Professional identities in progress – developing personal artistic trajectories

Tanja Orning, Norwegian Academy of Music


What are your career plans, the Professor asked the first year Bachelor students at the Norwegian Academy of Music: do you want to become soloists, orchestra musicians or teachers? These were the three career path options presented to us at the time. To become a music teacher was out of the question, teaching was regarded secondary to performance, after all, we were enrolled in the performance program. A job as an orchestra player seemed like an acceptable and attainable goal. However, most of us secretly wanted to become soloists and chamber musicians of some kind, ambitious to fulfil ourselves and our skills to the maximum. But we did not dare to say that. Revealing our ambitions was, at the time, a kind of taboo – we were all extremely ambitious, but pretended we were not. The only Norwegian soloists we knew of were Eva Knardal, Arve Tellefsen and Truls Mørk - national icons difficult to identify with. No one told me that I could design my own professional platform consisting of activities such as these: performing; touring and recording with contemporary music ensembles in close collaboration with living composers; working in cross disciplinary projects with dancers, artists, filmmakers, poets and designers; working with electronics to expand and augment the sound of my cello; playing in improvising bands and electric cello in rock bands; composing music; curating concert series and festivals; running workshops; becoming a music researcher researching my own practice, as well as teaching a wide range of topics. These have been my core activities of the last 18 years of my career. But it didn’t start this way the day I graduated. I went for an orchestra job as expected. During the 5 years I worked as a co-principal cellist in a symphony orchestra and taught the canonical repertoire in the conservatory, I came in contact with an artistic world, a parallel world to the somewhat encapsulated classical music world. This environment presented opportunities for collaboration, creativity and experimentation which led me to leave my orchestra job and develop my personal career-trajectory of experimental and new music and subsequently into research in the same field (Orning, 2018).

In the passage quoted above, I tell my personal story to reflect on the drastic changes we have seen in the music profession during the last 20 years, and consequently the increase of professional opportunities, roles and identities. We can see elements of a collective identity in classically-trained musicians who, from childhood, have been introduced to centuries-old, institutionalized traditions around the performers’ role and the work-concept. Respect for the composer and his work can lead to a fear of failure and to the perfectionist value system that permeates classical music. We have to question whether music education has become a ready-made prototype of certain trajectories, with a predictable outcome represented by more or less generic types of musicians who are able play the same, limited canonized repertoire, in more or less the same way and, to all intents and purposes, interchangeably. Where is the acknowledgement of resistance and obstacles, of the detours and the unique and fearless individual choices that musicians encounter in their personal artistic trajectories?

It is a paradox that, within the traditional master-student model, the student is told how to think and play in relation to established truths, while a sustainable musical career is based upon questioning the very same things. A fundamental principle of an independent musical career is to develop a capacity for critical reflection and a healthy opposition towards uncontested truths. However, the increasingly unanimous demands for modernization of institutions and their role cannot be addressed with quick fixes; we must look at who we have been and who we are to envisage who we can become. Central here is the question of how the music student perceives their own identity and role. To make the leap from a traditional instrumentalist role to that of artist /curator requires commitment of an entirely different nature. In this article, I will examine question of identity - how identity may be constituted through musical and educational experiences. The exposition will discuss why identity work is a key area in the development of a sustainable music career; it will then investigate how we can approach this and suggest some possible ways in which this might work. We shall see how identity work can be about unfolding possible future selves, developing and evolving one’s own personal journey and narrative. The question is: How can higher music education (HME) facilitate students in their identity work and in the process of constructing their professional identities? In the discussion, I draw upon my own experience as a classically-educated musician whose career continues to unfold in ways I could not have foreseen during my time as a student.


Musical life has changed drastically in the last 20 years. The institutions have changed, the cultural economy has changed, the diversity of opportunities has changed and, not least, the way we approach and use of music has changed remarkably through the digital revolution. These major cultural and economic changes in society have led to a working life for musicians that poses increasing demands for flexibility and for the development of independent professional practices. The status of classical music is decreasing rapidly, something we see reflected in shrinking media coverage and record sales and an ageing audience. We see orchestras folding in the United States and in Europe, and there is a strong tendency to remove or marginalize teaching of classical music in primary and secondary schools. Classical music has alienated itself from other contemporary artforms and institutions, and musicians struggle to renew themselves and face the new changes. This has led to a so-called crisis in classical music which is heavily debated (Lebrecht, 1997, Trondle, 2009, Sandow, 2015). If there is a crisis in the classical music world, how does that affect the professional field for musicians?

