How Good Is Your Ear? (Part 1)

How Good Is Your Ear? (Part 1)

I have a colleague—a performer, not a composer—who has absolute pitch and can sight sing anything. Repeatedly, this colleague has regaled me with anecdotes from working with well-known composers who, during rehearsals, inadvertently betrayed their inability to recognize whether their own damn notes were being correctly sounded or not. They had notated complex scores, but were clueless as to whether the correct pitches were being hit in performance. For the life of them, they wouldn’t have known the difference. Who were some of these ear-challenged composers? John Zorn. Anthony Braxton. Many other respectable names you would know, others you wouldn’t. (But not Charles Wuorinen: “He hears everything.”) Zorn even asked this performer whether something in one of his scores sounded right or not. He didn’t know. Shouldn’t the well-accoladed Zorn be able to do this himself? Even the venerable Samuel Adler, who according to said singer has a superb ear, brought along to rehearsal a student with absolute pitch “just to check.”

We all have heard stories about celebrated conductors with deficient ears. But composers are supposed to be able to hear what they wrote. A composer’s ear is the quintessence of his or her gift. What constitutes a good ear for a composer? In his book The Compleat Conductor, Gunther Schuller differentiates seven different attributes of a conductor’s ear, but all seven could as well be attributes of a composer’s ear: 1) harmony; 2) pitch and intonation; 3) dynamics; 4) timbre; 5) rhythm and articulation; 6) balance and orchestrational aspects; 7) line and continuity. (For composers, I would add memory as attribute 8.)

I submit that Schuller’s attributes 1 and 2 are fundamental to what defines a composer. An ear both for discrete pitch recognition and for harmony—without that minimum competence of ear, what you have, arguably, is not a composer at all, but rather a conceptual or performance artist working in music. John Cage certainly had an original ear for sound and noise, and for timbre, but according to no less than Schoenberg and Virgil Thomson his ear was technically deficient by even modest traditional measures. Schoenberg told Cage he couldn’t be a composer because he didn’t have an ear for harmony (though he did call Cage a “genius” inventor), and Thomson concurred that “with [Cage] the original gift, the musical ear, is not a remarkable one. Neither did he ever quite master the classical elements, harmony and counterpoint—a failure that has led him at times into faulty harmonic analysis.” (Please don’t misunderstand me here; clearly many, even most Cage compositions are absolute piquant delights for the ear. Still, I view him as the exception that proves the rule.)

Of course, even the most acutely endowed ears can be fooled. In his extraordinarily perceptive memoir With Strings Attached, violinist Joseph Szigeti tells an anecdote about Richard Strauss conducting one of his works. During a rehearsal Strauss asked the violin section for an “almost inaudible” tremolo. They tried it with more bow hair, less bow hair, at the frog, at the tip, ad nauseam, but Strauss remained unsatisfied. Finally the concertmaster whispered something to the players, and at last Strauss was happy. Years later, the concertmaster revealed to Strauss that he had merely instructed the section to keep the bow just above the string without touching it. The violins weren’t playing at all. Strauss’s ear had been duped by deft pantomime.

Strauss had a phenomenal ear, but, wrote Nicolas Slonimsky, “Ravel was completely helpless in spotting wrong notes in his own compositions when he conducted. Alfred Casella told me that even Debussy let pass the most horrendous mistakes in his orchestral works, and in one instance failed to notice that the clarinet player used a clarinet in B-flat instead of one in A….Stravinsky had a very limited sense of pitch [and]…was also a poor proof-reader.” Glazounov, on the other hand, was capable of prodigious feats of ear, but Glazounov certainly wasn’t as great a composer as Stravinsky. In the last analysis, the only thing that counts in composing music is what is on the score page, not the composer’s sense of pitch.

Still, if someone other than the composer knows better than he what the notes should sound like, the composer has some deficits in his gift, in my view. And next week I will put my own ears where my mouth is to further expound on this topic.

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31 thoughts on “How Good Is Your Ear? (Part 1)

  1. Colin Holter

    Interesting. There’s a lot to say about this, but until Part 2 drops, I’ll limit myself to one brief question: Performers, is it helpful to you, as you prepare to perform a piece, to have your errors pointed out to you by the composer?

