Jumbo Sunshade - Blogpost

How to play an acoustic open mic night - tips, tricks, what you need and what to expect.
In every city in America, from West coast to East, open mic (open microphone) nights are running from Monday thru Sunday, giving amateur musicians a chance to get out and perform in front of an audience, all without the pressure associated with playing professionally.
I'm writing this to hopefully help make the experience more enjoyable, and also to maybe push those who are just thinking about doing it, to just do it!

First let me start out by saying that this blogpost is intended

for a very specific audience: those who play acoustic guitar and sing.

Open mics will always vary depending on the host and the venue. "Listening" audiences are very quiet and everybody pays close attention while other places may be louder and more crowded. You should know what to expect because you should have already found some in your area and started going to watch others play.  If you haven't yet done this then you need to get out and do it, not just because it's enjoyable but because it will give you a sense of familiarity and comfort, which will increase your confidence level.

 

How do open mic nights work?
Open mics usually take place in a bar, coffee shop, or restaurant, but lots of different venues host them.  Typically there is no cover charge; most of these events aren't meant to be money-makers, and some venues make money from the food and drinks they sell.  Some hosts are paid while others do it for free; it's fun and a great way to meet other musicians.
 

There is a sign-up time that is usually 30-60 minutes before the event, and players will go on stage in the order they signed up (first come, first serve).  How much time you get to perform (or how many songs) depends on the host; but the more people that sign up, the less time you would expect to get on stage.  Some people don't use their full time, instead doing maybe just one or two songs.  On nights where there are very few performers signed up, everybody takes turns getting up extra times.

Diversity is king!  You don't have to worry about what age everybody else is, or what kind of material they're playing.  Open mic audiences are very kind and open-minded; you could really get up and do anything - folk, classical, country, blues, pop, cover songs, originals.

When it's your turn, the host will call you up to the stage, ask what you need, and answer any questions you may have.  He/she will get you situated standing or sitting, adjusting the
microphone(s) as needed.
Let him/her know if your guitar has a built-in pickup so you can get plugged in; if your guitar doesn't have a pickup the host will place a microphone in front of the soundhole of your guitar.
You may or may not be asked to do a "sound check", where you just strum your guitar and maybe talking into the microphone ("check, one two three") to make sure that it sounds good out front, and also to make sure that it's not too loud
or quiet for you on stage.
You'll be introduced, you'll play your two or three songs, the audience will applaud.

 

Many of the people who really want to play an open mic are held back by thoughts such as:
* I'm not good enough.
* What if people don't like me?
* What if the crowd is hostile or somebody heckles me?
* What if i forget the words?
* What if i screw up the guitar parts or forget the chords altogether?
* What if i break a string?
* This guitar sucks; maybe i should wait til i get a good one!

Don't let fear stop you from playing an open mic!  I'm not saying that you have to be fearless; i have been playing in front of people for over 30 years and i still get nervous.  The cool thing about an open mic though, is that the absolute worst possible things that could happen are just not that bad.  Some of the most talented and experienced players i know forget words and chords; it happens to everybody - we smile and move on. :)
 

Here's how it really works:
* Not good enough?  I don't care what your level of experience is; all of us can look at ourselves and know that there is room for improvement.  One of the main reasons open mics exist is to serve as a public performance platform for those who are less-experienced.  There are all different levels of talent throughout the night and if you're lucky enough to see somebody at the top of his/her game that's great; but that's not what open mic nights are about.
* People might not like you?  Of course you already know that no matter what you do and how well you do it, there will be those who dislike it.  There are performers that you don't like; that's life.  Just remember that you're not there to please everybody in the room; you're there to have fun and for those who dig it - cool!
* Worried about hostile crowd (or a heckler)?  In all the years i've been doing this, i can say that the only time i've ever seen a crowd get sour is when somebody has gotten up and done something stupid.  Examples: cursing up a storm at an open mic that was hosted by a church; doing political commentary between songs; etc.  In addition to that, i have never personally seen anybody get heckled at an open mic... ever.
* You might forget the words or mess up the guitar part.  You're damn right you will forget words and you will absolutely forget chords or forget if you're supposed to go to the chorus or do another verse.  Some people are blessed with this crazy ability to get everything right on stage, but for the rest of us, mistakes are a part of the experience of live performance.  Embrace it; own it; it's all good!
* Strings break, and sometimes it happens on stage.  This is another annoying reality of live performance.  It's nothing to worry about.  It happens to me alot because i'm a heavy-handed player.  If it happens to you and you can't finish the song, just stop and laugh.  If you don't know somebody there who will lend you a guitar to finish your set, you can always use the host's guitar; that's what it's there for.
* Think you need a better guitar?  Ok, now you're just making excuses, lol!  Seriously, some of the best performances i have ever seen have been done on the cheapest guitars.  A few hours spent on youtube looking for new music will bare this out as well.  Sure a more expensive guitar will likely be easier to play, but other than that it really doesn't matter for the purpose of playing an open mic.

