The Definitive Guide to Saxophone Section Playing
This article will deal with various aspects of playing the saxophone in jazz ensemble, concert band, rock bands, and show bands both as the only sax player and within a small horn section. I will discuss tuning, the responsibilities of each member of the section, suggestions for mouthpieces, reeds and ligatures. These are mostly my opinions gained through years of playing in both military bands and civilian groups. However some of this information represents commonly accepted practices. Where I do present information from other sources, they will be duly cited using American Psychological Association (APA) citation practices.
The information presented will be useful to the following groups. Non-sax players, sax players of all levels, band teachers, and other music educators who may have to interact with sax players will find this article useful.
If you go to your search bar and type in “tuning the saxophone section” you will come up with dozens of articles. Some will be similar and others will be completely different. This is my take on tuning.
First off, I teach studio saxophone in Old Dominion Universities Community Music Division. This is like a Prep Division. It is a Non-Credit enhancement course. As such I have gotten students of all ages. However most of my students have been elementary, middle school and high school students with a sprinkling of college students who were Non-Music Majors. I also taught saxophone studio for Music Majors at Tidewater Community College until I ran out of students.
From the very start after my students have the embouchure down and after I explain how to put the reed on and tongue I have students matching pitches with me. First on the neck and mouthpiece. Then on middle “B” on the saxophone. Remember at this point the student is a raw beginner. Once the student has a firm grasp of playing in the upper register then we start to tune to Concert “A”. So for altos it’s F# in the upper register. For tenors it will also be F# until they have a firm grasp of high “B”.
If you happen to teach middle school band and you are able to have the saxes either for a sectional or for a small class I would do the following. Yes tune to Concert “A”. However spend some time playing scales in unison/octaves. Try to get the students to lock in on the pitch, to listen to each other. You may want to play the scale with the students on the piano so the students can hear the pitch. Next, play intervals of fourths and fifths. If the altos play F# (concert “A”) and the tenors play F# (concert “E”) then you are setting the section up for intervals of fourths and fifths. Play those intervals at the piano so the students can hear what it is supposed to sound like. Also if you have a bari sax have the bari start on low F# or concert “A”.
Once you are satisfied that your students can play fourths, fifths, and unison/octaves in tune then move on to playing some Bach Chorales. Finally you can go over the band music.
Why Concert “A”, why not Bb or even F? After all concert “F” is the fifth of a Bb chord. It has that five to one relationship. Well my main objection is that when transposed it becomes a middle “D” on both the alto and bari saxes. Middle “D” is one of the sharpest notes on the sax. Concert Bb is okay but when transposed it becomes high “C” on the tenor which is also not one of the best notes on the sax. So I prefer Concert “A” because it works great on both alto, tenor and bari.
Once the students are in high school and/or college they should be able to tune to concert “A” without a problem if they are practicing, taking lessons etc. At this level playing in a sax quartet, combo with an electric keyboard and play-alongs will greatly help the students develop a sense of where the pitch is. Do not be afraid to have the students use a tuner. However do not let the tuner replace listening.
At its zenith John Phillip Sousa had a sax section with two 1st altos, two 2nd altos, two tenors, one bari, and one bass saxophone. Today most concert bands will have a section of one 1st alto, one 2nd alto, one tenor sax, and one bari sax. This section is very common among the military bands in Washington DC. Thus you have four saxophonists who work together every day and who also form the Sax Quartet as a stand alone unit.
The goal is to get a very warm blend, not to be able to play over the brass but to blend within the band. Sometimes I feel that the saxes in concert band are almost invisible. So at various times altos are blending in with the french horns and trumpets. The tenor is blending in with the euphoniums, the trombones, and sometimes the trumpets and french horns. The whole idea for the sax player is to reinforce the sound of the other instruments. Thus you need to use a warm sounding setup. Listening is the key.
