those notes up btw … it’s been too long since I placed his tones to recall where exactly some of his higher moments were, on the scale … the point is: they were very high).

Wes Hampton has proven far more terrestrial than Phelps the Stratospheric Power Diva. And perhaps that accounts for the drift in style and slackened intensity of the Vocal Band’s more recent work. It’s not so much about Hampton having Phelps’s range, as it is the ability to keep up with Penrod dynamically. My sense is, Hampton can’t. There’s a fundamental imbalance there that’s not toxic, but it does suggest that the lead and tenor not only need to have comparably wide ranges but also the ability to push back against one another with equal force.

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  1. Ben Harris wrote:

    I think that is partially true. Most good tenors can sing a C and sustain it. One in a thousand can sing a D, and the E is left for those with very tight boxers. Now of course we are talking in full voice, not falsetto. I think John Rulpaugh is one of the finest tenors in the business and he will tell you that a B flat is all he can sing, although I remember fibbing to him about a key once and he sang the C convincingly. David Phelps is that once in a lifetime singer, it wasn’t that he could sing so high, it was that he had so much power when doing so. I try to convince groups to have wide dynamics. In other words, don’t sing everything full throttle, nor as high as you can possible go. Leave room for those moments to be special . If you do that sort of think in every song, you have no where to go, and you will eventually kill your tenor and your lead. I think Guy tries to sing much to high. When he is on an F or a G his quality if much better than when he is on an A or A flat.

  2. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    Ben, didn’t John sing several D-flats on one of his songs with Palmetto State Quartet?

    Sorry–I simply cannot remember what song that was just now. I will try to pull that out tomorrow morning.

  3. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    OK, John hits a brief D-flat on “What a Privilege to Know Him” (right near the end), but I’m not sure that is the one I was thinking of. It seems I was thinking of one where he went there twice within a line of music.

  4. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    Another D-flat–actually two, one in the chorus and one in the encore–can be found right at the end of “When it pours God Reigns.” John sings, “Well, when it pours God reigns” and holds out “pours” over several years. The first of the notes in that series is a D-flat.

  5. Ben Harris wrote:

    Daniel you just made my point for me. John will tell you B flat is tops, but he sang the C convincingly???? A D flat is 1/2 step above a C. The point is, it was in his mind that B flat was the top note.

  6. quartet-man wrote:

    Doug, I think you mean an E above HIGH C.
    I heard Phelps didn’t like singing above an E, but I am sure he could. He also sang a low E (not the George Younce or Tim Riley Low E beneath Low C, but the E above low C, so he has a good range.

    There were times Lowry would sing a high G or even an A (on Mary Did You Know.) Guy could even more wail away at a Bb and has gone up to a Db or so. This was used to great effect on I Believe In A Hill Called Mount Calvary, The Old Rugged Cross Made A Difference and Count On Me. (Which did have the Db.)

    They have become easier singers in places for a while, with the country flavored stuff, but did have some higher louder stuff mixed in. I don’t think Wes can get as high or as loud as David, but I think he has a good sound and does well. No one is really going to match Phelps, so they do what they can do. This is one reason why the style of the GVB changes a lot. They like and can do other styles, but also around what a new vocalist’s strengths are.

  7. revike3 wrote:

    The dynamic about leads and tenors can work the opposite way too. I remember having a conversation at NQC with a singer who had sung lead with a very prominent group for a while and who had left in part because, as he put it, the tenor was a “freak” who sang so high so constantly that he could not keep up. Needless to say, the singer in question would have probably been more comfortable as a baritone, and his replacement in that group could easily have been classified as another first tenor.