  2. EmilyG

    This reminds me of a story that I’ve heard here in Montreal: A well-known local composer was conducting rehearsals for a trumpet concerto that he wrote. The trumpet soloist suddenly noticed, at the last rehearsal, that he’d been playing the solo part on a trumpet that was in the wrong key.

  3. Elaine Fine

    As a composer with highly relative pitch, I take pride in my ability to constantly feel like I am inventing new pitches and harmonic combinations of pitches, even though I only work with the 12 notes used in the Western scale.

    For decades I bemoaned not having perfect pitch (like just about everyone in my family). I thought that it was a handicap, like being born without a limb, but now I believe it is a gift to be able to marvel at the relativity of music, at the relativity of pitches. I’m really happy that I can hear pitches in combination as entities unto themselves and not as two or more pitches aligned vertically and sounded simultaneously, screaming out their names to me. I love getting totally lost in improvisation without having a clue about where I am or where I have been. It is a refreshing break from our normally pitch-specific musical world, and one I could never experience if I had perfect pitch.

    Sure, it takes more time for me to write down what I hear than a composer with absolute pitch, and sometimes what I hear in my head comes out mangled by my voice when I try to sing it. I believe that with the imperfection of my pitch comes the ability to hear other aspects of music (and there are so many components of music besides pitch) in a heightened way.

    I do think I would ever want to trade my developed relative pitch for absolute pitch.

  4. marilyn

    I couldn’t disagree more
    As a performer, what I value from composers is their imagination, their creativity, their ability to add to our expanding musical universe…not the ability to hear, which is a different talent and oftentimes reflects an entirely different training. In my ideal musical universe (in which I have chosen to work), composers create, performers play, and ultimately audiences to listen, partaking of the experience that’s been made for them. That a composer might not be able to “hear” each element of the score doesn’t, to me, lessen the its impact, or the brilliance of its conception.

  5. dalgas

    How we see the music is one thing; how we concieve of the music is another; and how we hear it is yet another still. I can imagine all kinds of variations in focus between these, both between different composers and at different moments in the same composer.

    My own balance has shifted over the years, mostly as I left traditional notation behind. In both cases, I’m always quite aware of the rightness or wrongness of a sound (musical or otherwise). Often I wrestle for hours over this or that pitch or chord, placed just here or there, with just this timbre and force; sometimes though, I’ll almost “spary” the notes onto the score, going from the gesture to the details.

    Funny thing is, it’s getting to the point where, if you asked me exactly *what* pitches they were, I’d have to stop, go back and look. There are certain decisions of the eye still, but they’re almost more like geometry than the concrete naming of things.

    Steve Layton

  6. Elaine Fine

    Above Comment
    That last sentence should read “do not think” rather than “do think.”

  7. marknowakowski

    I fail to see — considering his prolific output — how John Cage’s “inadequate” ear or occasional “faulty harmonic analysis” — matters in the least. The man was a composer, after all, and not a theory professor.

    I will submit that the method of listening taught in traditional ear-training courses does not necessarily correlate with the way a composers hears his own music during the process of creation.

    Experience has taught me that while you can improve your ear, there is only so much you can do before you come up against the wall of natural ability.

    Are the many fine composers who struggle with their ears — or dislike the pedantic elements of theory — simply playing the part of charlatans or impostors?

    Art transcends method. Practice begets theory, not the other way around. We should work to improve our “chops,” but history is witness enough that pedantry does not generally lead to great creative output.

    If my response seems reactionary, it is only because I cannot help but recoil at an article which would suppose to label the deficits in a composer’s “gifts,” as if John Cage or Ravel had some responsibility to also be a good theorist.

  8. barakperelman

    Not having perfect pitch has been a nightmare ever since I started composing. Everyday I go through feeling that there is absolutely no integrity behind what I write. Maybe that is why I am at the point of composing for only one note for extensive periods of time, and I am the only one listening to my work (except for one composer in Rome), and the only one palying my work.

    Why do I compose ? I have NO inner ear.

    What gives ME the right to compose ? Or the nerve to call myself a composer !

    I have no perfect pitch, no absolute pitch, and pretty much horrible hearing overall. My memory sucks, and I never understood music theory (even after studying it in school). Why am I composing ?

    Every several months I spend the little money I have to record this crap that I just slaved over mentally, and then spend so many hours listening to it, and then write the next one, and so on and so on.