The NIFU survey, of 2014, “Spill på flere strenger” (Play on multiple strings), which surveyed performing and creative musicians trained at eight HME institutions in Norway over the last ten years, shows that there is a particularly good job market for freelance or portfolio musicians. The figures show that, in today’s job market, tenured positions are the exception, while the combination of part-time jobs and short-time contracts is most common. These findings are in accordance with international tendencies; the majority of graduates will be freelancers or have portfolio careers (Bennett, 2009).

The word freelance comes from the English “freelance” – literally a knight with a “free lance”, who accepted work assignments for whoever paid best. The term freelance musician covers a wide range, but is often used for musicians who are not permanently employed and who, for instance, substitute in orchestras, take on short engagements and odd jobs. This type of freelance work requires that you have the qualities in demand and that you are versatile. In recent years, the term portfolio musician has gained in usage, particularly in English-speaking countries. Within music, a portfolio musician describes one who takes on many different types of work and projects, and who is usually self-employed (Hallam & Gaunt, 2012: 175, Bennett, 2008 Myles Beeching, 2010). The emergence of the portfolio musician represents a tendency in the job market to shift from regular, institutionalized work to more flexible, dynamic and project-based work. It can also lead to unpredictable and unstable employment, and it coincides with the neoliberalism ideology of taking responsibility for oneself. Such a philosophy calls for self-drive, dedication and an entrepreneurial mind-set. It emphasizes that musicians no longer only define themselves as performers, but must acquire different kinds of skills within what is described as the music industry – a sub-category of the so-called cultural and creative industries.

Which skills and competencies do portfolio musicians need? In addition to excellence in performance, they may need to be able to generate new ideas, create and run projects, lead workshops, direct ensembles, raise funds, write applications, book and market concerts, teach, set up a webpage, run social media, curate concert series, festivals and more. This demands a multitude of different skills: hard and soft, old and new. In this new work-reality, where your unique personal approach is your most important asset, to know thyself is crucial. The very premise for becoming a portfolio musician is an awareness of what you want, who you are and what you want to become; it is your drive, resilience and motivation, in other words: your identity. How then, can the students get an awareness of their own identity, their own strengths and opportunities? In what way can they develop a reflexive attitude to their own practice, a critical, creative and thinking attitude?


In this context, I view identity from a social constructionist perspective, not as something stable and fixed, but rather as something that is constantly constituted through dynamic interaction with people, culture and history (Mead, 1934).

Social constructionist theories suggest that people have many identities, each of which is created in interaction with other people, rather than having a single, core identity. These identities can be contradictory; for example, a musician can be a 'different person` on stage than when in solitary rehearsals, and be different again when engaged in each of a number of non-musical activities. In social constructionist terms, identities are also always evolving and shifting—each interaction can lead to new constructions (Hargreaves, Miell & MacDonald, 2002: 10).

This perspective views identity not as an authentic self, or essence of ourselves that we uncover, but rather as work in progress, as a process we construct and reconstruct continuously, in active relation with our context and shaped by each personal journey. In this way, potential identities are constantly being unfolded and expanded, and transformed through social interactions with meaningful others.

We can see strong elements of a collective identity in classically-trained musicians who, from childhood, have been introduced to traditions around performer roles. The common practice of conservatories can be seen as “communities of practice” (CoP), an anthropological perspective on learning introduced by Lave & Wenger in 1991. According to Wenger, people take part in a CoP and, through doing so, gain new knowledge shape their notion of identity and sense of self-change:

Because learning transforms who we are and what we can do, it is an experience of identity. It is not just an accumulation of skills and information, but a process of becoming – to become a certain person or, conversely, to avoid becoming a certain person. (Wenger, 1998: 215)

Three elements constitute a CoP: the domain as a common identity and ground; the community as the social fabric of learning; and practice as a set of frameworks, ideas, tools, styles, language and stories shared by the community (Wenger et al., 2002: 28-29). In this way, CoP can resonate with guilds, securing professional standards according to certain agreed upon conditions, but also with the danger that they “hoard knowledge, limit innovation, and hold others hostage to their expertise” (Ibid.: 139), thus hindering learning. The CoPs within the conservatories are strongly linked to the institutional identities, connected to material conditions such as buildings and instruments, as well as power relations and ideologies embedded in practice. We see the institutions’ expressions of identity through language and narrative; however, several core aspects, such as performing hegemonies and hierarchies and exclusion of other genres, are not addressed in the open. “There is a hidden curriculum at NMH [Norwegian Academy of Music] that consists of 'the skills, knowledge and values that are not directly intended in the written curriculum”(Jørgensen 2009: 181).

