Performing Live at Open Mic Venues
Many local clubs feature an "open mic" venue, where songwriters and musicians of all kinds can get their feet wet. It's a great way to find others to co-write with ... or others to form a band, duo, or trio with ... and perhaps most importantly, to perform for an audience and see what it takes to pull off a show of your own.
Coffee Houses and Churches make the best settings for creating an appropriate atmosphere. Clubs, or venues serving alcohol, are usually bad for "intellectual art," which is what open mics are, in my opinion. Let's face it, alcohol doesn't exactly put people in a state of focused awareness, eh? So, if you have a choice, or if you are thinking of starting your own venue, avoid the places that are offering alcohol. Of course, this isn't always true, and often it isn't avoidable. But it is worth noting.
Open mics are a lot of fun! Instrumentalists, poets, solos, duos, trios, bands ... you name it ... will usually perform 3 or 4 pieces at a time - which makes it palatable for any audience to enjoy. If you don't like the act that's presently up, well, in 20 minutes they'll be gone and you can enjoy the next surprise. And, often, it is a surprise! You never know when some real talent might step up and do something uniquely from the heart. If you're just observing, you'll find yourself thinking how well you would do in comparison to all that you've witnessed ... but be forewarned! This is not as simple as it looks!
You may have done all your homework ... practiced to the max ... compiled songs that are pure hits ... vocals and parts worked out to dazzle any audience ... until you're sure you're better than anything you've seen at the local open mics. But on your first try you will most likely drop a bomb as big as any you've seen - and in total disbelief! And, these will be the excuses you find dripping off your bottom lip: "The room was too noisy - I couldn't focus!" ... "I couldn't hear myself! That sound guy is a real jerk!" ... "The guitar wasn't loud enough." ... "The vocal mic wasn't even turned on!" ... I could keep on going, but what's the sense? Fact is, you didn't know what you were doing, and did a poor job. You didn't really think you'd pull it off perfectly your very first try ... did you? Of course you did! You worked hard at this! You prepared thoroughly! So what went wrong? Distraction. Unfamiliar surroundings. Lack of experience. That's what.
So. What to do? Go back next week, and do it all over again. Simple as that. This is what open mics are for! Let's face it ... until you pull this gig off, you aren't gonna be touring or getting paid for what you do. But if you focus, keep at it, and figure out all the little things that go on in a club atmosphere, it won't be long before you're a popular and welcomed face at the local open mic scene.
Rule Number One:
Understand this: Absolutely every person in the audience ... in any audience ... wants to see you do well. Really well. They are rooting for you from the moment you get on stage. Think about this for a minute, okay? Slow down ... give this some serious thought ... in fact, stop and dwell on this whole idea for a while, and recognize just how true it really is: The audience is not sitting there judging your talent. And, the audience is not sitting there waiting for the next big thing to strike America like a bolt from heaven, either. They don't care how "great" you are ... or how wonderful you think you are. They are very simply out to have a fun evening ... and when you get up on that stage, they are hoping you will be wonderful! If they see you struggling at all ... with anything ... they are secretly praying for your success ... sending you their energy and their precious love ... why? Dig this: Because they are putting themselves in your shoes, man! They are being "you!" Isn't that what you do when you are watching and listening to an act? Meditate on this concept. It's a true concept ... and it's a healing one, too. When you get up in front of an audience, you start with them on your side.
If you get up there trying to prove how good you are, you're likely to do just the opposite. Try to let go of your ego ... this isn't easy, 'cause it takes quite a bit of ego to get up there in the first place, eh? But get this straight - you are there for them ... they are not there for you. The performers who have this one twisted around, are very obvious ... and it's offensive ... not entertaining.
Now here comes Mr. Dichotomy: Forget about the audience and just do your thing ... don't think about them, or how they are going to react ... just do what you usually do ... you know, when no one's around ... and let them witness that. Go inside yourself ... focus on what you love ... and let it happen. If you are thinking about the audience, you are not going to be focused about what you are doing and you are going to make a mistake ... and then you'll be thinking about what the audience is thinking about you for making that mistake ... and while you are concentrating on that dilemma, you'll make yet another mistake and then ... oh, man.
In short, it all becomes a matter of what you really care about. If you're overly concerned about what an audience is thinking of you, you are bound to blow it. On the other hand, if you care about what you are doing, it'll show as a sincere presentation of whatever talent you have ... and that is all anyone can ask for - including you.
Just know that any audience, from the very start, is on your side ... so, be there for them by focusing on your song and giving yourself over to that. It's not easy to develop this kind of trust in yourself, let alone a room full of strangers ... but you may as well, because in the end that's the way it's going to be - or you won't be playing in front of people for very long.