  9. philmusic

    “John Cage certainly had an original ear for sound and noise, and for timbre, but according to no less than Schoenberg and Virgil Thomson his ear was technically deficient by even modest traditional measures. ..”

    This reminds me of Billy Wilder’s comment about Marilyn Monroe. I paraphrase;

    ” …My Aunt Sophie, always shows up for work on time. My Aunt Sophie always remembers her lines and never forgets her mark -but who wants to see my Aunt Sophie? -she’s not Marilyn!!…”–something like that I think.

    Originality counts for something.

    As to the composer/performer relationship-I don’t think the performer should put in any more work than the composer did.

    Phil Fried

  10. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    This is a good topic. Mark wrote, ”
    I will submit that the method of listening taught in traditional ear-training courses does not necessarily correlate with the way a composers hears his own music during the process of creation.”

    This is significant. My ear is much better if I am working on someone else’s music. My own music is evanescent, and once it’s written, I have to re-study my own scores to discover what I have done, what my notes are, what the directions or progressions might be, even what the architecture is. A composer colleague once called this process “flushing” — the music is removed completely in the process of documenting it, i.e., creating the score or electroacoustic image.

    Most of the time I can hear errors in rehearsals, but it’s from re-studying my score, not from recalling what I wrote. And, as with Elaine, my pitch sense is relative. I can’t imagine writing microtonal pieces if I only knew 12TET!


  11. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    I’m not sure old Ludwig would be quite so welcome in today’s composer-conductor world. Didn’t he crash right through some of his own dynamic markings when conducting from the piano? Or is that story apocryphal?

    Seriously, though, we’re talking about two or three different ‘ears’ — the creator, the editor, the reproducer. Matching them up may be the real question here.


  12. Kyle Gann

    Must must must must must
    I’m not just being facetious. “…the composer has some deficits in his gift”: so what? Every one of us, without exception, has some deficits. There are many things that go into being a composer, and no one masters them all. The impulse to say that music must have this, or a composer must do that is a neurosis that has everything to do with the imposition of power and nothing to do with being a musician. The older I get, the more I want to take musicians who say these kinds of things and pound their faces into the floor. Personally, I write microtonal music, and if a pitch in the playback is more than five cents off, I catch it very quickly. So what? Other composers have talents I sorely lack. Mark, I love your book and your writing, but I don’t see anything fruitful in the tack you’re taking here. You’ve already given enough exceptions to demolish your own point.

  13. nxnw

    I can relate to the “less than perfect ear” syndrome. Whenever I learn other (standards) music by ear (jazz, rock whatever) it takes me more time than I think it should.

    But when I’m composing or working on a new piece with others (i.e. a jazz/rock band situation) the ideas, notes and chords come much more easily, less of a struggle with finding the “right” intervals or chords. It seems almost instinctual or natural. That is why I believe I am a composer more than a performer. I find that I can find or create good parts very easily in the creative situation of “composing”. Whereas just learning a tune by ear is sometimes a struggle.

  14. Kyle Gann

    When I was a student at Oberlin, the pianist Robert Miller gave a concert there. He told a story about how he played Herma for Xenakis, and had a really bad day and missed a lot of notes, and shamefacedly went up to Xenakis afterward only to realize that Xenakis hadn’t noticed the wrong notes. And Miller said that, because of that, he would never play any Xenakis again, because the man couldn’t even tell how his music was supposed to sound. Even at 18 I found that tremendously superficial. Because Xenakis wrote stochastic music in which a computer filled in given shapes with more or less randomized pitches, and the individual pitches really don’t matter. So it depends on what kind of music you’re writing, and a lot of other things. Marilyn is right: it’s the composer’s job to conceptualize the piece, and if in addition to that he can also police the performance, that’s lagniappe. Those of you not from the south can look it up.

  15. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    In my experience, the more a composer is expected to be part of the performance development process, the more a composer is expected to be a jack-of-all-trades … and the perception of incompetence can be death to a piece.

    I don’t much like it. Two anecdotes. Once I was asked at a critical first rehearsal to conduct the opening of my flute concerto. I was totally caught off guard, but fortunately conducting is one skill that I have and the group left with confidence in me and the piece. In another piece, a performer turned away from the conductor to ask me directly, “in measure 62…” (or something) and I interrrupted, “yes, that’s an F-natural” because I could hear his insecurity about the F-sharp dissonance in a neighboring part. Again, confidence is important — plus there is one hell of a lot of testing that goes on of composers by performers.