  8. Radioguy wrote:

    I too have noticed a more subdued sound with the Vocal Band and quite frankly I prefer it. I love power singing and power harmony, but it is done best when saved for those special moments when needed. It seemed with Phelps that all it was. Screaming. Don’t get me wrong. I wholeheartly agree…he is one of the best if not the best. I just got tired of being bellowed at. Wes I think is a better fit. This young man has plenty of power, but he saves it for when it’s needed. I was at a Gaiither gathering this past sat night (as stated in another thread). They did a song where they were going through and then Wes took over. He appeared to be having problems singing that high. Gaither said “Did we get it too high for you”? Then he came on strong and finished it perfectly. Obviously they had it all set that way perhaps to cast away any doubts that Wes can hold his own. On another note, Marshall is the best baritone they’ve had in a long time too. Oh I know Russ is a powerhouse and Mark was a great funny guy, but for blending and good solid smooth solo work, Marshall is great. I think they have the best combo right now they’ve had in some time. I throughly enjoyed the Give it Away C-D. Haven’t got the new one yet. As far a Phelps, I far prefer his solo work over the stuff he did with the Vocal Band.

  9. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    Ben, yes, I would have to agree that it’s partially a mental thing.

    I’m not a trained singer or anything (wish I had that chance!), but I know I’ve sometimes sung higher than I thought I could and found out afterwards that I had the wrong key.

    I’ve heard the same thing works for bass singers, too.

  10. Kyle wrote:

    If you listen to some of the Michael English-era GVB material, there were plenty of times where Mike was singing ABOVE the tenor. Guy also did this when they covered “Why Me, Lord.”

    I still say that Terry Franklin is a VERY underrated tenor singer. Listen to “The Voice Of The Father” on the “Peace Of The Rock” album, and he is pretty high and clear on that last chorus. Also, hearing him sing “Little Is Much” (which Wes has recently picked up) is one of my all-time favorites.

    Jonathan Pierce, I think, was brought in to replace (to an extent) English. He sang with a similar contemporary style, and had a similar range. He also did a decent job on “I Bowed On My Knees.” When Guy came along, though, it was all downhill from there….

  11. jbb wrote:

    I heard a long time ago, that it is Bill’s “way” or the “hi-way”…Guess that’s what happened to Jonathan. I heard him live one time and thoroughly enjoyed him, but, I think they are at their best now.

  12. Grigs wrote:

    When Pierce joined the GVB, they were doing about 50 dates per year. This gave him plenty of time to work on getting his solo career off the ground. By ‘97, they were doing 150 dates per year and his first solo album was in the works. He left the GVB because he just didn’t have time to tour with them any more.

  13. Leebob wrote:

    #8..I couldn’t agree more. I think we sometimes push the range “out of context” for the song and often the evening just keeps you blown away. Most of the “power” songs would be fine if they dropped a couple of keys into a human range.

    #12..Pierce was wore out by the time he left GVB, whether it was GVB or solo work. To the audience, he was just wore out. No shame in that, it just happens to the best of singers and preachers.

  14. irishlad wrote:

    I’ve heard one or two baritones ‘pushing ‘basses , on the volumn level at least. I remember Jeff Pearles saying he hated having to sing through Tony Peace every night. And that was coming from a pretty powerful bass too. Rick Fair’s another but Aaron McCune handled just fine.

  15. thom wrote:

    a friend popped his copy of the new Gaither project into the CD player of my car to let me hear it the other day. I found it mostly BOR-ing and actually skipped through a couple of the songs.

    “Give it Away” was a much better project.

  16. Robert wrote:

    This may not be exactly on subject but the group I am with is a trio. We tried for the first couple of years to take the tenor into the stratosphere and came close to ruining his voice. Now we consciously lower the key on most all songs (even when they are in the tenor’s range to begin with) and have a couple of songs that push the range just a little. After lowering the songs the harmonies are tighter and sound more “pure”, according to our fans.
    Two of my favorite groups that sing a lot of “low harmony” stuff are the Booth Bros and Greater Vision. Both of which, not many people would argue, are two of the most successful groups going today.

  17. quartet-man wrote:

    I love the quartets with the stratospheric tenor and low down bass, the best. That is great if you have the people who can pull it off and not hurt their voices. Put a Phelps, Funderburk, Bill Baize on tenor and George Younce, Tim Riley or Richard Sterban on bass and I love it.

