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How to Rock an Open Mic Night

Many musicians wade into the waters of live performance via the open mic night. For anyone who may be unfamiliar with the term, an open mic (microphone) is an event thrown in places like a pub, bar, or coffee shop when the venue opens up their stage to unknowns. Performers (musicians, songwriters, poets, writers, comics) take turns going up on a stage and playing a short set of songs or reading a few poems or trying out some jokes. Some open mics are weekly events, others monthly or only occasionally. They are usually hosted, meaning that there is someone there to introduce each performer. If you are just starting out, the open mic night will give you a chance to gain experience, try out new material, receive feedback and perhaps, if you are lucky, play a great local gig and start establishing a small fanbase.

I first performed at an open mic night before I was of legal age to be in a bar. Things didn't go so well. Allow me to rephrase that: It was a bona fide disaster. I learned many things that night, all of them the hard way. So I thought I'd write on what to do and what not to do at an open mic night to hopefully spare you some of the embarrassment I suffered when I first started to put my music, and myself, out there. Here then are some tips on proper etiquette for a successful open mic night.

Drop in on several open mic nights in different venues to check out the talent and get a taste for the atmosphere. These reconnaissance missions are important for a number of reasons. First off, you get to see other people perform. Take note of what they do, what kind of music they play (covers, original music or a combination of the two) and if there is a genre preference, how long performers get to play, and how well they are received. Note the layout of the venue. Check what equipment they have. Where the stage is in relation to the audience. If there is indeed a stage or just a chair off in a corner.

Secondly, you will have a chance to scope out what the audiences are like. Some open mics are run in the middle of busy pubs. These can be raucous and intimidating because half the people are trying to talk over you, and some of them don't take kindly to the intrusion of your music. Some open mic nights are staged in the upstairs room of a pub or bar. These will generally attract a more attentive audience with a much more respectful attitude.

Also try to find out who is running the event. Find out what time the night starts and when it ends so you can pass this information on to friends. Some venues have a cover charge for audience members, others don't. In general, if the place charges admission, the audience will really want to be there and will be more receptive, though you might find it more difficult to drag a lot of people along to watch you.

The more you know about the place you choose to perform in, the better prepared you will be. Forewarned is forearmed. Playing a strange venue is a lot harder than playing somewhere you know, so do your homework.

Sign up. Open mic nights are run on a first-come, first-served basis, so remember to sign up if you intend to perform. If your name's not on the list, you don't have a spot. The list is there for a reason. It brings order to things. If you want to get on early, then sign up early. Don't stroll in at midnight and expect to go on stage ten minutes later. That's not how it works. It's not fair to bump someone who was there before you, waiting patiently for their turn and spending their money, while you were off somewhere else, doing something else. If a performer is willing to switch places with you on the list, that's fine, but do make sure to inform that evening's host of the change. And know that if you leave, you are off the list. The point is for you to spend money drinking in the venue hosting the open mic, not to go to the bar down the road until it's your turn to play.

It is your responsibility to ask the host what the rules are when you sign up. You should expect a heads up before your turn, and the host will either introduce you or ask you to introduce yourself. You should also expect the host to keep track of time and let you know when it's your last song in the set.

Choose material that helps you best connect with your audience. In other words, know who you are playing to. Death metal laced with profanity is all wrong for a coffeehouse serving up espresso and hazelnut macchiatos, just as a folk ballad might not be such a good idea in a rowdy bar. It's always a safe bet to know a couple standard crowd-pleasers, like just about anything by the Beatles. If your originals are really good, it's okay to try them out as long as they aren't too long and others can relate to them. And if five people have already covered Dave Matthews, you need to mix it up a little. You will eventually develop both the repertoire and the instinct to know how to go with the flow and tailor your set to best segue from the performer before you while still maintaining your uniqueness.

Be prepared! This is so obvious that it shouldn't merit mention here, let alone an exclamation mark, but you'd be surprised how many performers fail to factor stage fright in to their performance. It's okay to be an amateur—that's what open mic nights are all about after all—but know the pieces you're performing. I mean really know them. Inside and out, backwards and forwards, around and through. Because when the nerves kick in, as they will, lyrics and chord changes have a way of evaporating into the smoky air. It's also okay to use a cheat sheet if you must, but remember to make frequent eye contact with your audience. Keep the sheet at your feet, or if the club has a music stand, you can use that. It's also a really good idea to have a spare song or two in your back pocket should you need to make last-minute changes due to another performer's choice of material. Make sure you know these alternate numbers every bit as well as you do the actual songs you've chosen to play.

Be professional.Bring your own equipment. Please don't ask strangers to borrow guitars, wires, or tuners. Make sure your cables are good, your batteries are fresh, your strings are in reasonable shape, and your pipes are warmed up and ready to go before you hit the stage. Restrooms are good places to warm up your vocal chords.

Tune up in advance. You want your guitar to be out of its case and tuned up before you hit the stage. Again, the restroom is the perfect place for this as you won't distract the audience from the performer onstage. Go outside if you have to, even if it's chilly. You may have to tweak your tuning onstage due to hot lights, humidity, or the passage of time, but at least be in the ballpark before you go up there. Some clubs have tuners set up for performers to use, but again, be professional and come prepared with a self-contained tuner that doesn't require you plug in.

Do what you need to do to relax. If you need a few minutes to draw some deep, belly breaths before your named is called, close your eyes and take them while the performer before you plays through his set. Yes, people around you might think you've nodded off, but if it helps you be a bit more zen on stage, do it. If you need to perform barefoot to get the job done, go for it. If you need to have your lucky stuffed giraffe within eyeshot, pull up a chair for him. Being good-natured about what makes you feel comfortable up on stage can amuse and charm the audience and get them on your side.