    I’m not sure that’s why this topic was brought up, and I certainly agree with Kyle that those kinds of attitudes can be superficial. So what happens when the issues do come up? How can the composer offer that sense of security?

    Anybody remember the famous Lukas Foss article from some 35 years ago when a big symphony (Berlin?) simply trashed the piece as he was conducting it? That’s some bad-ass testing.


  16. rtanaka

    Dennis has a point. I had an experience once where one of my teachers asked me to sing a part I had written for a piece. I couldn’t do it…not even close. It was embarrassing but a lesson well-learned, because such an experience reproduced in the presence of performers can lead to a disaster. Nowadays people are much too polite to make a fuss about it in public, but they will distance themselves from the composer if the experience doesn’t turn out to be a good one.

    Nowadays I don’t write anything that I can’t at least approximate in some demonstrative fashion…(singing, clapping, playing on an instrument) it just gives confidence to the performers that the composer has at least thought things through, at least in terms of gesture.

    Nobody expects anybody to be perfect, and it’s impossible to know ALL of the instruments inside and out, and ALL of the notes that you’ve written. But at least some sort of general musicianship skills would be nice especially if something is written in traditional notation and precision is what is expected. (Rhythms, especially, since it’s usually the fundamental of most types of musics.) But if you’re intent on writing a work in the complexus, sound-mass, time-bracketed, or conceptual vein (where usually the “overall” effect is desired) then it should be made clear to the performer ahead of time that that is the aesthetic you’re striving for. Rehearsal and practice time is always finite, and performers would greatly appreciate some means of prioritizing their efforts to maximize the possibility of a good performance.

    If the individual notes don’t matter or if you’re not hearing what you wrote, then just be frank about it and just say so. The performance, after all, is going to be dedicated to the composer for the most part — the least they can do is to be honest.

  17. William Osborne

    I found Kyle’s comment very interesting. “The impulse to say that music must have this, or a composer must do that is a neurosis that has everything to do with the imposition of power and nothing to do with being a musician. The older I get, the more I want to take musicians who say these kinds of things and pound their faces into the floor.”

    Is there a slight contradiction of thought here? On one hand, Kyle rejects the idea that composers or music must do something, and on the other, his sense that the idea is so wrong that he wants to pound faces into the floor. Isn’t pounding faces into the floor also an “imposition of power?” There is a kind of paradox in absolutist beliefs that absolutes are wrong.

    If we want to get rid of stultifying and arbitrary ideologies in music – all of those “musts” –then we might need to get rid of our fantasies of violence when we disagree with our colleagues. Is art about forms of idealism that we passionately hold? Or is art a paradox that gives us the tolerance to hold, entertain, and even appreciate contradictory beliefs?
    Wish I knew the answer.

    William Osborne

  18. kontrabass47

    If you have a great ear, you will write music in the schoenberg vein; if you have a bad ear, you will write in the cageian style. Both are equally valid and neccesary. Performers need to understand the most important aspect of a particular moment in a piece so it will be translated as the composer intends.
    -jon crane

  19. Kyle Gann

    If you have a great ear, you will write music in the schoenberg vein; if you have a bad ear, you will write in the cageian style.

    Well, this is cringe-inducing. For what it’s worth, Morton Feldman never bought the bit about Cage having no ear for harmony; he thought it was just part of Cage’s literary persona, and always said, “He’s lying, Cage has a fabulous ear.” I’d take Feldman’s word on it over that of Virgil Thomson, who could be a petty man (if one of my heros), and who bore Cage some inexplicable grudge over the book Cage co-authored about him.

  20. jchang4

    That’s actually a rather tricky question to answer and certainly depends on the circumstances involved. I would say that, generally, I know where I’ve played wrong notes, and it seems a little silly and redundant for anyone to point them out to me. Usually when I work with composers I hope to hear comments that are more about the shape and character of the music that maybe I’m just not quite getting as they envisioned. But, the tendency is that they just say “more dynamic contrast” or “louder here” or “can you play this any faster?” :)

    I tend to think of “wrong note talks” as more part and parcel of pre-college teaching (in piano or any other instrument), especially with respect to the way that instruments are taught today. I’ve actually only ever encountered one instance with respect to new music composition where I was told that I played a note wrong… it was an ensemble piece where Dr. Taylor was conducting, and he told me that it was an important note to get right in order to have the right harmonic effect.