This wonderful music, the masterpieces, interpreted and embodied by our heroes on Stradivariuses, Guarneriuses and Gofrilleriuses. I was also going to play this music. What a feast, what happiness lay before me. The iconic interpretations, the iconic cellists - the classical music superstars: Rostropovich, Jaqueline du Pré, Zara Nelsova, Feuermann, Navarra, Starker and Isserliss. All these magicians of the instrument. A gold standard already set. Who was I in the middle of this? What room for action was left for me? Who could I become in this world? We were socialized into the world of classical music from childhood. The beloved romantic repertoire, the great concertos and sonatas. The Haydn concertos. Baroque music, Bach - our bible. Immortalized by Casals and later Anner Bylsma. During 8 years of study, this was the frame of repertoire. Yes, we did play Martinů, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Kodàly and Sommerfeldt, music from the 20th century. The most daring among us played ‘Clamavi’ by Arne Nordheim, our own Norwegian modernist. A few students played contemporary music, but it was clearly perceived as “otherness”. New music or other genres were something strange, something unknown and not appealing amongst my peers; nor were they encouraged by our teachers. Would one like to be associated with them? Their environment was different, they had other types of ideals and aspirations. They were not in sync. with the classic music community (Orning, 2018).

The discourse within our discipline was well established, everyone knew what was “allowed” and what was not. I speak here about the Foucauldian view on discourse as a culturally and historically contingent social system that produces meaning and knowledge. In her dissertation, “instrumental teaching as cultural practice”, Monika Nerland writes:

Discourses are historically produced, they are maintained and further developed through social practices. They represent a repertoire of actions, they seem constitutive, legitimizing and productive in social practice, and are thereby also regulating on the experiences obtained in situations where they have an impact (Nerland, 2003: 11).

In this sense, we have to look at the “approved” repertoire of actions within instrumental music teaching, to see what constitutes the discourse, and at the same time investigate what governs the regulations by which different experiences are made possible. If the premise for a discourse is that meaningful practice takes place and is constructed within the discourse, how do we make things meaningful that are outside this discourse? What is the repertoire of actions, where are the boundaries and why are they there?

Even Ruud writes about how identity develops linguistically by seeing other possibilities: “identity is formed out of the discourses - in the broadest sense - that are available to us …” (Ruud 2013: 43). If a table is not available to us, we cannot dance on the table. We need to look closer at what the term musician potentially can contain in order to broaden the discourse and open it up for multiple interpretations of the identities of future musicians. To facilitate identity work in HME, we need to offer cutting-edge, state-of-the-art models, not only the traditional and partly outdated models of what a musician can be. We need to open the term from within and from the outside - explore, discuss and unfold what it means to be a musician today.

What is a musician?

According to The Norwegian Academy of Music, the purpose of HME is “to educate tomorrow’s professional performers, church musicians, conductors, composers, music technologists, music teachers and music therapists” ( It is interesting to notice the division and distinction between these roles, shaped and defined by history and culture and now reflecting an extreme specialization in the professional field of music. The working life includes an increasing number of freelancers or portfolio musicians, often hybrid musicians moving the opposite way, towards de-specialization. We speak about a new role for the musician, a protean musician (protean means able to change frequently or easily), a portfolio musician or a hybrid musician. In many ways, this can be seen as a return to an old musician´s role before the emergence of the work concept, when the musician created a career by performing widely different tasks and perhaps even gaining proficiency on several instruments. The extreme specialization we see in the education today is by all appearances too narrow if the aim is to develop the skills and identities for musicianship in the 21^st^ century (Beckman, 2011).