 

What do you need to play an open mic?
There is a big difference in what people think they need, and what they actually need.
Not only do you not need a good guitar; you don't necessarily even need to bring your own guitar.  The host will have a guitar available to anybody who needs to

borrow it.
There are other things you can bring if you want to (charts, your own DI/preamp), but all you really need is to just sign up, get on stage, and play.

Be prepared!
The thing i think that will help the most is to just be as prepared as possible.  Figure out what you want/need to do and make a checklist to help you avoid forgetting things like picks, strap, capo (if you use one).  Make sure you don't have a dead battery (for guitars with a built-in pickup)!

> Tune your guitar at home before you leave; tune it again at the show right after you've signed up; and then do a quick check on stage before you start.

> Charts.  Some people will tell you that practicing with charts is a bad thing because then you "rely on them too much".  There is nothing wrong with using charts on stage unless you personally have a problem with it.  Professional musicians have been using charts at gigs since the beginning of live performance!  Doesn't matter whether it's an orchestra in front of thousands, a keyboard player backing a pop star in front of tens of thousands, or some guy playing acoustic guitar at the local pub in front of 20 people; if having a chart on stage will be helpful to you then for God's sake bring it to the gig!
Most open mics will have one or two music stands already on stage, but in case they don't; don't forget to bring your own.


 

Tips from an old sage (hehe)...
Overcoming stage fright.
  I still get nervous before some gigs; for me it's like waiting to get on a rollercoaster - scary but fun!  The anxiety of stage fright is obviously in direct relation to the people you're playing in front of.  My advice is to ignore these people.  Take off your glasses if you wear them; don't even look into the audience; concentrate on your charts (even if you don't need to) or your guitar neck.  DO NOT consume a large double caf drink while sitting there waiting to get up on stage; this will not help you, lol!
The best thing you can do is just play as often as possible in front of family and friends any chance you get.

Over-rehearse.  Practice the songs you're going to play til

you and your family are sick of hearing them.  Muscle memory is a real thing, and sometimes when your brain blanks on where to go, your hands will just go there on their own.

Keep it Simple!  Maybe instead of trying something cool but difficult for your first several performances, it would be better to just play whatever is easiest.  As you get more comfortable on stage and with your material you can always start dropping the boring songs and bringing in the songs that kick ass :)

Sitting versus standing.  If you're used to playing while sitting down at home, then you might want to reconsider standing up and playing at the open mic (and vice versa).  If you

want to perform standing up then you should practice that way at home.
There will most certainly be a few chairs on stage, but if there isn't, or if it's just tall bar stools, feel free to grab a chair from your table and bring it up on stage (i do this sometimes).

Practice with microphones.  One thing that throws some people is the experience of singing and/or playing into microphones after having never done this at home.  In addition to having to keep your mouth close to the microphone while singing; if a microphone is used to

amplify your guitar you will have to be aware of how you move your guitar while performing.  I know this sounds silly but it would actually be helpful to practice at home with real or even fake microphones; just to get used to it.

 

That's pretty much it!
Open mics are a great place to gain exposure to other local musicians, and the experience of performing is unique and satisfying for players of all ages.

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