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#1170184 - 03/28/09 10:50 AM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: survivordan]
Piano Girl RMG Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/24/07
Posts: 708
Loc: Germany
Hi Everyone!

I've been playing cocktail piano for decades. Here's the introduction to my book Piano Girlóit sort of sums up ho I feel about the way I make my living.

Piano Girl: A Memoir (Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard)
©2005 Robin Meloy Goldsby, All Rights Reserved
Excerpt courtesy of Backbeat Books

Introduction
Life from the Other Side of the Steinway

Itís not always a Steinway. Sometimes itís an ugly-looking, beautiful-sounding white BŲsendorfer concert grand or a Yamaha conservatory grand with a high-gloss mirrored surface, so polished that I can see the mood of the evening staring back at me. Sometimes the instrument I play barely qualifies as a piano. Sometimes itís an Army-surplus spinet made by a firm that is a subsidiary of a toy company. Sometimes itís a beat-up upright piano with four broken stringsóand when I press a key I can hear several distinct tones fluttering together and laughing at me with their out-of-tuneness. Sometimes it really is the perfect Steinway Model B, a seven-foot grand with a sound warm enough to make me stay at the piano forever, just listening. I play. I make music. I am the tall blond woman in the strapless cocktail dress, and I sit in the corner and play the piano.

I didnít set out to be a cocktail pianist. But here I am, wearing something black, a little eyeliner, a little lipstick, high heels. Iím not Shirley Horn, or Diana Krall, or Marian McPartland, or Bobby Short in a blond wig. Not even close. But I work all the time and Iím pretty good at what I do.

There are many terms for my profession. I am called a cocktail pianist, a bar pianist, a hotel pianist, and a lounge pianist. I perform background music that enhances a dinner, a lunch, a chilled prosecco; or atmosphere music meant to embellish a business meeting, a wedding, an illicit affairówithout getting in the way. I play music that is comforting, gentle enough to pacify, melodic enough to nudge my audience into the folds of their own memories.

Iíve spent many years underestimating the validity of my job. Iím not really a bar pianist, I tell myself, because I want to be more than that. Iím a student. Iím an actor. Iím a writer. Iím a composer. Iím a single woman living in New York City standing on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Iím a citizen of the world. Iím happy. Iím a mother. Iím a wife. Iím all of these things, true, true, true. But Iím able to be all of these things because playing the piano in a hotel continues to pay the bills. Now, with the wisdom of a maturity that was bound to catch up with me, I realize that being a cocktail pianist is a lovely way to make a living. It started out as a way to earn money for college. It ended up being my profession for thirty years and counting.

I play medleys of great songs and obnoxious songs and make them all sound, well, nice. Plus Iíve been questionably blessed with the ability to be polite, to smile, and to remember the first names of the customers who stray into the joints where Iím playing. These days, some of the joints are castles in Europe. Iíve traveled a long way from the Nantucket Club Car and the Redwood Motor Inn on Banksville Road in Pittsburgh where I had my first steady gigs as a teenager, but basically the scene is the same. Fancier clothes, slightly better piano, same ratio of lunatics to normal people. I play.

Sometimes Iím treated like visiting royalty from a mysterious land, flown to the job in a private jet, showered with roses, fine wine, and compliments from people whose pashmina socks cost more than my entire wardrobe. Sometimes I feel like a frazzled waitress with eighty-eight keys strapped around my neck, taking orders from drunken shoe salesmen who would prefer to see me go-go dance in a green fringed bikini on top of the piano rather than make any sense out of the instrument in front of me.

Every job presents the chance to be a musical fly on the wallóproviding a piano score for life as itís served, straight-up with a side of olives, to the droves of people who pass through the worldís bars and restaurants. Over the years Iíve been appalled, attacked, blown away by kindness, cajoled into fits of giggles, and moved to tears by the tiny dramas that unfold before my eyes and ears. I cry. I laugh. Laughter is a kind of musicóthe best kind. Iíve always wanted to write the score for a film. But maybe this is better. Iím writing and playing music for life, as it happens. Itís like recording live on tape, without the tape.

One day Iím eighteen years old, sitting down to play my first job. Startled, I wake up on a bright spring morning and realize that Iím forty-six, and that my entire adult life can be documented by a series of forty-minute sets and twenty-minute breaks. I fret about missed opportunitiesóhow Iíve spent the peak years of my life behind an instrument that fights back more often than it complies with my wishesóand the way real time slips away from me like runaway triplets at a childrenís piano recital.