I remember one very cold day when my Navy Band was playing a ceremony outside but under a tent. It must have been just above freezing when the leader called up The Klaxon by Fillmore. The second strain has the melody in the French horn and tenor sax. I was playing tenor sax and my colleague MU2 Kathy Davis was playing French horn. Despite the cold we nailed the intonation on this strain. The reason is we were both listening to each other and we both understood our roles in the ensemble. My role was to support the french horn which I did. Also neither of us had the attitude that I’m right and your wrong. We both had the pitch and melded our parts into one blended sound
Jazz Ensemble, Show Band, and Rock Band
For jazz ensemble, this is what the sax section should look like if you were standing in front of it. The 1st alto is in the center. The 2nd alto is to his/her right. The 1st tenor is to the right of the 2nd alto. The 1st tenor needs to be close to the rhythm section during solos. The 2nd tenor is to the left of the 1st alto. Finally the baritone is to the left of the 2nd tenor.
For Jazz Ensemble the sound concept is different than concert band. The section as a whole must have a brighter sound. “The sound must have direction. The players must focus the sound and keep the air moving through the saxophone” (Seckler, 2001, p. 7). Projection is a good word to describe the sound. They must not be drowned out by the 8 to 10 brass players in the band.
This person must have a strong sound with some edge and projection. Think Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Phil Woods, Johnny Hodges, Marshall Royal, Med Flory and today players like Dick Oatts, Bobby Watson and Vincent Herring. He/she must be very familiar with the different styles of jazz, swing, dixie, bebop, cool, bossa nova, ballads and the non-jazz styles of rock and funk. For dances you will also encounter the Latin dance styles of the rumba and cha-cha-cha. If the choice in your school is between a player with a weak sound but who played the audition well and a person with a strong sound who knows how to phrase and use inflections, but who made some mistakes on the audition, go with the person with the strong sound.
This person must be a leader, be able to guide the section while playing, giving cutoffs with their horn. They must use their horn to direct the section when to come in if there is a doubt. Because of the jazz education and publishing industry, the alto solos are usually on this chair. I believe they figure that the 2nd alto player isn’t up to it. However during the Big Band Era and after, the alto solos were on the 2nd alto part. When Art Pepper played with Stan Kenton in the late 40’s – early 50’s, he played 2nd alto and was the jazz alto player. Bud Shank played 1st alto and only got a few solos. In the Basie Band Marshall Royal played 1st alto and he almost never soloed. However with the music published today, your 1st alto should be able to solo. If they can’t, then pass the solos to someone else in the section.
The person playing 1st alto should be able to phrase and blend with the 1st trumpet and 1st trombone players during ensemble/tutti sections of a tune. This player must know how and when to use vibrato and must have a sound that can project over the sax section.
The 1st alto often has to play soprano sax, flute, piccolo, and clarinet.
This person must be able to play up to the lead alto player. They must match the time, style, vibrato, and intonation of the 1st player. Many times the intonation problems in a section are because the 1st and 2nd alto players cannot agree on the pitch. For young bands, have the altos tune first on concert “A”. Then have your tenors tune, and finally the bari player. Then everyone together, maybe play a chord and listen to the blend.
Jay Branford, the 2nd alto player of the newly reformed Artie Shaw Orchestra circa 1985 had this to say about the early rehearsals when Artie rehearsed the band -“Artie Shaw was always there as leader, teacher and coach for all of them. Being the 2nd alto player on the band; one of the things that impressed me, and emphasized by Artie, was the role of the 2nd alto saxophone. He kept telling me to play out more, and that the saxophone section needed that support from me. In some ways, I think the intensity of my playing even surprised Mark (the 1st alto player) when he first came on the band. But with the efforts of Artie and Dick Johnson (the leader of the band, handpicked by Artie Shaw), they developed us into a true sectional sound” (Viola and Wagner 1985, p.45). The 2nd alto must be able to jump in and play 1st alto in the event that the 1st player is absent. If the 1st alto player cannot solo, then the solos should be passed to the 2nd alto player before you give the solo to the tenor or bari players.
The doubles on the 2nd chair are clarinet, soprano sax, flute, and piccolo. When you are playing Glenn Miller-style charts with clarinet lead, traditionally that part has been in the 2nd chair. So I suggest that the 2nd alto player listen to the way Wilbur Schwartz played the clarinet lead over the sax section on the Miller Band. Study his phrasing, his sound, and the way he projected.
Like the 2nd trumpet and 2nd trombone, the 1st tenor is seated next to the rhythm section so he/she can hear the chords during solos. This is the chair in the sax section that requires improvisational skills. This player should exude confidence and have no trouble standing up to play a solo. Following the solo, and at all other times, the 1st tenor player must follow the lead alto player during sax solis etc. Sometimes this player is written in duets or trios with either a trumpet, trombone or another sax player.
