When most singers receive a new motet, they focus on the words rather than the music. Bertalot once demonstrated this to a group of adults by giving some children the words (minus musical notes) of a hymn and then asked them to sing it. He played a melody on the piano that he had made up on the fly, yet the children seemed to sing it like they had heard it before. Bertalot made the point that children are great imitators and what looks like sight-singing is often just imitating what they have heard on the piano only a millisecond previously. If you work with children, try this some time—it is all too true. How does one get around it?1 The answer is to get them to read the music notation as well as the text.
In the first rehearsal you have with your new singers, you will need to teach them a couple of basics of music notation before they can sing one note, namely that music is written on the staff (five lines AND four spaces) and the staff has a clef (if you are working with children, this will be the treble clef). Once you draw the staff and the treble clef, point out that the belly of the treble clef wraps around the line we call G. Play G above middle C on the piano and ask them to hum what they hear. Then draw a quarter note on the same line. Explain that the quarter note tells each singer to sing G for one FULL beat, meaning that if you as the director begin counting at number one, the children must sing the G from the moment you say 1 until you say two. Then point to the note and have the children sing what they see. You have just taught them how to first see, and then sing one note (both pitch and rhythm) correctly. It always amazes me how excited children get when they have learned to sight-sing their first note.
As an aside, if you have your choristers sing a G at the beginning of each rehearsal, most of them will memorize it within the first few rehearsals and will thus have a reference point for pitching other other notes without the help of a piano.
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1 If you would like to read how Bertalot successfully worked through this process with a group of children in South Africa, visit here.