A young college graduate had just completed his Bachelor's degree in piano performance and pedagogy and had begun auditioning for Master’s programs at other Universities. He traveled by bus from Pueblo, Colorado, to Rochester, New York, to audition at the Music School of Eastman, where he performed beautifully. The professors seemed impressed, and then they asked him to sight-read a difficult piece. This is where this young man’s audition fell apart. He was great at memorizing and a talented performer, but they had discovered his weakness. He was not accepted into the Master’s program, and with a heavy heart, he boarded the bus to endure the two-day journey back home. He had a similar experience when he auditioned in Boulder at the University of Colorado. However, he was accepted to the University of Southern California via his audition video, where he hadn’t been asked to sight-read. He was also accepted to the Master’s program and offered a teaching assistantship at the University of Northern Colorado after a stellar audition and a carefully executed plan to distract the professors. He constructed questions to distract the music professors and prepared and memorized additional pieces to play if they asked him to sight read! He quickly accepted the teaching assistantship and position in the Master’s program at UNC.
Sight-reading ability has always been measured subjectively. What is the accurate measure of an excellent sight-reader? There is a wide range of sight-reading ability between individuals. Some can pick up a complicated piece of music without seeing it before and play it with very few mistakes with excellent rhythm. In contrast, others can barely play the melody in the right hand and pick out chords in the left hand that sound somewhat complimentary. Many fall somewhere in the middle of these two examples. There has never been a standardized sight-reading test, a way to consistently rank a pianist’s ability to sight-read other than by the opinion of an accomplished and practiced ear of a music professor. The question then is raised about whether other music professors would agree with the ranking. Does it even matter if there is an actual scale to measure sight-reading ability? Is it even possible to come up with a standardized ranking system?
The answer to that question remained no until the young man who struggled during his Master’s degree auditions taught class piano at UNC and began to dream of a better way to teach sight-reading and piano lessons in a group setting. Aaron Garner, the founder, and CEO of Piano Marvel, invented the teaching and assessment software and the SASR, or Standard Assessment of Sight Reading, which has become an essential tool at universities and in piano studios around the world to measure sight-reading ability. The SASR is a sight-reading test that gives a number in a ranking system to determine what level a pianist can sight-read. Not only is this a useful tool for professors, piano teachers, and students to measure ability, it is a great tool to help improve one’s ability to sight-read. As a person takes the sight-reading test, they are practicing their sight-reading skills, and over time improve their ability to sight-read. There are additional ways to improve one’s sight-reading ability in the Piano Marvel software by playing through the Method, Technique, and over 25,000 pieces, all ranked by difficulty levels and genres in the music Library.
The SASR is a feature in the Piano Marvel app. A person taking the SASR can choose to start the test at the beginner, intermediate, or advanced level. They have 20 seconds to look over the score before there is a countdown and the song begins. When the piece concludes, the app gives them a score. If the person receives a grade of 80% or higher, they will be given a more challenging piece to play. If they get a score lower than 80%, they get a red strike in the page’s top-left corner. After getting three strikes, the test concludes, and the individual learns their SASR score. An individual who receives a score of 189 or below is considered an “Early Beginner Student” while someone who gets 1436 is regarded as a “Professional Accompanist.” The maximum score attainable is 1900. (See Chart Below)
The SASR has been an ongoing project at Piano Marvel, and Aaron has had help along the way. He credits all those who have helped in this constant endeavor. In the beginning, Aaron and his colleague, Sean Slade, who is an accomplished pianist, accompanist, and piano teacher, along with three other piano teachers, read through the first few thousands of pieces that first made up the Standard Assessment of Sight Reading. Since then, Josh Mills joined the duo and continued to help grow the repertoire in the SASR. Early this year, the trio took the SASR to the next level. They interviewed and selected 40 extraordinary sight-readers to assemble a team of university professors, piano teachers, and one high school student who read through 1,500 new piano pieces to add to the SASR at their appropriate levels. It is essential to add music to the SASR regularly to ensure that people taking the SASR do not ever see the same song twice. It is of utmost importance that the test’s validity not be compromised by giving the student pieces they have already seen and played.
There are 90 levels of difficulty that make up the SASR. After a piece’s difficulty is proven by averaging all the members of the sight-reading team’s scores, the piece is placed in its bucket or level. The levels range from 1a-18e. Every piece added to the SASR goes through this stringent test of leveling. The next phase of reading and leveling another batch of 750 pieces to add to the SASR will commence in January 2021. The Standard Assessment of Sight Reading is the only standardized test for sight-reading invented. It has been implemented in many music programs at universities, colleges, piano studios, and by individuals. As a company, Piano Marvel and its elite sight-reading team will continue to grow the repertoire of pieces in the SASR and maintain a high level of research and growth in this area of their software.