I have moments of artistic satisfaction. Many of them. On a typical nightóin between requests and idle chit-chat with guests from, say, Helsinki, or Bogata, or HackensackóI play the music that I want to play, the way I want to play it. I feel peaceful, exhilarated, and sure that Iíve chosen the right profession. Itís almost a magical feeling, and I allow it to sweep me away. Then some drunk-on-his-ass sales rep from a surgical supply company sends me a cocktail napkin with a request for ďMemoryĒ from Cats, a twenty-dollar bill, andóas an afterthoughtóhis room number. I check out the man who has sent the note. He is sprawled on the burgundy velvet banquette, smoking a cigar and drinking a brandy. He looks like a cross between a sloth and a walrus. I play the song, keep the money, and make sure a taxi is waiting for me at quitting time.

I go home, slightly amused, a little disgusted. But I come back the next day to play again. In fact, I look forward to it. The smells of cigarette smoke, grilled steak, and too much Chanel No. 5 waft in my direction like a big cloud of fairy dust blown in from a distant yet familiar planet. I sit at the piano. The customers briefly acknowledge my presence, then resume talking. Itís time for my first set. I place my hands on the instrument, not quite sure what to play. I never know what the first song will be until exactly this moment. In front of me is a maze of ebony and ivory, but I donít see the keys anymore. I see the faces of 30 years of guests, friends, bartenders, and waiters morphing into an impressionistic canvas of something remarkable.

So I play a song to remember.
_________________________
Robin Meloy Goldsby
www.goldsby.de
Author of PIANO GIRL: A Memoir
RHYTHM: A Novel
RMG is a Steinway Artist

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Piano & Music Accessories
#1170234 - 03/28/09 12:38 PM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: Piano Girl RMG]
survivordan Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/01/09
Posts: 844
Loc: Ohio
That was touching, Piano Girl. I especially liked the part about 'runaway triplets at a childrens' piano recital'!
_________________________
Working On:

BACH: Invention No. 13 in a min.
GRIEG: Notturno Op. 54 No. 4
VILLA-LOBOS: O Polichinelo

Next Up:

BACH: Keyboard Concerto in f minor

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#1170719 - 03/29/09 10:12 AM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: survivordan]
Philip Yeoh Offline
Full Member

Registered: 05/30/08
Posts: 73
Loc: Penang, Malaysia
Piano Girl, I've played cocktail piano for almost 30 years, and you've summed it up exactly as I picture it. I like the sentence about not knowing what your first song in the set will be until the moment comes. I don't do any forward planning myself, either. Just sit down at the piano and play whatever I feel at that point in time.

This can be the most soul-destroying job of all time, especially when you know that nobody's really listening to you, the instrument is crappy, and there are plenty of kids running about, making enough noise to raise the dead.

On the other hand, what other job enables me to take a 15 or 20-minute break every hour on the hour, provides me with a good meal, doesn't restrict my repertoire, and pays the bills?
_________________________
www.philipyeoh.com/blog

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#1170732 - 03/29/09 11:04 AM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: Philip Yeoh]
Bob Newbie Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/02/06
Posts: 1553
You bring a smile to the dreary numbness of life..and that always a welcome gift..:)

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#1171261 - 03/30/09 09:09 AM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: Bob Newbie]
Piano Girl RMG Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/24/07
Posts: 708
Loc: Germany
Thank you, fellow cocktail musicians!

One night last week, just as I was sitting down at the piano, a nervous private party client asked me exactly what i was going to play (the castle lobby was full of stuffy men in fancy suits, sipping champagne and whispering to each other).

I said: "I have no idea." The guy got a panicked look on his face, so I added, "But don't worry, it will be perfect."

That kind of sums it up.
_________________________
Robin Meloy Goldsby
www.goldsby.de
Author of PIANO GIRL: A Memoir
RHYTHM: A Novel
RMG is a Steinway Artist

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#1171626 - 03/30/09 08:08 PM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: Piano Girl RMG]
Ken. Offline
Full Member

Registered: 01/07/08
Posts: 290
How good do you have to be to do be a cocktail pianist? It seems to me you would have to know a lot of tunes, be able to melodically improvise, and play by ear so you could get through any tunes that you don't know well. I'm guessing you probably wouldn't need to play anything up tempo.
_________________________
Monk - Ugly Beauty
Bach - Two Part Invention No.12

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#1171654 - 03/30/09 08:57 PM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: survivordan]
Hop Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/24/08
Posts: 654
Loc: Hudson, FL
Let me see if I understand your view of cocktail piano. Is it essentially playing standards as a piano solo, like on a cruise ship in the evening? If so, then I do have some suggestions.