    So, there are exceptions to the nit-picking of correct notes. I’d say, as a general rule of thumb, unless it’s something really important like in the ensemble example, the performer already knows that the notes are wrong, and pointing them out may actually only reflect poorly on the composer.

  21. Annie Gosfield

    Mark writes “without that minimum competence of ear, what you have, arguably, is not a composer at all, but rather a conceptual or performance artist working in music.”

    Does not recognizing a wrong note “downgrade” a composer to conceptual or performance artist? If a painter couldn’t tell you exactly how she mixed her paints, would she be less skilled as an artist? If a writer couldn’t recite his work verbatim, would he be a true writer after all? The process of creation, recognition, and memory are so different, and so personal, why should a composer need to prove himself by his ear training skills?

    Consider the innovators that you mention here: Zorn, Braxton, Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky. Should we think less of their work because there are anecdotes saying that they may not have jumped on a wrong note, or because they gave performers the benefit of a doubt? Rehearsal methods are also personal, and some choose to spend their precious time on interpretation instead of picking out the clams. Maybe the compelling topic here is how these great composers approach(ed) their music, and what the commonalities are in the unique links between their ear and their brain.

  22. Chris Becker

    Well put, Annie. I can relate especially to the personal nature of how one goes about rehearsing.

  23. William Osborne

    I don’t think Mark’s commentary is quite so one-dimensional as some are portraying it. His commentary might be related to his earlier one about those who lack knowledge of music history. That problem (if you will allow for it being seen as one) is clearly not created by inherent inabilities, but by ideologies and/or poor educational standards.

    Mark gives ample examples to illustrate that people can be great composers in spite of various technical deficiencies, but his point still stands. In later life, Beethoven was deaf, and thus poor at conducting his own work. A technical deficiency is still a deficiency even if the composer works around it and writes great music. The thought is actually an encouragement to those less than perfect – i.e. all of us.

    But there are other levels to the problem. What about technical deficiencies caused by carelessness or laziness that could be corrected with a little hard work? Or the deficiencies caused by poor pedagogy? Or the deficiencies caused by misguided ideologies?

    Shouldn’t we accept that we do have obligations to refine our skills more or less to the extent we are capable, and to the extent they are relevant to our work?

    This also leads to a much more touchy question. Do teachers sometimes know better than students what should be learned and which skills will probably need to be developed? To put it provocatively, if Kyle tells his students they will have to learn certain things in his classes at Bard, do they have the right to “pound is face into the floor?”

    William Osborne

  24. jbunch

    I remember conducting pieces of mine where getting the ensemble together and conceptualizing the piece with them was so much of a challenge that sitting around scratching at details was not in any possible way – a luxury that I could afford. However, I think it’s wonderful having a good ear – if that’s all you mean by this post, then I agree! But saying that I much more enjoy listening to music by people that have a good ear for sound in all of its manifestations.

  25. rtanaka

    What about technical deficiencies caused by carelessness or laziness that could be corrected with a little hard work? Or the deficiencies caused by poor pedagogy? Or the deficiencies caused by misguided ideologies?

    Deficiencies are deficiencies. I consider myself to be a pretty good improviser but I’m quite terrible at reading notation on the piano. But I don’t try to claim my weakness as some sort of virtue. Composers above have shown that they can be very good despite their flaws, as with any human being. But Xenakis is a horrible orchestrator in my opinion, and I have my doubts about the ears and performance abilities of some of these composers writing in the new complexus style. You probably shouldn’t use their works if you’re interested in learning idiomatic writing, lest you end up with more Robert Millers.

    As said above, main thing is to be honest with your abilities and intentions. Had Xenakis just said “I don’t care about the individual notes”, then Miller probably would’ve still kept on playing his music. Performers have a fundamentally different approach to music making so being sensitive to this can really go a long way.