I played in an improv. band where no-one was allowed to play their main instrument. After 8 years of studies, I identified as a cellist, the cello being my voice and even an extension of my body. Did I possess a musicality when I played bass guitar, violin or drums (like an amateur)? Did what I expressed without my own instrument have any value? Who was I, then - the cellist without a cello? Was I still a musician? It was strange and extremely uncomfortable at first, but I also had a wild sense of freedom. Playing publicly, I felt embarrassment but a strong urgency as well, something new was at stake. The gap between my self-confidence as the co-principal cellist of the orchestra, and the feeling of total self-doubt in the band, forced me to reflect upon who I was as a musician. The classical me and the experimental me seemed to add up to an identity conflict. Which qualities did I have as a musician and artist that was not congruent with me as a cellist? The instrumentalist was severed, decoupled from the musician. Could I be more than a cellist, could I be a creative musician, even an artist? ( Orning, 2018).

In the conservatory tradition, we see that the craftsmanship aspect of being a performer and the associated identification of oneself as a particular instrumentalist is more nurtured than the artistic aspects. However, rather than iterate this constructed distinction, it is more interesting to reflect upon which views of the musician’s role the two extremes represent, and try to transcend this dichotomy so that the artist and the craftsman can be integrated into the role of musician. Bennett investigated how professional musicians defined the term “musician” and concluded that a broader definition of what a musician could be “enables musicians to adopt multiple identities as specialties, rather than having to redefine themselves on a regular basis. A broader identity is undoubtedly a catalyst for success, and needs to be communicated to intending and practising musicians as well as to the general public” (Bennett, 2008: 4). The British research report, “Creating a Land with Music” (Youth Music, 2002), identified 50 different roles as musicians. To expand the notion of what a musician is, we need models, a great number of real life examples of music workers of all kinds, as well as discussions, reflections and workshops exploring what the term may contain.

Future possible selves

A wide palette of professionals (including alumni) could model both traditional and more explorative, radical and composite career trajectories - a repertoire of possible selves. The theory of “possible selves” (Marcus & Nurius, 1986) could enable the students to think of “the ideal selves that we would very much like to become. They are also the selves that we could become, and the selves we are afraid of becoming” (Ibid.: 954). The idea of several different possible selves can motivate the students to envision different paths, project themselves into the future and acknowledge that identity construction involves constant processual work.

I went to a concert with a violinist, composer and sound artist, Kaffe Matthews, at the club Blå in Oslo. She placed microphones around the venue, among the audience, outside, and in the lavatories, blending these sounds of the close environment into the sounds from her violin and electronics on stage. This was the first time I experienced a classically-trained string player doing something so creative and original and who had built her career around it. For me, the concert became a strong impetus for signing up for a music technology course (Orning, 2018).

“We suggest first that possible selves are important because they function as incentives for future behaviour (i.e., they are selves to be approached or avoided), and second, because they provide an evaluative and interpretive context for the current view of self” (Ibid.: 955). As the ideas about the self in future states not necessarily are anchored in social reality, the theory has a potential to project hopes and aims into the future. “Possible selves can then be seen as personalized cognitive carriers of some of the dynamic aspects of personality” (Ibid.: 966). The theory is dynamic in that it takes time into consideration - past, present and future, and thereby include the different roles that emerge and are negotiated over time.

Flesh-and- blood examples (the expansion of practice)

In “Working Identity”, Herminia Ibarra writes: "We need flesh-and-blood examples, concrete experiments. Working identity is above all a practice: a never-ending process of putting ourselves through a set of knowable steps that creates and reveals our possible selves " (Ibarra, 2003: Xii). She emphasizes the practice, the activity-based part in identity work. Theory, models, and reflections upon history get activated and engender experiences primarily when coupled with practice and participation.

[…] is by necessity determined by its object – the instrument and its practice, i.e. the instrumental tradition itself with its ideals and methods – there is a strong case for arguing that a musician’s identity as a subject is shaped according to the apparatus of instrumental practice just as much as those docile bodies described by Foucault are shaped by disciplinary systems. In extension, one could argue that a musician, through countless hours of practise, shapes the brain, the nerve fibres and the body functions according to the standards received by tradition (Førisdal 2017: 7).