A word of caution is warranted here. Whatever you do, don't perform drunk. Please drink responsibly if your name is on that list. Know your limits. Many people embarrass themselves by having a few too many before taking the stage. You don't want it to be you, trust me. If you've had one too many, there is no shame in going to the host and admitting this. You don't want to get on stage and forget lyrics, have your fingers tripping all over themselves, or have the host intervene on behalf of the venue. You'll be too embarrassed to ever show your face in that joint again. Be mindful of your consumption. It's one thing to have a drink to relax. It's another thing entirely to drink your face off and be so loose you can't keep it together.

For tips on dealing with stage fright, you might want to check out How to Deal with Performance Anxiety and the comments that follow from fellow guitarists who have dealt with it.

Get on and off stage efficiently. Use as simple a rig as possible. If the club is set up with a vocal mic and guitar mic, or if they offer you a house cable, they're trying to tell you something. Don't be a diva and tell the host how to set your levels unless he or she offers or you have a specific song that requires a momentary tweak or two at most. Don't go up onstage with all sorts of gizmos and gadgets that take ten minutes to set up and test or you risk clearing the room. The venue won't be too jazzed about this. Use the house equipment unless it truly stinks, and if it's that bad, keep that information to yourself. Nobody likes a whiner. Don't diss the venue or its equipment to others or blame it should your performance not live up to your expectations unless the equipment fails completely, in which case be a trooper, show some chutzpah and opt for an unplugged performance.

Take the house rules literally. It is customary for performers to get three songs or fifteen minutes, whichever comes first. If too many people sign up, this can get cut down to two songs or ten minutes in order to accommodate everyone. Three songs does not mean four, nor does it mean a set consisting of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," "Shine on You Crazy Diamond," and "2112." Ten minutes means ten minutes, not fifteen. If you go over your time, you create a ripple effect, cutting into the time of every act that follows. Be considerate of the audience, those going on after you, and especially of your host. If one person sneaks in an extra song because her friends or a scout may be there, the host will feel hard-pressed to rein things in when it comes to subsequent performers. Nobody ever complains about someone who played too short a set. When in doubt, leave them wanting more.

Introduce your song, especially if it's an original, but don't take excessive time explaining the circumstances that inspired it. That's what the lyrics are for. And don't repeat a song someone else has already played. How would you feel if you just played "Wish You Were Here" and someone does it a set or two later, and does it one better at that? It makes the night feel more like a competition, and that is not what the open mic night is about.

Nobody notices your mistakes more than you do. If you mess up, keep going. You will only draw more attention to your mistake if you let it rattle you. If the goof is so obvious that it cannot be ignored, own it. Nobody expects a virtuoso performance at an open mic. Let little flubs roll off your back. If you don't make a big deal of them, neither will your audience.

Treat fellow performers with respect. If you don't want someone to talk through your set, don't talk through theirs. If you aren't fond of the music they are playing, please keep it to yourself. They may have family or friends there watching them who may not take kindly to you and your friends insulting who they came to see. You are entitled to your opinion but keep in mind it is not uncommon for the open mic to be a performer's first time playing in front of a crowd. Be supportive and mindful of karma. What goes around definitely comes around.

Stay for the entire evening. The only excuse for coming late and leaving right after your set is an emergency, illness, another gig or unavoidable commitment. If you brought friends to see you, urge them not to get up and leave en masse once you're done. Nothing is more demoralizing to a newbie, or even a veteran, than to see the room empty out as they are taking the stage. Listen to your fellow performers. You want them to return the favor.

Order something, even if it's only soda or coffee. Open mic nights are a way for an establishment to bring in revenue, so be sure to order something. If you have to drive or don't drink alcohol, order a soda or buy a bottle of water. In the event you bring a group of friends and family, make sure everyone at least buys a cup of coffee or orders something from the menu. If the venue doesn't make enough money, there will be no open mic to go to. Open mics are not free concerts.

Do not pester the host for a gig your first time out. Yes, playing at open mics can lead to a paying gig in that club, but unless you knock it out of the ballpark on your first time at bat, don't ask the host about a future possible booking. If you are that good, they'll ask you.

You can, however, politely inquire whom you should speak with about a potential booking, but be sure to ask when the host is not busy with another performer. You can also leave a card. Not only do hosts sometimes recommend performers from an open mic for paid shows in their club, but they also know a lot of musicians who might be looking for someone to play shows with or perhaps even a band mate. Open mic night hosts are pretty influential, especially on the local music scene. They are often musicians themselves and have friends who are recording engineers, photographers, graphic artists and a variety of other professions that could be very beneficial to your career as a musician. In a profession where word of mouth is everything, it's in your best interest that the words coming out of a host's mouth are positive about you.

Promote yourself tactfully. If you have a CD or other merchandise, make brief reference to it and then sell it discreetly and politely once your set is over. Do not take over an entire table or section of the bar if the place is crowded, and do not detract attention from subsequent players. If you have other appearances to promote, mention them briefly and then have some small flyers ready to hand out, again, discreetly. Please remember that it's really bad form to table-hop during someone else's set.

Check your ego at the door. Lastly, remember, it's not your night. You own only ten or fifteen minutes of it. You are playing at an open mic night, not Madison Square Garden. It isn't all about you. No one will be impressed by you wearing dark glasses in a low-lit bar or demanding that you get an earlier slot so that you ensure you have a larger audience. If anything, you will alienate yourself. And for heaven's sake, don't view an open mic night as an opportunity to blow the other guys off the stage. Remember, open mics are about having fun, getting experience, and networking with other musicians. Be courteous, be humble, and above all else, be yourself.

Now get thyself to an open mic and kick some serious ass!

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