Do you play be ear, or do you read music? Again, the book suggestions would be somewhat different.

One of the basic books that I like better than most is "All About the Piano" by Mark Harrison. In fact, he writes a lot of good books. But he does expect you to read music from the staff.

Let me know the answers to the above questions and I'll try to offer more choices.

Hop
_________________________
HG178, Roland FP-5, Casio PX 130

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#1173708 - 04/03/09 09:00 AM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: survivordan]
Hop Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/24/08
Posts: 654
Loc: Hudson, FL
I like your idea to restart this thread to focus on books to help us achieve cocktain piano proficiency.

Do you want to do it?
_________________________
HG178, Roland FP-5, Casio PX 130

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#1523111 - 09/26/10 03:14 PM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: Hop]
Elssa Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/15/05
Posts: 1582
Loc: NY
Just thought I'd give this thread a *bump*. grin How do you all define "cocktail piano"? Right-hand octave/chords, locked hands block chords, lots of runs & fills, arpeggios, stride style, cross hands? What else? smile


Edited by Elssa (09/26/10 08:32 PM)

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#1523313 - 09/26/10 10:27 PM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: Amnesia]
nitekatt2008z Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/24/08
Posts: 552
I'll never forget years ago there was a lounge/bar across the street from a music store I had a teaching job at. After work, at 6-7Pm, I would sometimes go over there and have a drink. They had a somewhat large older grand piano in the corner of the bar in the reddish, amber spotlight. But for some reason every time I went over there, no one was ever playing cocktail piano.

Anyway, I had a sip of a cocktail and asked the bartender who was playing and he said guys would come and go. He asked me if I possibly played cocktail styles because he knew I was teaching across the street and I lied and told him I did. Uh-oh, I just stepped in quicksand. He then said, "why don't you sit down and play us a tune?" I asked him what to play and he said, "just whatever you want to play."

I had a few tunes memorized, wish I had my RealBook, so I took a few more sips of my drink and went over to sit down at the grand and see how it sounded. I played a few chords and the action and sound of the piano were good. But then my mind went blank, what do I play? Well, "Feelings" popped in my mind. There were about 4-5 older guys sitting, sipping cocktails at the bar. After playing about 8 bars, these guys stopped talking and actually seemed to be listening. Then after I finished the tune, the waitress came over and whispered in my ear that all the men at the bar wanted to buy me a drink. Like 5 cocktails!!! I thought she was kidding!!!

So I said, "ok, how about 5 JW REDs on the rocks with a couple of Perrier chasers." In a few minutes as I'm into another tune, here comes the waitress carrying a tray with 5 beautiful cocktails, enough for a whole happy hour. I have never ordered 5 cocktails at one time, ever!!

Well, I took one sip of one of the drinks and it tasted like a double. I kept playing, drinking, playing, drinking, until all of a sudden I started seeing a 2 keyboard moving piano. The people in the bar clapped after each tune. My head was spinning after about 30-40 minutes and just in my second JW. Uh, break time. I left a tip for the waitress and got up.

I grabbed a drink and went over to thank the guys for my drinks and the bartender for letting me sit in. I left the rest of the drinks on the piano, not intending to finish them, had enough booze for a week. Then the bartender asked me if I wanted a job playing there one night a week. I told him maybe and he said the manager was off that night and for me to come back to play again so he could hear me.

But honestly, I didn't want the gig because I always played with a band rather than solo and really didn't feel I knew enough tunes for 3-4 sets. So I waited a few weeks, went back to the bar and the manager happened to be in. I sat down at the bar and the bartender said, "feel free to play a few tunes for us." I sat down, played a few tunes and the manager flagged me over and offered me the gig. I asked him if I could think about it and he told me, sure.

I ended up not doing the gig because I felt I didn't have enough cocktail tunes ready to play solo. I look back on it and have no regrets. But I'm still not a cocktail pianist and prefer to play with a trio or band.

Throughout my time I have heard cocktail pianists on the Liberace side, many arpeggios and classical overtones, jazz influenced cocktail pianists ala Bill Evans or Peter Nero, pop oriented cocktail pianists like Cy Walter, Roger Williams, or Eddie Duchin. Cocktail piano can define several styles.

katt



Edited by nitekatt2008z (09/27/10 12:11 AM)

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#1523355 - 09/27/10 12:29 AM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: nitekatt2008z]
Elssa Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/15/05
Posts: 1582
Loc: NY
Quote:
Cocktail piano can define several styles.