    Gold City can still do some of this well. I especially love endings where the tenor might hit a high Ab over high C and a bass a low Ab. That is the way it was meant to be. :)

  18. BUICK wrote:

    I agree with Radioguy (#8). Good points and well-made.

    Don’t you suppose that, in his day, James Blackwood was hard to sing tenor over? He always sounded more like a first tenor than a lead, to me. Bill Shaw had the pipes to do it, though. I don’t think we have many tenors like Shaw today.

  19. Cliff Cerce wrote:

    Some of the most dynamic singing of times past paired strong first and second tenors. Consider Bill Shaw and James Blackwood (of The Blackwood Brothers), Rosie Rozell and Jake Hess (of The Satesmen), and Duane Nicholson and Neil Enloe (of The Couriers).

    All 3 of the above-mentioned groups often used cross-voicing between the first and second tenors in a very effective way to maximize the strength of those pairs.

    Sadly, arrangers today routinely enlist cross-voicing between the second tenors and baritones (often without imagination - a little “rub” between the parts would bring a nice effect), but they seem oblivious to using cross-voicing in the upper parts.

    (”Cross-voicing” refers to the writing style that causes one part to “go over - and then under” the other part, rather than staying either over or under it in register. It is commonly used with the second tenor and baritone voices, but all-but forsaken in writing for the first and second tenor parts. It is most effective when one of the two parts being “cross-voiced” is the melody, regardless of which part is singing it).

    For an example, examine the pickup to the chorus of “Oh What a Savior” by The Statesmen, where Jake sings “over” Rosie in the beginning of the chorus, before singing beneath him. It adds to the energy of the opening of the chorus.

    Here is a clip that shows the effectiveness of this technique. It is the last 2 choruses of a live recording of The Couriers from 1967 where they were singing “Homecoming”, written over 40 years ago by Ben Turner’s current tenor’s father, Little David Young.


    Second tenor Neil Enloe takes the lead all the way through the first chorus heard on the clip, but tenor Duane Nicholson takes the lead all the way through the final chorus - with Neil singing both “over” and “under” his part throughout the chorus.

    This is a very dynamic sound that used to be a common writing style (Wally Varner used it often with Bill Shaw and James Blackwood), but it is seldom heard today.

    I thing the sound that could be achieved with this occasional style of writing with Wes Hampton and Guy Penrod would be phenomenal - both singers playing to their strengths.

    Does anyone agree?

  20. Cliff Cerce wrote:

    Actually, I meant to say that the first chorus on the clip had the lead by baritone, Daave Kyllonen - with the 1st and 2nd tenor parts directly above him.

    My point was that the earlier chorus did not use cross-voicing, but the final chorus did - to a good effect.

  21. AnnD wrote:

    Oh my, Radioguy…if David Phelps is considered to be screaming, then what is every other tenor in the world doing? :). AD

  22. Cliff Cerce wrote:

    Boy - I’ve been having one senior moment after another today.

    Of course, in post 19, I meant Ben Harris, not Ben Turner.

    Ben Turner sings in a group from Iowa. I can’t believe I typed his name instead of Ben Harris’.

  23. Grigs wrote:

    Re: #13

    Pierce might have been wore out, but Bill Gaither announced that he(Jonathan) was working on a solo project on Curb at NQC ‘96. By the next summer, Jonathan was gone and his solo career was in full swing not long afterwards.

    I just don’t think it’s fair or accurate to say Guy “pushed him out” of the GVB when he was going solo anyway.

    Sorry if it wasn’t what you wanted…

  24. quartet-man wrote:

    I think the poster meant because Guy could sing so high that Jonathon couldn’t keep up and thus left. I don’t think it is fair to act like Gaither pushed him out either. Bill has been great at supporting people to get their own thing going and wishing them well.