Rule Number Two:
Now ... the technical side of things. This is tough at first, but after a few times it gets real easy: The first thing you do when you get up in front of the mic, is plug your guitar in ... test it in conjunction with your mic ... and get a happy balance happening. Don't get all flustered, and don't expect anyone to know what you need! You are the only one who knows that. Simply say, "A little less guitar, please." Or, "A little less vocal, please." Notice I said "less." Amateurs tend to ask for "more." Wrong idea. Less is more ... as I'll be pointing out. The only time I ask for "more" is in reference to my monitors. Those are the speakers (usually on the floor, right at your feet, pointing up at you) that let you hear what you are doing. If they aren't loud enough, you might wind up playing in one key and singing in another ... without ever knowing it! The audience will though ... be sure your monitors are comfortable for you.
Okay. You've got a nice balance happening. You can hear your guitar and you can hear your vocal. Now you are ready to play. If you ever start playing before applying this discipline (and you probably will), you will know - and you will never forget - why it is so very important. If you can't hear yourself in those monitors, you are going to do a lot of very silly things ... and, like I said, you probably won't even know it ... but the audience will.
Rule Number Three:
Relax. Pull back. I'm tellin' you ... this is a hot tip! Play your instrument ... sing your songs ... quietly! Don't be fooled! This applies to rock and roll bands too! I repeat - pull back and play softer than you think you should ... especially in a noisy room! There is something that happens when you do this ... it can not be explained ... but you'll see what I mean when you successfully apply this technique. It seems to create a controlled tension in your performance that adds magic and professionalism to any performance.
There was an open mic night at Tumulty's Pub in New Brunswick, New Jersey ... the room was long and narrow, with the stage all the way back at the end. The acoustics in this room sucked so bad it was unbelievable ... and to make things worse, the place was usually packed with loud, drinking, partying college students. I honestly dreaded the thought of playing there, but I knew it was one of the most important gigs I could play ... because it was the toughest ... and that's why I did it. The first time I conquered that room was the first time I played that room. I followed a popular rock band who had the place filled with their fans ... no one knew, or cared who I was ... and with just me and my guitar, I got on stage and set up ... by the time I was ready to play my first song, the room was so packed and so loud I couldn't hear a thing! I focused ... started playing way softer than usual ... like it was 3 o'clock in the morning and I was all alone in my bedroom ... and with a quiet ballad, to boot! But, I should also point out that I chose a song I thought some of the cooler kids would know: Cat Stevens' Where Do the Children Play. By the time I reached the end of the first verse, there was a rather sudden silence - and I had captured the attention of the entire room! Man ... I can't tell you how good a feeling that is! Well, the next song was upbeat, and from then on, they were all "mine." And, afterwards, everytime I played that room I had their attention ... because "first impressions are lasting ones." If I would've tried to beat the noise of the room, instead of creating "my own private party," I would never have done it.
Learn how to apply controlled tension by pulling back and focusing on having your own private party on stage ... and everyone will want to join you!
Some Other Stuff:
If you are using a mic on your guitar, don't place it directly in front of the soundhole ... just slightly below the centerpoint of the soundhole, pointing up at a 45 degree angle is better ... I prefer using a pickup, for the same reason I prefer using a headset mic ... I like the freedom to move around, and I don't like seeing a "silver stick" in front of my face and body.
Try and get there early, and place your guitar/equipment near the stage ... there's usually a designated area - find out where it is, and when you are called to play, be organized and quick about your setup without sacrificing your satisfaction with the monitors and sound.
When you feel your performances are up to snuff, ask the club owner to listen to your sets and let him/her know you're interested in a paying gig - be ready, also, with a promo package for her/him to look at and listen to, and be sure your name and phone number are on every thing.
Be supportive of every act that performs ... no matter what your opinion may be. Everyone needs encouragement - especially those who may seem to be wasting your time. If they have the guts to get up there, they deserve your attention and applause.
While you are on stage, keep an eye on the head-honcho-in-charge for any signals ... he/she may want you to do another song, or they may want you to wrap it up. Act like a pro.
Don't make excuses about or for anything. No one wants to know whether or not you have a cold, etc., etc. - there's nothing so unprofessional as making excuses about your voice, or rambling on about some other unrelated issue. If you have a cool story to relate about a song, tell it like a friend, and it can truly add to the show ... but keep it to the point and, for the most part, let your music speak for itself.
Last, but certainly not least, don't play any song you haven't practiced to the hilt. As my other articles point out, you should know your stuff backwards, forwards and upside down if you ever expect to let the muse have it's way.
And, finally, here are a couple of cool books for you to check out:
The Audition Process: Anxiety Management and Coping Strategies (Juilliard Performance Guides, No 3)
by Stuart Edward Dunkel
Written as a practical guide for immediate use, this book offers a compendium of approaches as presented by other musicians, psychologists, and athletes.
Live Sound Reinforcement: A Comprehensive Guide to P.A. and Music Reinforcement Systems
by Scott Hunter Stark
This book outlines all aspects of P.A. system operation and commonly encountered sound system design concerns. Topics include microphones, speaker systems, equalizers, mixers, signal processors, amplifiers, system wiring and interfaces, indoor and outdoor sound considerations and psychoacoustics.