Washington on a Sunday morning is a still place, devoid of traffic, federal workers or even tourists in search of a snapshot. Get up early? A foolish thought. So the only movement on the Mall early yesterday was a few joggers and a man walking a dog. Except, that is, for a group gathering in front of the National Gallery. With the humid air getting thicker by the minute and a glaring summer sun growing stronger, the crowd patiently waited for the great bronze doors to open at noon.

It was the initial flood of Helga watchers, there to catch the first glimpse of the blond woman Pennsylvania artist Andrew Wyeth painted in secret for 15 years. The pencil drawings and watercolors of Helga Testorf in repose, sleeping, nude and clothed became a media mania when revealed last summer, and the Helga pictures made the cover of two national news magazines in one week. So with all the hype and ink, it is no surprise that the wrap-around-the-building crowds will come to the Mall again a` la last year's "Treasure Houses of Britain."

Right in front, Erma Ross of Fairfax and her sister Joyce were thrilled to be where they were. They reserved free tickets in advance (two of the reported 10,000 advance tickets) for the 2:30 p.m. showing and had come to pick them up. "He's a great American artist," said Ross, an artist herself. "I have read all about this and had to see it."

Two people back was local artist Max L. Judy. "I'm a Pennsylvanian too," he said proudly. But wasn't the hype too much? "Since this is the first big time Wyeth has been celebrated, I'd say let's have more hype."

Behind him Steven Farrand, visiting from West Virginia, agreed. Having just read an unfavorable review of the show in the Sunday paper, he said he didn't care. "I'm here for Wyeth and the subject matter -- the whole story is so compelling."

Golden Books

Consider this: "One billion Little Golden Books laid out cover to cover could stretch the 2,900-mile distance between New York and Los Angeles, make a side trip to Racine, Wis., to see Little Golden Books roll off the presses at Western Publishing Co. and finish with a sprint up the California coastline to the Golden Gate Bridge."

The books -- full of simple drawings of dogs ("The Poky Little Puppy"), elephants ("The Saggy Baggy Elephant) and tugboats ("Scuffy the Tugboat") and their stories -- are the first literature many children encounter, and there have been a bunch of them. Still publishing after 45 years, the company made a showing at the American Booksellers Convention, which is in town now. They reigned simple and enchanting (read: no video) in the midst of all the sophisticated fare for children on display at other stands.

To note: the "This Book Belongs to Me" label is still inside the front cover. Auditions

This week aspiring artists of all kinds can try out:

The National Christian Choir will hold auditions on Saturday throughout the area. Call 938-8587 to set up an appointment.

The Washington Conservatory of Music, under the baton of Fabio Mechetti, will hold tryouts for its orchestra on Saturday. The conservatory is looking for student musicians of all kinds. Call 320-2770.

And also on Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Levine School of Music auditions musicians for the Levine Chamber Orchestra. Past performances have included visits to the Kennedy Center, White House, Folger Library and Washington Cathedral. The group is looking for musicians from 12 to 25. To start your musical climb, call 337-2227.

Graduation

Lots of colleges and high schools are having graduation ceremonies this week, but none will likely have processional music as good as Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory of Music. One of the premier schools for aspiring musicians will hold its commencement Thursday night, honoring composer Gian-Carlo Menotti, jazz pianist Oscar Peterson and music historian Nicolas Slonimsky. This year the first class of music critics will graduate from the master of music criticism degree program, which is the only program of its kind in the United States. To ensure these writers know their stuff, all are fully qualified performers as well.

Peabody also will bring Baltimore honors by sending students to tour in the Soviet Union in mid-November. The school will send three groups: the Symphony Orchestra, the Honors Quintet and the Ragtime Ensemble.

Up This Week

Some worthwhile things to do this week:

The Marine Orchestra performs all week at the Marine Barracks in a Showcase Series. The free concerts by the President's Own begin at 3 p.m. every day. Tickets are free. Call 433-4011.

The 38th Vassar Book Sale will open on Wednesday and continue through June 2. It's Washington's oldest sale of used books, and among them are usually some first editions. There are also records, magazines and artworks to comb through. Get to the Departmental Auditorium before the 10 a.m. opening. The lines of book lovers form early.

"The Culture and Politics of Reggae" will be the topic of a lecture by Basil Wilson on Thursday at the University of the District of Columbia. He will discuss how the music evolved as a leading form of expression for blacks in the Caribbean. Jamaican food is included in the $3 ticket. It takes place at the Van Ness campus, Building 38, second floor, in the student lounge. Call 332-0292 for information.