I dislike the current practice in jazz education circles of calling this chair the lead tenor chair. There isn’t a lead tenor chair unless you are playing in a “Four Brothers” style section of three tenors and one baritone. Then you have a lead tenor. By the way, in my opinion that is a beautiful sound. just listen to the Woody Herman Band playing the ballad “Early Autumn” or the uptempo “Four Brothers”. Another example of this sound is in the middle of Bill Holman’s chart of “Yesterdays”. In the middle of the chart the solo tenor player plays lead over the sax section during a brief sax soli. In other charts that feature a lead tenor sound, the part is clearly marked lead on the tenor part and tenor lead on the 1st alto part. Otherwise this player is part of the section playing an inner voice. Doubles on this chair are clarinet, flute, sometimes soprano sax or bass clarinet.
This chair can be very hard to play. The person playing this chair can often have the craziest parts ever conceived, especially during a sax soli. The musical acrobatics required can be daunting. Also this person must be able to sub tone well to play softly in the lower register at times. The 2nd tenor aides the bari player in supporting the bottom of the section. Many times the 2nd tenor and the bari player are written in fourths or fifths. If the 2nd tenor player solo’s then he/she should be provided the chance to split the solos with the 1st tenor player. As the bandleader you should play to your strengths. For example suppose the 2nd player is better at playing the funk style than the 1st tenor player. Well then, let the 1st player have the swing/bebop and ballad solos and let the 2nd player have the funk solos. Actually in the better bands, all the sax players get the opportunity to solo. Examples would be The Big Phat Band, The Navy Jazz Commodores, The Airmen of Note, The WDR Big Band etc. Doubles on this chair are clarinet, flute, and sometimes bass clarinet.
This chair is multi-faceted. Do not put your weakest player or a timid player on the bari chair. Put the person who has the best bari sound on this chair. You need an independent thinker on this chair. At times the bari will be doubling the lead alto in sax solis. Then there are times when the bari is doubled with the bass trombone or the string bass or electric bass. There are other times when the bari part will be totally different from the rest of the saxes. Bear in mind that the bari wants to speak a little later than the smaller alto. So the bari player must not hesitate while playing. The bari’s notes must line up with the 1st alto players notes. Doubles on this part are bass clarinet and clarinet.
If the bari player can solo then they too should be give that opportunity. Blues solos sound really nice on bari as do ballad features. Good examples are Bob Florence’s chart of “Auld Lange Syne” and Dave Wolpe’s chart on “Sophisticated Lady”. Both charts feature solo sections for the bari player and bari lead during a sax soli. Bruce Johnston had a really nice bari feature on”Got The Spirit” on the album “MF 4 & 5 Live At Jimmys”. I suggest that your bari player listen to Harry Carney on any Duke Ellington tune, Charlie Fowlkes with the Count Basie Band, and Bruce Johnston with Maynard Ferguson’s Band. Jeff Harrington is an excellent bari player in the Hollywood studios today. He is the voice of Lisa Simpson when she is shown playing bari sax on TV. All of these players have huge sounds and are the supporting rock of their respective sections.
Many arrangers will write for the sax section woodwind doubles as follows.
The 1st Alto on either flute or piccolo. The 2nd alto on flute. Both tenors on clarinet and the bari on bass clarinet. This gives you a very nice woodwind section sound. Now there are times when all the players may be playing flute or the top four chairs are on clarinet and the bari is on bass clarinet.
If your sax players do not play clarinet or flute I suggest that you encourage them to take lessons on either clarinet or flute. In the meantime in order to play charts that involve woodwinds encourage your better flute and clarinet players from either concert band or the orchestra to get involved with jazz ensemble. This experience will benefit both the flute and clarinet players and your jazz ensemble.
A Side Note
During the Swing Era up to some time in the middle to late 60’s the sax section was named and voiced as follows from top down:
- 1st alto
- 2nd tenor
- 3rd alto
- 4th tenor
- 5th baritone
The seating was the same as it is today though. You will encounter this voicing and labeling when you play charts from the Swing Era up to the mid or late 60’s.