    I thought that Pierce would have been a better fit at the lead slot, but even then I remember how English at times seemed to have an easier time on high notes than Pierce.

  25. quartet-man wrote:

    The Blackwoods is a great example of high leads. Another would be the Prophets.
    I thought both that the other day and hadn’t posted it and also that there was some neat arranging in the past where they might put Duane Allen above Willie Wynn at times to be more dynamic. One example is the ending of The Joy Of Knowing Jesus. The Gaithers did it on These are they. Michael has the melody on top for much of the song, and then towards the end, Murray sings above him.

    The GVB also showed some good arranging on Little Is Much. The melody goes under the second tenor at times and Michael sings over Terry. One example is “in Jesus name” prior to the ending.

  26. brad wrote:

    i dont think his solo career has taken off like he though. When most of the rest that left the gvb have been very sucessful.

  27. DrummingDrew wrote:

    I went and heard Gold City and Aaron Wilburn last night. I can’t say that I didn’t laugh; my face was sore after Aaron Wilburn left the stage. I know he traveled with the Happy Goodmans back in the ’70s and wrote “What A Beautiful Day” and other songs like “Four Days Late”. I can’t help but think that he owes a huge debt of gratitude to Bill Gaither for including him on his DVD. He is a funny guy, even though most of his jokes and stories weren’t “religious”, everyone could relate.

    Gold City sang their pants off. Bruce Taliaferro sure has a huge range and pushes Steve Ladd into the stratosphere. He has a more soulful, but less exciting voice than Jonathan Wilburn. I still prefer Ivan Parker and the Gold City of old. Bruce is definitely not as charismatic as Jonathan. He did show a bit of emotion on his solos, and a huge amount of foot tapping. He would fit in with Greater Vision in the stage presence category.

    Steve Ladd is phenomenal as is Danny Riley. Aaron McCune seems to be pre-occupied with making the 15″ subs shake rather than singing a good solid bass line. I miss Tim Riley….:) If I didn’t own the revival CD, I would not have been able to distinguish many words from McCune’s solos. Everyone else was clear in their diction and on pitch. McCune didn’t quite make it there on some of the intermediate pitches. Sometimes it’s only the low notes you can hear. His stage presence was more Elvis than I cared for.

    However, I’d say that it was an enjoyable evening. The auditorium holds about 1,200 people. It was about 2/3 full. If I had to pay (it was a ticketed event) I would have left feeling like I bought some coffee from Starbucks (overpaid for what I got). Most of the people I know that attended (about 25 or so) had free tickets from local businesses. I had 12 extra tickets I couldn’t give away. I was on about the 12th row back and there were numerous seats in front of me. I think the lack of attendance was due to lack of advertising.

    Especially in this area (Greeneville, TN 1.5 hr NE of Knoxville), if you are not Gaither, the Primitive, or the McCameys, you will not pack the place. There is not a local SG station and most people I talked with didn’t really know who Gold City was. They had heard of them and came due to the free ticket.

    The concert ended with a standing ovation to “Midnight Cry”, on which Bruce sounded more like Joseph Habadank than Ivan Parker. However, there was no invitation given, which I thought a bit unusual (unless you are a fan of the Jonathan Sawrie mindset).

  28. Ben Harris wrote:

    I heard Gold City recently and left with a totally different perspective of Aaron McCune. I think he is one of the best bass singers to come along in a very long while. I did a project for PSQ a couple of years ago when Aaron was still with them, and he blew me away. Not only did he have his part before everyone else, but he also knew everyone else’s part too. His pitch was solid and his timing was so in the pocket it was amazing. Now, I love Tim Riley, but I am not a fan of that kind of vocal structure where there are several parts open between the baritone and the bass. I like the blend tight, and Aaron does that as well as any man alive. I only have one bass who I think is as good if not better all around, and that is Alan Brewster who sings with us. I know, I know, I am totally biased, but I think Alan is the best going right now for he has it all, extremely low voice, extended high range, and can sing a solo like no other I have ever heard.

