Tuesday, August 24, 2010

16 Tips for Performing at Open Mics

Here are some open mic tips that I've compiled from hosting a year's worth of open mics with the NYC Guitar Group, and attending hundreds open mics over the past ten years. I hope you enjoy!

1. Have fun! Tip number one is to have fun. Even if you’re nervous, enjoy yourself on stage! Savor the experience- it doesn't happen every day. Make an effort to really enjoy your open mic, and not only for yourself. When you’re on stage, you transmit what you're feeling to your audience. If you want your audience to have fun, have some fun yourself.

2. Stick to songs you really love- These are the songs that you’ll be excited to practice. These are the songs that are rewarding to share. Your love for what you’re playing will come out when you perform. Let that guide you.

3. Prepare- When do you start practicing your songs for an open mike? The night before? A month before? Take a look at the songs that you’ll play. Write them down on a note card and tape it to your fridge. How much time do you have to prepare them? What can reasonably be achieved in that amount of time? Not comfortable with a song the night before? Save it for later.

4. Make the most of your resources- What can you bring with you that would make your experience more enjoyable? Extra strings, picks, a tuner, duct tape, lucky rabbit’s foot... do you rely on a tuner to tune? Does it require batteries? While the resources you need might be in the room, don't assume it. Prepare in advance.

5. Tune off stage- Don't squander your precious time, and your audience's attention by taking time to tune on stage! Most venues have somewhere where you can tune off stage. Scan the room when you enter to see where you can tune up. Even in the short trip from the audience to the stage, you may become out of tune again. Briefly check your tuning on stage just before you play.

6. If you drink, drink after playing- With every drink, we not only become increasingly drunk, but also increasingly tone deaf. Give your performance before drinking- your audience will thank you.

7. Take time before you play- Check that the height and levels of the mics are right for you. Check in with your body- are you comfortable? Check your tuning to make sure you’re still in tune. Taking a little time to get situated does two things. Firstly, it puts you in a better position to play well, and secondly it allows you to acclimate to the stage and calm your nerves.

8. Introduce yourself and the piece that you are about to play- We want to know who you are! Clearly say your name and what you’re going to play. Who wrote this song? Does it have any special significance to you? Your introduction also helps you hear the volume of the mics, and signals to the audience that you're done setting up, and you're about to play. Don’t expect everyone to shut up for you though. While rude, it’s fairly common to still have some room buzz while you’re playing. Give your audience the benefit of the doubt. You may find yourself saying an offending word or two during someone else's set at one point- forgive and move on.

9. Don't apologize- and especially not before you even play! (ie- “I’m sorry, I just started learning this piece, blah blah blah…”). Give yourself a fair chance. Apologies also tend to turn people off rather than on. (A point for reflection: would you really listen to someone who didn't consider themself worth listening to? Maybe not entirely.) If you really take a dive- have a good laugh about it and resolve to let it put a flame under your practice when you get home.

10. Play your simplest song first- Most of us, no matter how many times we’ve played, feel somewhat differently on stage. Play that song that you’ve had under your fingers for ages first. Don’t try to wow the crowd with your technical ability just yet. Wow them with your control and understanding of what you’re playing. You’ll feel more comfortable for the rest of your set if you set yourself up to succeed!

11. Read the audience- We feel, as members of the audience, when a performer goes up to give something to the audience, or take something from the audience. What I mean is this- there is occasionally a performer who will play on autopilot, because they like the feeling of being on stage, because they have something to prove, because performing makes them feel important... who knows. When they do this, the audience feels like a prop to entertain their ego. It’s not a way to win friends. It’s selfish. These kinds of performers play without giving any regard for what the people in the audience feel. Don’t be this person! Open mics are a way to share music; to connect with people, and to learn. Check in with your audience- making a small effort to communicate can go a long way.

12. Play with enthusiasm!!!- The audience doesn’t necessarily support the most talented performers, but rather the most enthusiastic ones. Extra points if you’re both! Even if you’re going to go up and play miserably, if you play miserably with great enthusiasm you may be surprised to get a nice round of applause afterward. Enthusiasm doesn't have to be loud and gaudy-sincere love of what you're playing is enough. Enthusiasm is contagious, and truly enthusiastic performances are generally rare and appreciated. Be one of these performers!

13. Record your performance- The most important evaluation of your own performance should be done by you. While it's helpful to ask a friend, make the most of listening to yourself. Give yourself fair criticism. Imagine you're listening to the radio instead. Would you tune in again? Why or why not?

14. Make friends- Open mics can be a great place to meet other people. It's funny that we think about our own performance as being the highlight of the night, when it takes up only about 5% of the time we spend there- maybe a handful of minutes. The other 95% is time spent in the company of other people. Enjoy the experience! Bring business cards. Stay in touch with the people you resonate with.

15. Learn from other performances- What did you like? what didn't you like? all of these inform your own playing. For instance "I just loved the way she did that thing with her voice at the end of the last song. I wish the songs she chose were a little shorter though." Write them down somewhere when you get home.

16. Attend the same open mic again- It’s easy to have a kind of experience your first time through, and feel that “this open mic is ALWAYS… great/boring/exhilarating/exhausting…” try it again for yourself. It’s easy when we try something new to dismiss the whole of it based on our first impressions. Even if it’s truly terrible, maybe especially if it's truly terrible, try to attend once more, even just to listen. You may be happy you did.

Thank you for reading these tips! I hope at least one was useful for you. If you have any to add/subtract please feel free to add your thoughts below.

Keep playing,