However, it was taught to me at both the Stan Kenton Jazz Workshop in the mid 70’s as well as the Navy School of Music (where I was told that they were following the model from Berklee School of Music) that the section should be voiced named and voiced as follows:
- 1st alto
- 2nd alto
- 1st tenor
- 2nd tenor
Anyone who has played in a big band at any point in the past 60 or so years will obviously recognize the latter format.
Rock Band and Show Band
I was the tenor sax player in a Navy Rock Band called Four Star Edition. The other horn player was a trumpet player who sang 97% of the time. However when we had lines that we played together it was important for us to get a nice blend and be in tune. Most of what we played together were lines from Blues Brothers tunes. Other than that I was pretty much on my own. This mainly consisted of playing the sax lines and improvising solos on tunes like “I Feel Good”, “Mustang Sally” and others. On the Bob Seger tune, “Turn The Page” I had to play the line that Mr. Alto Reed played on the original recording. Alto Reed played the sax part on alto sax. The Navy did not have an alto sax to give me, so I ended up playing the sax part on tenor sax. Instead of the alto part which started on a high “E” going to a high “Eb” I had to play altissimo “A” going to “Ab”. When I played this tune I was channeling my inner Lenny Picket. Finally with about one month to go before they rotated assignments I got an Selmer Series II alto.
As far as tuning goes, I found it best to tune about two to three cents sharp. The reason being was that the guitar and bass played so hard that they were almost always high. So if I started at A=440 I soon found that I was flat. If I tuned to A=442 or 443 I found that I was right in the pocket.
Unfortunately this band used these clip on mics that were like toys. If you are playing in a rock band as part of your living, invest in either a really good clip on mic or a really good stand mic. Also make friends with the sound person. Give them a set list and put a star next to the tunes you play on. That way you will have plenty of power when you play. Do a sound check to make sure you can hear yourself and the bass in the monitor.
As far as mouthpiece setups, I do not know anyone playing an HR mouthpiece in a cranking rock band and not getting buried. You need a mouthpiece/reed combination that will project and have some edge or highs to the sound. I knew guys that used metal Dukoff’s on tenor sax. However the band’s Dukoff was checked out. So I used my trusty metal Otto Link 8* with a # 2.5 Rico reed. This is what I used for big band and combo and it proved to be quite good as long as I had sound support.
“Charts – what are those?”
Most of my parts I either learned from a recording or they were passed down from player to player. In a lot of bands they may give you a tape or CD and have you learn the parts that way. On rare occasions you may have someone who writes charts.
When I was in my Army Band I played in a top – 40 band that had a horn section of alto, tenor, bari, trombone, and trumpet plus vocals, piano, bass, drums, and guitar. For that band we did have charts that were written in-house by the band leader.
A year after I joined the Navy I was placed in the U.S. Navy Show Band which toured outside of America to West Africa and South America. Our sax section was cut down to three saxes. One alto, tenor, and bari sax. The brass section was a full section of four trumpets and four trombones. We did have good mics to play through. The Assistant Leader wrote charts to our instrumentation. We did not play big band charts with missing sax parts. So basically, on this setup, where most of the time the band was written tutti, you followed the lead trumpet player. We did have some charts where the saxes stood out by themselves, but nothing like a sax soli on a Don Menza or Thad Jones chart. One thing that I will say about our charts – they were written thick with plenty on tension tones and extended harmony. So kudos to our arranger.
However for the most part, you played as you would play in a big band. I was the bari player and I used the band’s HR Berg Larsen 95/1 with a LaVoz hard reed. However it more than did the trick for providing a solid bottom to the section and the band. I can still feel those forte low “A’s” vibrating through my body.
In the Navy Band in Orlando I played in what was called a “Show Band”, but in reality it was a big band. However, all of our performances were a show, as opposed to an actual concert. We did steps and the music was all part of a show with vocals that were supported by the “Show Band”. For example, the boss had this whole elaborate 50’s show that he wrote and was the star of. After he gave the band to a MU 1 we still did a show but it changed. On occasion, the Orlando Show Band would function as a Jazz Ensemble like the time we played at a Jazz Festival in Melbourne, FL.