  26. Colin Holter

    I have my doubts about the ears and performance abilities of some of these composers writing in the new complexus style

    Again, I don’t want to get too far into this conversation until Mark furnishes us with his follow-up, but this has to be addressed. You may rest assured, Ryan, that the “ears and performance abilities” of the composers you’re talking about (I assume you’re making reference to “New Complexity,” a chimeric and not especially OK term referring principally to a small number of composers from the UK and elsewhere) are in pretty solid shape, generally speaking. I’ve had the fortune to work with a number of them, including hearing several of ’em a) perform, b) coach other performers in rehearsal, and c) address student pieces in lessons. One of them whom I know quite well plays Bach cello suites in Ben Johnston’s extended just intonation. You need not worry your pretty little head about whether they can spot a wrong note.

  27. rtanaka

    I did say some, not all. Brian Ferneyhough was supposedly a very good flute player — I don’t agree with his approach, but the fact that he was a performer does come across in his music. His music is layered with extreme dosages of complex rhythms but because he seems to understand the capabilities of the instrument I usually don’t see anything that’s strictly impossible. Everything written in most of his works is theoretically possible, just improbable.

    I did say earlier that there is a place for music written in that kind of style. Mark Menzies of the Formalist Quartet seems to be an admirer of him and I do respect his opinion and musicianship. He said once that, for him, the idea of playing his work was to give up on the idea of perfection. Maybe it serves a necessary purpose for some performers to escape from precision and focus more on gesture. But Ferneyhough also makes it clear that perfection is not the point, and the process of the performer should be to limit the score down to the things that they can do. To me, it seems to be more about the struggle with himself that he wishes to convey, not necessarily the individual notes.

    The big problem I see in new music rehearsals is that the mindsets of the composer and the performer are often out of sync. People have a tendency to project their expectations and get disappointed when those expectations aren’t being met. So once again, the intension needs to be made clear — otherwise lots of practice time will be wasted, and people will be arguing over things which could’ve been easily resolved by simple communication.

    How would you feel if you were Miller, after having spent hours and hours and hours and hours and hours practicing those notes, only to be told that it really didn’t matter? I understand that this is a composer’s and not a performer’s forum, but I don’t really see anything about Miller’s response that strikes me as being unreasonable. Do composers really expect performers to read their minds?

  28. rtanaka

    Although on the other hand, I’d really like to see some of these composers perform or dictate their own works. I mean, some of the stuff is beyond reasonable even for a virtuoso, and good performers can often play faster than they can hear. (Even for myself, my fingers are much quicker than my ear.) Take a random section out of their own work, and place it out of context — would they be able to reproduce it?

    “Not my job”, so they say. Issue is avoided! Heh heh.

  29. maestro58

    This original post certainly has brought about a lot of responses. I think several things can be summed up:

    1) Performers of new music want to feel a connection to the composer when the composer is present.

    2) Performers only have the notes to go by, so it is through the notes that they reach out to the composer.

    3) Performers may / will get discouraged / unhappy if the composer is not able to point out pitch errors.

    As a composer, I have to point out the following:

    1) If the piece is brand new / hot off the press / ink is still wet on the page — the composer is very invested in what goes on and what he hears. He/she may have exactly what is supposed to go on in their heads and be able to tell you what is right and wrong.

    2) If the piece is generally atonal, a few years old, or has been performed frequently, the composer may not have an exact memory of how things are supposed to go with the piece, be so busy with newer pieces that he forgets details of their older pieces, or may be tired of fighting trying to get the music he wants to hear out of ANY person / group / orchestra.

    3) If the piece is mostly tonal and is new, it behooves a composer to listen to some sort of sound reproduction before rehearsals begin. If it is an older piece and has had many performances before, hopefully it has been recorded and he can refer to that for a refresher of what the piece sounds like. If he doesn’t do this, he must either be very careless or very successful.

    One Helpful Hint: One composer friend of mine does a smart thing with his orchestral pieces. He uses computer software for playback so he knows what the right pitches are. He then creates a score just for himself that has the left side a C score, and the right side the same page with all the transpositions in there correct place (Horn in C right side Page 1 — Horn in F left side Page 1). That takes care of any questions about transposition then and there, and he looks like a smart cookie with a fast answer.That doesn’t help with matters of interpretation, but that’s life

    I don’t know what else to say, I hope this puts some perspective on the original post. That’s all I’m trying to do.

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