It should be no surprise that our bodies and minds become disciplined and shaped by the repertory and instrumental practice we adhere to. The traditional and prevailing performance practice is, in this way, inscribed into the students, through the social context, canonical repertory, and influence of their masters, who in turn have learned from their own masters within the shared community of practice. Since the canonical repertory and well-established performance practice in this way can be seen to limit possible new identity trajectories, we need to expand the repertory, musical styles and approaches to practice. The creative agency of performers is also in the danger of being overshadowed by exaggerated respect for the composer and the work (Goehr, 1992, Taruskin, 1995, Orning, 2014). It is time to challenge Werktreue (faithfulness to the work and the composer) which has been a cornerstone of classical music since the early nineteenth century. We must dare to question and go to the root of certain structures and hierarchies implicit in musical practice. These mechanisms are ingrained reflexes in most classically trained musicians and can lead to fear of failure according to an ideal rather than openness to experimenting with highly personal interpretations. For musicians to develop a capacity for critical reflection on their own practice and a healthy opposition to adopted and delivered truths is a fundamental principle for their achieving an independent musical career. Based on several studies, Smilde strongly argues for the significance of improvisation within classical musicians in identity development, connected to ownership and sound. She writes that students need:

[…] an open learning culture, with space for their self-identity to develop. Such learning environments distinguish themselves by an atmosphere of trust where students experience self-worth, excitement and challenge. These environments feature holistic learning laboratories resembling Wenger’s (1998) communities of practice, which are supported by a learning culture in a lifelong context, where transformative learning can evolve (Smilde, 2012: 298).

An environment like this should be a safe space, a laboratory where experiments can take place and where failing is acknowledged as an important part of the learning process. An open learning culture would include hands-on experiences with different practices – an expanded repertoire of musics and actions such as: improvisation, composition, transcription, playing by ear, curation, festival organization, different approaches to interdisciplinarity and the inclusion of other genres. Central here is the opportunity to collaborate in many different contexts. Critical thinking should be practiced rigorously, so as to question whether the students’ beliefs and assumptions are accurate. This approach represents a holistic view of the student environment, where learning takes place in formal as well as informal settings, with teachers and peers, inside and outside the conservatory.

Narrative and portfolio

[N]arrating the self changes the self. Just as people construct work identities by telling their story, they also reinvent themselves by telling new stories about what is happening to them, reinterpreting past events in the light of these new understandings, and weaving past and present into a coherent repertoire that allows them to communicate their identity and negotiate it with others (Ibbarra & Barbulescu, 2010: 150-151).

Narration is, in this way, a tool for understanding the present through the lens of the past but, at the same time, an interpretative practice performed in real time. Identity work is thus not only a discursive practice, but it is also performance - we perform identity through all our actions. Judith Butler, who uses the example of gender, argues that “there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very 'expressions` that are said to be its results” (Butler, 1990: 215). In the example of musicians, identity manifests itself in their actions, such as playing styles, choice of repertoire, concert rituals and clothes. It is embedded in what they do but also, just as importantly, what they don’t do. By performing these discourses of classical music, they shape the identity that constitutes the individual as a musician subject.

Another perspective upon narrating, or staging oneself, and a useful method for reflection and the inclusion of all the activities of the students is to be found in ePortfolios. For some institutions, these have proven a powerful tool in developing artistic identities. An Australian study from 2016 resulted in three significant findings:

First, as students’ ePortfolios are developed, they quickly transition from being an archive to being a fluid self-portrait. Second, ePortfolios represent vehicles through which identity can be negotiated and constructed. Third, the very process of developing of an eP prompts students to adopt future-oriented thinking (Bennett,, 2016).

Findings showed that the earlier in their studies students started using the tool, the more efficient it became. They also emphasized the importance of being able to access the portfolio during the transition period from student to professional. A recent report describes the aims of using the method: "(i) encouraging critically self-reflective lifelong learning and (ii) gathering evidence of broad skills and competencies that may enhance future employment prospects" (Scully, 2018: iii). In work with individual portfolios, Smilde emphasizes that: “It is then of critical importance to ensure that the definition of quality is not a narrow one, limited to quality of performance, and failing to take into account a variety of contextual variables” (Smilde, 2012: 298). The ePortfolio is a potential tool for extending the educational span, motivating holistic thinking and conjuring up future visions. The students are able to stage themselves through editing their profiles - the performance of their current identities. One objection against students’ publishing versions of themselves in early educational years is that they undoubtedly benefit from working undisturbed and in depth with their processes without regard to early presentations. The acceptance of experimenting through trying and failing is a crucial element in developing personal artistic professionalism. Creating a safe laboratory in protected educational realms can be seen as opposed to early public staging and disclosure. There are, however, tools that enable a more controlled staging in the form of a “backstage” and “front stage” using ePortfolios (Saltofte & Krill, 2017).


