Flashback…the 1962/1963 year at St. John’s High, Winnipeg…It was my Grade Ten year and high school was a whole different game than Luxton School had been. I heard that the school would be putting on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Trial By Jury”, and my friend Edd Smith told me he was definitely going out for one of the lead parts. I figured if he could, so could I. And guess what, folks…Edd and I BOTH got lead parts. He ended up being the Judge and I got the part of the drunken, philandering young goofball that was being tried.
Upon first scanning the libretto, I realized I had a hell of a lot of work ahead of me. Both Edd and I had huge blocks of dialogue as well as many of the most important key songs. My linear recall came in very handy while I committed those flowery speeches to memory. Having a lead part in this “huge” production immediately became a status symbol for me.
We spent a great deal of time preparing for the performances. We rehearsed at 8 AM every morning for months, an hour before everyone else started morning classes at nine. We stayed after 4 PM for weeks on end, rehearsing and refining and drilling the operetta while all the other kids were out being high-schoolers on the loose.
Mr. Hadfield, our eccentric, clever music teacher at St. John’s was at the helm of the bobsled for the entire production. It came off pretty well in the final analysis, and the following year when I started Grade Eleven, I automatically went out for the tenor lead in HMS Pinafore, another Gilbert and Sullivan masterpiece.
Before I knew it, I had gotten the part of Ralph (pronounced “RAIF”) Rackstraw. But here’s the twist. The plan was to do four nights of Pinafore towards the end of the school year. For every other lead part but mine, Mr. Hadfield had chosen two people. Each of the two students would have the lead part for two nights. He let me do my lead part all four nights…I was the only one who got to stay out front for every performance. I always thought that was cool, cool, cool.
Besides singing in the church choir for two or three years at St. Martin’s on Smithfield, those operettas were the closest I ever came to any kind of voice training. Ever since I can remember I’ve heard this phrase about singing from down in the lungs and not from the neck or throat. Quite frankly, I’ve never understood what the hell that means. Maybe it has something to do with opera or classical vocalizing, but in my universe, you just go for the fucking note. You either get it or you don’t. You’re either on pitch or you’re not. Anyone can sing, but not everyone has people who want to listen to them.
Know what I think about singing…? Ninety percent of it is lack of inhibition. I mean, other than a basic sense of pitch and rhythmics, which most people have, the thing that most great singers bring to the table is a complete lack of inhibition. They succumb to the moment, and without fear, become something or someone else.
Now, please don’t read this just one way. Lord knows, I’ve been in enough karaoke bars to have learned that some pretty rotten singers are constantly willing, even FRANTIC TO “succumb to the moment”. Herein lies the necessity of an audience. When someone has no business braying into a microphone up on a stage out in public, it is the honour-bound duty of the audience either to throw things at this defiler or boo them right the fuck off the stage.
“No failure for us, thank you…that’ll be quite enough.”
To fail at medicine or law or mathematics or sport is forgivable…but to fail at the business of fantasy…that’s its own death sentence. It’s like Escher’s serpent eating itself.
Even worse than that, if a person really stinks as a singer and still thinks they’re not bad and talks as if some kind of a “break” is the only thing standing between them and those Lear Jets and passport stamps, you never seem quite able to say the “right thing” or even anything acceptable.
Touchy stuff, this “singing”…
I’m trying to convey the thought of one of our uniquely great singers getting lost in the moment…Bono…there’s a good example. Bono’s voice is an instrument. His mannerisms indicate that he travels when he sings….succumbs to the moment. And if you ever see any of those early black and white film clips of Elvis on stage, I think you’ll see precisely the meaning of “succumbing to the moment with a lack of inhibition”. In some ways, singing is acting.
“What are you studying…?”
“Acting…I’m an actor….”
“So…act like you can sing !”

About Burton Cummings

Recipient, Order of Canada & Order of Manitoba. Voice & Songwriter: American Woman (6m+ plays), These Eyes, (5m+ plays) & Stand Tall.


  1. Sharon Pilkington says

    Seems like you’ve always had a knack for singing. There’s that little clip of you singing when you were a young boy in your Life and Times special, and you can hear the energy in your voice. Not off-key or pitchy or anything. You ‘knew’ how to sing without any voice training.

  2. Kevin Sutherland says

    I have become more and more convinced over the years that the singers who have long careers have something unique about their voices, on top of the knack to pic the right songs to showcase their uniqueness. Anyone with a good voice can stumble across a great song and get to be that one or two hit wonder. It’s that uniqueness…and maybe that lack of inhibition that you bring up, that sustains a career….at least thats my uneducated opinion

  3. Margaret Black says

    I agree that lack of inhibition is a huge part of getting up on stage and performing. However, I think you may be underestimating the talent aspect. I have a passion for music, and love to sing in the car, but I am not blessed with “a basic sense of pitch and rhythmics” so, although I vocalize loudly and enthusiastically in my little soundproof booth, no one on this planet would ever characterize me as a singer. As far as musical instruments go, I play a mean radio but that’s about it! Yes, you’ve worked hard honing your craft, but you are also blessed with musical gifts and vocal talent that most of us lack. That you could create a lifelong career for yourself, capitalizing on those gifts and pursuing one of your greatest passions in life, is amazing! 🙂

    Have a good one!

  4. Christine Campbell says

    While it’s true that everyone can sing, not everyone sings that well. You, of course, are an absolutely amazing singer, but from your story that tact was apparent while you were still in high school. No way would your music teacher have let you sing the lead on all four nights unless you were an absolutely amazing singer!

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