Advice from Sasha- Playing an Open Mic

Last week I discussed some important points about playing at an actual music venue. Of course most of us living in the Bangor area are not playing at music venues with a sound check etc. unless we travel to Portland and other points south or have the opportunity to play as part of the West Market Festival, Kahbang, a WHSN event or one of the Waterfront Concerts. But one type of event every musician has access to, no matter where they live, is an open mic night. I’ve played a couple of these events in my time including nights in NYC, Boston and of course Bangor!

The first thing you should do is find out how the open mic is run. There are several possible formats and performer guidelines. Most places that run open mics will outline how to become involved on their website or facebook page. They might also include the name of the person running the open mic, and you can always contact that person directly. Lastly you can show up and watch how the evening progresses as an audience member and then come back as a performer during a subsequent week.
Here are some options for how an open mic is run:

  • First come first serve, open sign-ups.
  • Some places will have you sign up for specific time slots, others will not.
  • You might have to sign up either ahead of time on line or in person, or right before the night is about to begin. Some evenings will have a continuous sign-up.
  • An early audition period before the open mic begins during which time it will be determined whether or not you will be allowed to play.
  • Invitation-only open mics.
  • An open mic where there is a featured performer combined with any of the above.

Ok, now on to the fun stuff, actually performing at an open mic.

  • Know how long you are expected to play and do not go over. Here’s some age old rock ‘n roll advice: “Leave them wanting more.”
  • Get a tuner. Unless you are awesome at tuning your guitar by ear, get a tuner. Because once the adrenaline kicks in and you’re getting ready to stand alone on a stage, you will definitely want a little bit of electronic back-up to ensure that your guitar is in tune.
  • Show up with an instrument and do not expect to borrow one.
  • Get a pick up-for your guitar. Unless you are an experienced player and know how to play with a microphone in front of your guitar, do not show up with an acoustic-only guitar. It is difficult to keep the guitar at the right distance from the mic, not bump the mic and avoid feedback.  Manufacturers make pick-ups that will fit nicely into the sound hole on your guitar and will not in any way required you to alter your beloved acoustic.  Don’t feel pressured to get the fancy Martin one, just buy what you can afford.
  • Get a microphone and a stand for at home practice. Even if you have nothing to plug your mic into, and nothing to plug your newly electrified guitar into, get a mic and a stand. The reason? NBA players don’t scrimmage in preparation for a game without using basketballs and people who are about to go sing into a microphone should practice with a microphone. And here is the thing about how microphones work. The distance between mouth and mic and the amplification of your voice is a non-linear relationship. Small changes in distance from the mic, especially ones where you are not already up on the mic mean big changes in amplification. If you are too far from the mic, then the person running sound will feel obliged to turn up the volume and then….hello feedback! You need to get close to that mic. So when you practice, practice how you are going to perform: whether sitting or standing and with the mic right in front of your face. If this is tricky at first, play in front of a mirror to keep an eye on your left hand for chord changes and fret placement, then eventually ditch the mirror. (Although admittedly, yours truly still practices in front of a mirror a lot the time.)
  • When practicing, use your phone, computer or whatever to record yourself (whether just audio or actual video) so you know what you sound/look like.
  • If the mic starts to feedback during your performance, swivel the mic towards the floor. Do not cover it with your hand. And if you’re right up on the mic to start, no one has to turn up the mic volume and it’s not going to feedback.
  • Make eye contact. I must admit, I’m not the best at this. I often close my eyes or “look to the sky” as one pal of mine used to continually point out. But if you can, at least make eye contact with the audience in between songs, this will endear them to you.
  • If you make a mistake or have to stop, scrap or restart a song, do not over-apologize. Laugh it off and move on. No big deal, everyone has been there!!!
  • When it comes to cover songs, know your audience and know what you are trying to accomplish. If you’re at a rowdy bar and you want everyone to sing along with you and maybe buy you a shot afterwards, then by all means play Sweet Caroline or Wonderwall. If you want people to think of you more as a songwriter, then pick covers for which you can apply your own unique style. Both options, by the by, are totally worthwhile endeavors.
  • Do not just jump up and start “jamming” with someone unannounced. If you want to play with someone ask them ahead of time and be sure to talk to the person who is running the open mic. There is no campfire, there is no drum circle and no one has smoked anything in bars for many years now.
  • Do not vocally or even with body language, complain when people do not listen to you. Some people come to open mics in order to listen attentively to strangers play songs about broken hearts, but let’s be honest, most people go out at night in order to hang out with friends and unwind from a hard day at work. Personally, I’m going to stop what I’m doing and really listen to you if there is something about your performance that demands I listen. I will not listen if you simply tell me I have to listen. Remember High School English? SHOW don’t TELL.  And people are probably listening even if they’re not hanging on your every phrase. Be thankful for the opportunity to practice your craft and get feedback on works in progress.
  • Check in with the person running open mic after you have played a couple of songs to see if your time is up or whether you have time for one or two more.
  • Before you are done, introduce yourself and thank the audience for listening.
  • Have fun. Performers who are really into what they are doing are more apt to have audience members who feel the same.
  • p.s. If the place of business is 21+, do not try to sneak anyone in who is not of age.

Next week………Acknowledging your weak spots!