The go-to mouthpieces seem to be the Selmer S-80. However I prefer the sound of the Larry Teal mouthpiece. For alto, I have had students use the Vandoren V-5 Series. Right now one of my students is using the A-17. For tenor I have used the Larry Teal mouthpiece with great results. I just prefer the round chamber of the Teal mouthpiece over the square chamber S-80 mouthpieces. Again for tenor, the Vandoren V-5 Series are good choices. I have a tenor student using the T-20 with very good results. The key is to try different mouthpieces and see what works for you. For concert band, just be able to blend in and not be bright. Darker sounding mouthpieces seem to work the best in this setup.
Jazz Ensemble Setups
The go-to alto mouthpiece has always been the NY Meyers 5M or 6M. Good luck finding one. Be prepared to pay a lot of money. Fortunately there have been knockoff versions made today. Theo Wanne has a version called the NY Bros. CE Winds has a version and the Babbitt Company which owns the Meyer name and mouthpiece has recently come out with their own Retro 100th Anniversary Model which they claim is like the old NY Meyer.
Other mouthpieces to try are the Vandoren HR V-16, the current edition Meyers 5M, 6M or 7M and the Beechler HR 5,6, or 7. Currently I am using a White Brilhart Tonalin 3* that I lucked into. These mouthpieces play really great, and if you can find one it will not break your bank. Most of the ones I see are going for about $200.00 on e-bay. If you look at photos of sax sections from the late 1940’s you’ll see that a lot of guys played the Brilharts. Charlie Parker, Benny Carter, and Stan Getz played them. Today Dick Oatts of the Village Vanguard Orchestra plays a 6* with a Rico Royal 3.5 reed. My Brilhart has replaced my Meyers 6M. I use a LaVoz medium hard reed and a Rovner original ligature on it. The Rovner seems to take some of the edge off. If I want more edge, I have a Selmer Brass gauge 2-screw ligature that I can use.
To me, the Otto Link metal has always been my go to mouthpiece. I lucked into a metal Florida Otto Link 8* back in 1990 before E-bay and before the internet took off. So I got it for a very reasonable price that would be unheard of today. Barring that, the Babbitt Company recently came out with their New “Vintage” Otto Links. The metal ones seem to be based on the Tone Master from the 1940’s. The HR ones are based on the Slant Signature from the 1950’s through early 1960’s.
These mouthpieces have gotten great reviews. Babbitt also has the current edition Links which are different from the New “Vintage” Links in both metal and hard rubber. Again try them out and see what works for you.
Other mouthpieces to try are the Vandoren V-16 in both HR and metal. For years many people liked the Berg Larsen HR and metal mouthpieces from a 100/1 or 2 up to a 115/1 or 2. Lawton was another popular mouthpiece in the more open facings of 7B or BB up to 10B or BB. They were made in the UK and are now made in Belgium. CE Winds also makes Link knockoffs in HR and metal. I have one called the “The Sig”. It plays nice, but I prefer my real Florida Link. For rock band playing, a lot of players seem to like the Bobby Dukoff metal D-7 through D-9. Other more expensive tenor mouthpieces are the series from Theo Wanne and the Jody Jazz mouthpieces. However be prepared to pay a lot of money for those mouthpieces.
I never owned a bari mouthpiece. However what I borrowed worked really well. At one point I borrowed a Berg Larsen 120/1 that worked really well. The same can be said for the Runyon Custom Spoilers I borrowed. At one time a #6 then a #10. The Yanigasawa HR stock mouthpiece also worked very well for me. Other choices would be the Otto Link HR or metal 6 through 8*, the RPC, and the current Berg Larsen from a 105/1 through 120/2 tip openings.
Michael Brecker said to use what works and do not fall for the hype. In 2003 when he visited my Navy Band, he was using a LaVoz medium reed which is a Rico/D’Addario product. I, myself have always been partial to Rico reeds. On tenor I use a Rico # 2.5 or a Rigotti Queens 2.5 reed. On alto it is a LaVoz medium reed. On bari at times it was either a Rico Royal 2.5 or a Rico Jazz Select 3M unfiled reed.
Remember the reed should offer some resistance and play equally well up high and down low. Be wary of a reed that plays too easy when you first put it on your mouthpiece. Other reeds that are getting good reviews are Roberto’s RW reeds and the Rigotti Gold reeds. I personally like the Rigotti Regal Queen reeds. I prefer reeds that give me some highs/edge to the sound with a good sub tone. Many people like the D’Addario filed and unfiled reeds, and the Hemke reeds, both Rico/D’Addario products. Other people swear by the Vandoren reeds in it’s many sub-types. You have the Vandoren Blue box, the Java green box, and the filed Java Red box. Then Vandoren has the V-16 reed and the ZZ reeds.
