Back in the stone age of mankind when dinosaurs ruled the earth (right before the comet wiped them out) I was fortunate (lucky) enough to perform in the All-New England Choir for two years during high school. Crazy good fun, there was always a big-time guest conductor and I got to travel to new places and sing with new people. It was a great way to cement the love of choral music squarely into my soul.

Unlike the All-State Choir, which had solo auditions of prepared music, the All-New England Choir auditions were done in quartets (so you really wanted to know and trust your three cohorts). It was a two-step process, all a capella. First you performed a piece that you had been practicing for many moons and were pretty darn sick of…but you had it down pat. Second, they handed you a piece of music that YOU HAD NEVER SEEN IN YOUR LIFE. Four starting pitches on a piano and off you went. No conductor and no accompaniment. By some stroke of good fortune the two times I did this weren’t a complete train wreck but man-oh-man could it have come crashing down around us in a shower of sparks and carnage.

Thanks to having a musical mom who had me taking piano lessons at a young age (highly recommended if you can make the time and expense work for your family; it’s been the springboard for more wonderfulness than I can count) and singing in choruses early in my intermediate school years, sight reading became part of my musical arsenal pretty early on (one of many gifts from mama-san, mahalo). If you didn’t have this head start and are finding your way through choral singing, learning to sight read is a great way to expand your musical knowledge and enjoyment of the whole adventure. It’s also a great (and fun and rewarding) way to keep your mind active and challenged.

(For me, the first thing in the aging process is losing my memory. The second is losing my memory.)

I’ll lead into this whole discussion by telling you that this is going to take some time. You are quite literally learning a new language and, in the same way as picking up French or Japanese, it takes work and practice. It’s also worth it. First, there are two parts to the puzzle: the length of a note and the sound of a note. Yeah, there are time signatures  and all that stuff but this is about what happens to your voice part within the measures. Concentrate on the downbeat and roll on.

(Side note: if you want to completely blow your mind around musical notation, check THIS out.  Wow.)

The simplest and best representation of the length of notes is a “rhythm tree”. I wish I’d thought of it and I hope the person who did got rich and famous. They probably didn’t ‘cause they’re in music education and those folks never get paid enough (but that’s a subject for another day). With this tool you can start to pick apart each measure and figure out what the different note lengths are. Yeah, that sounds like a tough chore measure-by-measure but it won’t take long at all before you can do it on the fly. Here’s what each note symbol looks like and its relationship to the rest of them:

And how to count them:

If you want to download a Microsoft Word field of those two so you can print it out and put it in your folder, here it is.

Here’s the same tree with rests. Also nice and simple to use.

Like I said, you’ll get the hang of it in no time at all. If you pulse the time signature and work the one-and-two-and-tee-and bit it’ll make sense before you know it.

But the notes…ah, the notes. That’s a whole new snow bank and you don’t know where the shovel is.

Next week I’ll help you find a snowblower. For now, print out the rhythm trees, grab that folder of shiny new music and go exploring.

By the way…cheating is authorized and encouraged. Use the sound files on Chorus Connection as your guide and this will go a whole lot faster!