  29. matt wrote:

    Regarding #27’s comments on Aaron McCune’s pitch issues, I’m sure Aaron’s dad will post shortly to defend his son. I hear alot of sg singers have parents who hang around to defend their kids singing. :-)

  30. DrummingDrew wrote:

    I am not saying that Aaron is a bad singer or has chronic pitch problems. I realize that not every singer is perfect. That was just my review of the concert. Like I said, I have the Revival CD and love it. I like his voice, and liked him with PSQ. I guess it is just that I am used to hearing Riley sing certain parts and McCune doesn’t try to sing what Tim did. It seems he just goes for the low notes and then the higher parts are mostly inaudible. While I don’t claim to have perfect pitch, I do work in a recording studio and have put in my time with critical listening and tuning vocals with auto-tune. It was just 2 “off” notes. One was about 1/4-1/5 step sharp (ironically, a higher note in the middle of a song) and another, a growler at the end (even less sharp). This is the second time I have saw GC with him and my socks haven’t been blown off like they were the first time I heard Tim Riley. I know GC is in God’s will and I wish them the best. No ill will meant here by my review. I could tell that they have a heart for ministry. Keep on singing guys!

  31. matt wrote:

    I definitely agree that Tim Riley is one of the best…..I have always enjoyed him, and found his performances to be solid.

  32. D. Ann Bailey wrote:

    Heard Gold City tonight, normally I’m at or near the front and have not heard pitch or diction problems from Aaron but I’m sure everyone can have an off night. Tonight I got there just 15-20 minutes before the concert and it was standing room only. I was at the back, again I had no problems understanding Aaron.

    The group did a fantastic job and from the conversations at the table many of the people there had not heard the new group but they really liked what they heard.

    Following someone with the ‘over the top’ excitement that was Jonathan’s calling card but Bruce was in his element tonight and the crowd loved him. Now he didn’t leave the stage and come out into the crowd like he did the first time I saw him but his personality certainly wasn’t missing. Where Jonathan ‘took charge of the stage’ in many ways, Bruce is more a part of the team but that’s not necessarialy a bad thing. It has given Aaron, Steve and Danny the chance to step out more. I believe that in the weeks and months to come as this group has time to continue to mesh together you will see more of the personality that #27 felt was lacking on Thursday night.

  33. Cliff Cerce wrote:

    We did a concert several years ago in North Carolina with The Anchormen, The Galloways and Ivan Parker.

    Steve Ladd and Aaron McCune were both with The Anchormen that night, and I remarked to my wife that I thought both of them were really going places.

    I was right - but I had no idea they were both going the same place - Gold City.

    I think that Aaron is more precise than he is being given credit for here by some. Many bass singers don’t really know where the beat is- they chase it all night long - but Aaron seems to take command of it. And, he seems to be more articulate than most bass singers - to my ear.

  34. irishlad wrote:

    A question for #28. Ben, is Alan Brewster(i haven’t heard him sing) really in the same league as say Harold Gilley? Hand on heart now all bias aside please.

  35. quartet-man wrote:

    So, Doug, why didn’t my catch of the middle c in favor of the high C you meant warrant a strike through instead of a correction? This is discrimination I tell ya! ;)

  36. Ben Harris wrote:

    To Irishlad, I have sang with Harold Gilley two years running at GOGR in group put together to imitate the Master’s Five, and Harold is very very good. Alan has a tremendous musical knowledge, and in that respect, that is a strong edge. His range is about the same as Harold’s. Voice wise, he sounds a bit more mellow than Harold, as Harold has a bit more cut to his voice. We were playing around with the Happy Rythym arrangement that PSQ did several years back and Alan sang note for note with Harold, effortlessly. Many at NQC and GOGR were saying last year he was the best they ever heard. He is very good, and to me, I think he is the best going, but I am biased, thats for sure. Guilty as charged. But with hand on herat as you say, that is what I believe.