Try a bunch of different reeds and see what works. play them for your teacher and see your teacher thinks. If possible record yourself playing different reeds and setups and hear what works best and sounds best to you.
There are as many opinions about ligatures as there are ligatures to choose from. To me a ligature is something that holds the reed to the mouthpiece. In my opinion, no one needs a super expensive ligature. On www.bettersax.com, Jay Metcalf plays about ten different ligatures. I was listening to him play and he sounded the same on every ligature he used. He said so himself after he played them using the same reed and mouthpiece for every ligature. The basic requirement is that the ligature should hold the reed to the mouthpiece so the reed will not slip if you have to adjust for tuning.
This is what I use and like. On my tenor I play a metal Florida Otto Link 8*. For several years I used the Link ligature it came with. It worked but I never really got the “pop” during the suction test. I read about the metal Silver Selmer ligatures for metal mouthpieces in an advertisement for USA Horn, so I decided to give it a try. But first I tried out the Selmer ligature a friend of mine had. I liked it and it seemed to hold the reed better than the Link ligature. Plus to my ears the sound was brighter and the response was better. So I bought one and having been using the Selmer ligature since about 1994 on my metal Link.
I also have a Rovner Dark ligature for my Link that Phil Rovner sent me years ago. It seems to take the edge off the sound a bit. Sometimes I’ll use it in the house when my wife is working upstairs and I’m downstairs practicing.
On my alto, which is a Cannonball Big Bell with Bare Brass, I use a White Brilhart Tonalin 3* which may on may not be a true 3*. I couple it with a LaVoz medium-hard reed (another Rico/D’Addario product) and an old Rovner Dark ligature. I also have a Selmer Brass gauge two-screw ligature that also works really well. The Selmer seems to give me more edge/highs. The Rovner seems to take the edge off some. Who knows, it may all be in my head. I use my alto mainly for teaching, as most of my sax students play alto.
So there you have it. Remember that the greats did not have all of this “fancy-schmancy” equipment. Ben Webster used the Link ligature as did Coleman Hawkins and Georgie Auld etc. Charlie Parker used what ligature came with the mouthpiece. Lester Young, Zoot Sims, and Stan Getz used a basic two-screw Selmer-type ligature. All of these guys got great sounds.
Remember this is my take on these subjects that I gathered through years of playing in both military and civilian bands, talking to other players, and observing what they do.
Nice hanging with you, stay safe and sane. Above all else, keep your reeds slightly moist and keep practicing.
Seckler, Stan. (2001). Part I Developing the jazz sax section. (p. 7). Denton, Texas: Harold Gore Publishing Company.
Viola, Joe., Wagner Paul., (1985). The all-new Artie Shaw saxophone section under the direction of Dick Johnson. Saxophone Journal, p. 45
July 23, 2020 @ 9:21 am
Nice summary. In Big Band settings I’ve also seen the nomenclature as “Sax 1 (Alto)”, “Sax 2 (Tenor)”, etc. A variation on the 1st Alto, 2nd Tenor, 3rd Alto business that used to be common.
On the mouthpiece side, for someone playing lead alto in a Big Band context who wants a reasonably priced piece with a bit more brightness than the modern Meyer 5M or 6M, what would you recommend?
July 23, 2020 @ 10:35 am
Joe: Please reread the section about alto mpcs. Maybe try the HR V-16’s or the Beechler’s in a 5,6 or 7.
July 29, 2020 @ 4:56 pm
1) The finest NYUSA Meyer copy I have found is the Woodstone Traditional Jazz, med./small chamber 6. Every bit the equal of my authentic NYUSA 6M (with just a tad more cut if you want it).
2) Playing second alto I get nothing but grief for not cowering under the lead player’s college sound. The distinction between loudness and presence seems to been lost.
July 29, 2020 @ 7:12 pm
I agree Scott. Those guys you are playing we/just don’t.Sometimes the 2nd alto needs to have more presence to fill out the chord to quote Artie Shaw. The 1st alt’s note is higher so it will be heard. Thanks for the tip about the Woodstone Trad Jazz mpc. How much does it go for?
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