The backdrop for this article is the proposition that the changing profession of musicians requires a change in both mindset and curriculum within HME. A crucial factor in promoting the learning trajectory of students is identity work – helping them to clarify their motivations and visions by projecting themselves into the future. An emerging perspective in HME worldwide is employability, the concept that students should develop skills, knowledge and understanding so that they are able to fill the needs and expectations of the society. Employability can be seen as a response to the shift in the professional music field, but it also resonates with neoliberalism and marked forces, influencing the way society relates to culture. We need to offer some resistance to the more utilitarian aspects of the call for flexibility, adaptability and versatility. The sociologist Richard Sennett writes about how the unpredictability caused by a capitalist system’s promotion of flexibility and risk-taking on the one hand gives people more freedom but it also leads to confusion around identity – corroding how the fully-realised character is formed (Sennett, 1998). Rather than educating chameleons who can fulfil any need of the customers, renouncing their artistic integrity and core, we need to educate artists with a certain autonomy and ability to act independently from reductive and instrumental perspectives. This is essential if art is to keep its critical potential and aesthetic power, a fundamental raison d’être for the arts.

HME cannot predict precisely when or where the key moments of learning and identity work take place; we can only facilitate and create conditions in which the students draw on their own motivation, resilience and resources in combination with educational resources. We can promote inquiry-based and active learning, critical thinking and, partly, the social context in which learning takes place. The self-knowledge resulting from hands-on experiences can lead to the students’ projecting multiple identities, not necessarily in harmony with each other, into the future. We need to acknowledge that the trajectories are non-linear and that the unfolding of the student’s identity processes may be full of contradictions and conflicting identities. If we dare to question our assumptions and beliefs in challenging the outer limits of the discourse, areas of tension, friction, and resistance will emerge.

The metaphor of polyphony can help us to recognize that the various, and sometimes conflicting, factors that may occur in musical practice are necessary and vitally important for music to be able to survive. The term “polyphony” refers to more than a harmonious sounding of multiple voices; it encompasses the possibility of conflicting, contrasting, and even antinomic elements. Essential to polyphony is the equality of the voices in a dialogic or multi-faceted discourse (Orning 2014).

A polyphonic performance practice requires rigorous identity work, both on an institutional and personal level. In spite of the educational community having much in common with any CoP that is followed by a strong group identification, we need to empower the students to think and act independently. If we enhance their artistic perspectives, the students get an opportunity to shape and sharpen their skills and personalities, coupling practice and intellect in their visions of their future possible selves.

I had practised and practised all my life to achieve an ideal sound and technical ease. Suddenly I came to a point when I felt like a clone. Should I, like thousands of other classically trained cellists in the world, perform Haydn and Dvorak, play well enough but never as well as those in the top league? No, now I had had enough of striving toward these generic goals. I borrowed some guitar pedals and bought an amplifier. Disillusioned, I realized that the ideal cello sound does not exist, it is a kind of Sisyphean work; you’ll never reach the top, the stone will always roll down and you’ll have start over again. Where does this assumption about the ultimate sound come from? Electronically, my sound could be transformed into anything. I improvised and experimented. I made up my own sounds. The first time I performed music I had composed, I was so nervous that it was almost devastating (Orning, 2018).

Looking back on my own trajectory, I see the non-linearity in the construction and re-construction of my professional identity. The continuous unfolding of possible routes, both random and determined, accidental, scary, and controlled, often conflicting or paradoxical, expanded in apparently parallel universes - they add to my “grand narrative”, the accumulated story of my professional becoming during the last 30 years. Looking back, with the status quo in mind, reflecting on all the doubts and detours, I realize how acutely important the constant and active future projecting and unfolding of my own potentialities has been and still is. As Kierkegaard said: “It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards” (Kierkegaard, 1843).


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