That's what I love about it - pretty much anything goes. smile Yes, all different styles can be done with cocktail piano, including George Shearing locked-hands block chords, etc. Thanks for the interesting story. smile Couldn't you play some of the tunes/standards you play with your group at the bar, or were you playing mostly chords with the group? Above, someone says you need to take requests.. Can you do that - play by ear? If I know of and like a tune, I can usually play it by ear, maybe not too fancy but recognizable. I think playing solo cocktail piano is very difficult, but nice to have the freedom to do what you want at least. "Feelings" is a good old song..descending bass, C05, etc. I bet they loved it. Wow, five free drinks! shocked I remember Robin "Piano Girl" talking about that in her book, people always wanting to buy her drinks. She was underage when she started playing cocktail piano and and had to refuse them all. laugh

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#1523382 - 09/27/10 01:26 AM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: Elssa]
nitekatt2008z Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/24/08
Posts: 552
Originally Posted By: Elssa
Quote:
Cocktail piano can define several styles.

That's what I love about it - pretty much anything goes. smile Yes, all different styles can be done with cocktail piano, including George Shearing locked-hands block chords, etc. Thanks for the interesting story. smile Couldn't you play some of the tunes/standards you play with your group at the bar, or were you playing mostly chords with the group? Above, someone says you need to take requests.. Can you do that - play by ear? If I know of and like a tune, I can usually play it by ear, maybe not too fancy but recognizable. I think playing solo cocktail piano is very difficult, but nice to have the freedom to do what you want at least. "Feelings" is a good old song..descending bass, C05, etc. I bet they loved it. Wow, five free drinks! shocked I remember Robin "Piano Girl" talking about that in her book, people always wanting to buy her drinks. She was underage when she started playing cocktail piano and and had to refuse them all. laugh


Hehe, Elssa glad you enjoyed my experience. Actually at that time I was in an 80's type pop band and only knew about 10 standards memorized like, "Misty", Feelings, Girl From Ipanema, stuff like that. If I had my RealBook with me, I could have done more faking of some standards. Now I am at a whole other level because I am only playing numerous jazz standards with 2 trios and quartets. Also in the 80's era, I wasn't really learning many standards because the gigs I was doing didn't require it.

I have done tunes by ear and can read also, in fact I learned by ear first, reading second. I would imagine that a cocktail pianist just starting out could work on the 100 most requested lounge songs like "Piano Man" As Time Goes By, some Beatles, Cole Porter, Gershwin, show tunes, bossa novas, etc. That would cover a lot of eras and a lot of requests.

We did play a nice wedding party in Pasadena last week with a trio, drums, acoustic bass, me on keys and a female singer. They wanted swing music, so we did a lot of Diana Krall, Ella, some bossa novas, all standards. They danced on every tune we played on all 4 sets and they seemed to like what we did.

Most of the work I get now just requires standards and cocktail styles, so bye bye 80's bands for me until further notice or need.

katt

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#1524057 - 09/28/10 12:28 AM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: nitekatt2008z]
Elssa Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/15/05
Posts: 1582
Loc: NY
Well, Katt, thanks again.. I'm still chuckling at your experience and admiring your gumption/bravery for playing on the spur of the moment like that. thumb I think it's really tuff to play solo in any setting, but especially something/someplace like that. I recently went to a local Music Meetup, very casual, played along with a flutist and harmonica player, and it was just about the most fun ever. When I'm home playing alone, I'm usually not too inspired, but playing with a small group like that, bouncing ideas of what to play off each other (mostly standards - Georgia, Stardust, etc) was great. Of course, we don't expect that there will be much call for a trio of keyboardist, flutist and harmonica player anywhere professionally anytime soon, but what the hey. grin You sound like a very well-rounded musician. smile I'd be lost with requests for 80's music now, though I enjoyed listening to it, avant-garde, The Clash, etc. shocked

Quote:
in fact I learned by ear first, reading second.

How did you learn to play by ear?


Edited by Elssa (09/28/10 01:00 AM)

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#1526182 - 10/01/10 11:16 AM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: Elssa]
s_winitsky Offline
Full Member

Registered: 04/27/10
Posts: 61


An interesting link on playing piano in a bar. not that I think this guy is necessarily the greatest piano player either, but I thought it was more then ok smile

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXsUHVTfKwc

Kind of interesting that he doesn't read music and plays only by ear. I would have a hard time remembering so many songs without at least peeking at the lead sheet smile

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#1526208 - 10/01/10 12:17 PM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: s_winitsky]
Hop Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/24/08
Posts: 654
Loc: Hudson, FL
Thanks for the link.