  37. irishlad wrote:

    Thanks for the honest answer Ben. I must send for a cd, is there one that features Alan?.By the way it’s the way Harold could drop an octave speed the tempo up and be pitch perfect yet articulate that impressed me.

  38. BUICK wrote:

    Irishlad, go to SSQ’s website via this link
    http://southernsoundquartet.com/products.php and click on “Headin’ Home” from the newest SSQ project. It doesn’t “feature” the bass but you can hear him very well.

    I won’t get into the business of comparing two different singers because I’m not knowledgeable enough for that. (I have my preferences and they are not entirely based on what you can hear on a recording.) But I will say that SSQ has a terrific sound. Tight harmonies, they articulate well, great individual talents. And this is one very solid bass singer!

    Who’s better between Alan and Harold? Listen for yourself and let me know what you think?

  39. Cliff Cerce wrote:

    Up until 5 minutes ago, I felt there were 3 outstanding remakes that, in some ways, offered some elements that topped the originals.

    These were Al Hirt’s remake of Bunny Berrigans “I Can’t Get Started”, and The Cathedrals’ remakes of The Statesmen’s “Oh What a Savior” and “I’m Climbing Higher and Higher”.

    But, after listening to Southern Sound’s remake of The Statesmen’s “Heading Home”, I now have expanded my list to 4 instead of just 3.

    All of the voices are superb, IMHO. And, I agree - the bass singer is phenomenal - but so is the rest of the group.

    I hope our paths cross so we can sing on the same program or we can attend one of your concerts, Ben. This is truly outstanding.

  40. irishlad wrote:

    Ben/Buick, something just clicked.A few years back Woody Beatie was in Belfast N.Ireland with PSQ ,he wasn’t travelling with them at this stagebut he did mention a group he was working with who sang Sg in way that upheld genre in,let’s say, a ‘quality’ way. Would that have been Southern Sound? Also who was the bass before Alan Brewster?

  41. irishlad wrote:

    Sorry about the above typos, a few a and thes left out. My fingers were working faster than my brain, but i hope u got my drift.

  42. irishlad wrote:

    Ben, i took Buick’s advice and listened to Headin Home,and yes, i certainly couldn’t disagree with your remarks! Was that you doing a very credible Jake? In closing Alan reminds me of Jeff Pearles, very understated(because he’s good)and your previous bass sounds like Joel Duncan(i know it wasn’t).Best regards from across the Pond.

  43. Ben Harris wrote:

    To Irishlad:

    Our previous bass was the Rev. Charles Brantley who retired in March of 2007. Charles was one of the founding members. A great Christian man and a good solid bass singer. Woody Beatty played piano for us for just under two years. The current lineup is tenor, Mike Young who is the son of Little David Young, yours truly on lead, Trevor Haley baritone, and bass Alan Brewster. Piano chores (and comedian in training), is Barry Patrick. We have the best crew we have ever had. I can’t wait to get on the bus as we tease each other and laugh from the time we leave till the time we get back home. We are currently doing a tribute CD to the Statesmen with 16 of their not so over done songs. We tried to get some gems that others have passed over. Time will tell if that endeavor was a success. As for the “credible Jake”, no not really. I have had people tell me I remind them of Jake, but honestly I don’t think I sound a thing like Jake, wish I did. It think it is the era I came from, or maybe more accurately, the era my Grandfather came from, for the vocal stylings were what he envisioned as the proper way to sing. Thanks Cliff for the kind words. I always wanted to do Headin’ Home, but I have always been a bit hesitant to do so. I would love to work with you folks anytime, anywhere. I caught a bit of your group, (I arrived late) last year in Louisville at one of the showcases over at the Executive. It was good. Come to NQC on Monday night and give us some moral support, we need all the help we can get.

  44. freddyfastbeat wrote:

    Sounds to me like #27 is just trying to stir up a mess. It always seems that every time someone new comes along in one of the BIG sg groups someone always has to pick them apart.

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