It led me to the topic "bar piano", which comes closer than anything else so far to what I am looking for to emulate.

Hop
_________________________
HG178, Roland FP-5, Casio PX 130

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#1526518 - 10/01/10 09:08 PM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: Hop]
nitekatt2008z Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/24/08
Posts: 552
Originally Posted By: Hop
Thanks for the link.

It led me to the topic "bar piano", which comes closer than anything else so far to what I am looking for to emulate.

Hop


It's unfortunate, but in the times we are in now, piano bars are becoming scarce and it's harder to find them in our local communities. Many places that used to have a decent piano and nightly entertainment removed them.

Basically piano bars came with interest from the baby boomer public and those people frequented them. As the boomers got older, so did the novelty of piano bars and newer styles of music didn't fit into the piano bar scenario anymore.

Personally, I really miss the fun that we used to have hanging out and playing in a piano bar. I don't know if they will ever catch on and come on strong again unless the public tells their local bar owners to bring them back a great entertainment form.

The last time we were in Las Vegas, we had dinner at one of the hotel buffets and they had a white Yamaha grand acoustic piano on a small stage. There was a very attractive young asian gal cocktail pianist playing her buns off and she never got any applause, attention, maybe a few requests and that was about it. I felt a bit bad for her as being so ignored by the diners. But people are at buffets for one reason and that is to eat and talk. They don't seem to care about listening, just eating.

Cocktail pianists seem to be most successful in smaller bars, lounges or clubs. I'll never forget that in the early 80's, there use to be a cocktail pianist in a local bar at the mall. I worked in the mall and used to hang out there along with a drummer I knew and his manager. We wanted to get a night in the room, so we wanted to check out what he was doing. But honestly, IMHO, he was about the worst live performer we ever heard. He played and sang in the wrong key, played the strangest changes on common standards and other things that were irritating if you were a musician of any caliber. But, he was a real nice personable fellow that the older crowd loved and that's what kept him on the piano bench. In fact, he allowed anyone who could play to sit in any night. He didn't seem to feel threatened by other players. There were also rumors he was a male escort for older rich widows and used the gig to draw in potential "clients." Who knows.

Personality of a performer will sometimes win over virtuosity and that is a trait which seems to be important in succeeding or failing in the cocktail world.

katt

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#1599829 - 01/18/11 03:03 AM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: Hanon_freak]
Artur Gajewski Offline
Full Member

Registered: 12/07/10
Posts: 310
Loc: Helsinki, Finland
I don't know about books but I found this video very interesting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UkFi3vMsTs
_________________________
- Artur Gajewski

Author of Piano Lessons Package for Synthesia & Child's Piano Play

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#1600561 - 01/19/11 05:11 AM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: Hanon_freak]
billhilton Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 04/26/07
Posts: 10
Loc: Wales
Thanks for plugging my video, Artur!
_________________________
Check out my piano tutorial channel on YouTube smile

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#1600595 - 01/19/11 07:18 AM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: billhilton]
Artur Gajewski Offline
Full Member

Registered: 12/07/10
Posts: 310
Loc: Helsinki, Finland
Originally Posted By: billhilton
Thanks for plugging my video, Artur!


No problem mate, enjoyed it!
_________________________
- Artur Gajewski

Author of Piano Lessons Package for Synthesia & Child's Piano Play

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#1600949 - 01/19/11 04:18 PM Re: Cocktail piano [Re: Hanon_freak]
billhilton Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 04/26/07
Posts: 10
Loc: Wales
In response to the OP (and I realise I'm waaaay late on this thread - though, on the bright side, it's brought me back to PW after an absence of some years), I'd agree with the guys saying that you need to work on the chord side of things. *Don't* dump the classics, because they'll really help you with dexterity and lightness of touch.

The good news is that once you've got a good understanding of the way chords work, cocktail is really pretty straightforward: it's about being lush rather than complex, and you can be quite free with rhythms. The chords you really need to get your head around for good cocktail playing are at the simpler end of the jazz spectrum - straightforward major/minor sevenths, ninths and elevenths.

As with anything piano-related, the trick is to stick at it and practise, practise, practise until your girlfriend leaves and your neighbours take you to court for disturbing the peace.
_________________________
Check out my piano tutorial channel on YouTube smile

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