Open Mic Performance Tips

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Originally published May 2008.
MABarnette

Depending on your city or town, these can range from the “everybody plays” open mics and picking parties, to the more exclusive invited rounds or featured performance opportunities. More often than not, it is generally one instrument, or very basic accompaniment, with simple vocals. It can be a true test of the song, how it plays in front of an audience without the benefit of studio tricks or music business filters. It is also the best way to immediately develop your confidence and contacts with people that might be your ticket to the big leagues somewhere down the road.

As always, if you’re performing, you always need to perform at your peak, as you never know who might be in attendance, and you simply should always strive to be the best performer you can. Your songs deserve it. Here, then, are ten simple things you can do to “up the level of your game” before, during, and after the performance. Remember that there is only one chance to make a first impression.

1. Be prepared.
Know your songs as best as you can. Even when you might mess up, try to remember to finish big. If you are using lyric sheets, which are sometimes necessary when trying those new songs out, make them as inconspicuous as possible. Tilt your music stand where you can see it but it doesn’t block your face from your audience. Anything can be a distraction, so try to minimize that as much as possible.

2. Practice with mirrors.
There is a reason dancers practice with mirrors, so they can observe their technique. You need to see yourself as your audience sees you. Also you should try to video tape your performances. By the way, observe the first word of this: practice!

3. Enunciate!
Make sure people can understand your lyrics.

4. Play with dynamics.
Most performers are hearing the bass, drums, and all the backing instruments in their head. But it is not there when it’s just you and a guitar, so play a little lighter in your verses and more direct and percussive in your choruses.

5. Avoid too many ballads.
I’m not trying to be controversial, but ballads seem to be about 90% of what are performed on writers nights – which makes them the most forgettable because everyone is doing them. The ballad should be the icing on the cake, not the cake. And since so many of these events are “in the round,” which means three to four people each take turns playing one song, don’t follow a ballad with a ballad. Listening to the other people on stage with you and playing something that sounds different than their songs make for a much more entertaining round. This approach can help you find co-writers as well. How well do you play with others?

6. Use humor.
If you have songs with a humorous bent, use them. It gets attention and separates you from the pack.

7. Use various strumming and palming techniques.
You can place your palm on the bridge of your guitar to mute some of the strings and give a little tighter attack. A guitar teacher can show you this.

8. Use a pick!
I know this will drive all you 60’s finger picking, long nailed guys and girls crazy. You have been told your whole life that you need to quietly stroke the strings with your nails and get that romantic sound. Well, that works great in your living room but ends the second you get into a loud noisy bar where most nights are held. If no one can hear you, they tune you out. You need every tool you can, and picks give a percussive effect and simply make it easier to hear your playing and articulations on the guitar.

9. Play often.
Like everything, you get better the more you do it. Play everything you can, and make sure you bring your friends. A club or restaurant are in business to make money, and the more people you bring in to help them keep the doors open, the more you will be able to have a place to play.

10. Have fun.
If you are not doing that, you are wasting your time. A career is not about those big home runs, playing that one song in front of that perfect person and becoming a star. It is about a lot of small, insignificant things that interconnect and tie together when you might not expect it.

Good luck and happy writing.

Marc-Alan Barnette is a songwriter and performer who has made Nashville, TN his home for the past 20 years. Barnette also has a passion for mentoring and coaching writers through the workshops and seminar programs he has participated in all over the US. His songs have been included on albums by John Berry, David Ball, and Shelby Lynn. Learn more at www.marcalanbarnette.com.

12 thoughts on “Open Mic Performance Tips

  1. This article is spot on! I play professionally and did an Open Mic last night in St. Paul, MN. They do 15-20 minute sets; about 4 songs. Since they didn’t have an audio tech, I ended up running sound for the other performers. But, what amazed me was how many performers do the exact opposite of what you’re stating here. Ballads, playing too long, not rehearsed, lack of stage presence, too introspective. It’s like they live in their own little world of what they think relates. Only time on stage will help that. I have a basic rule as a pro that I apply to all of my songs, esp. originals. I don’t perform a song in public until I’ve rehearsed it 100 times. Some people might debate that, but it’s served me well for 35 years. Thanks again for the great article!

  2. Great article, it could have included so much more, but I liked it short and to the point. There are some great comments here also.
    Keep up the good work

    B. Dominguez President of the Northwest Chapter of the Western Music Association

  3. We run an open mic / jam night at the club we are the singers / players back-up band, if they wish and I would like to add number 11 to this.

    11. Play two songs, then offer to get off the stage.
    If you have done well and been professional, they will ask for more songs. Don’t go up and start playing song after song until you have used up everyone else’s time. Be courteous and kind, polite and attentive, and you will be welcomed back time and time again. (and, great point about hanging around and listening to everyone else.) The bands and sound crew remember those people more than the ones that always disappear.

  4. I think open mics have definitely played a positive role in my professional musical development. However, once I became more polished and poised as a performer, I needed to step back and organize my own events. It’s a great way to practice and get your feet wet……establish and fine-tune your quirks. These days, I like going to observe, catch up socially and network rather than wait around to play. If I need a practice gig, I’ll book a charity/benefit set for an old age home, school or worthy cause. To wait around for umpteen hours and perform only at the discretion of the open mic’s host……is totally a drag. If I’m visiting a new town or abroad, I’ll make exceptions, naturally.
    Agreed, if you can hold the audience’s interest during a packed open mic, you’ve got something going on; as, most of your observers will also be aspiring performers.

    1. If you are known in the area the club owner, promoter, or someone in charge will lget you up as soon as possible. They like to have the local celebrity come up on stage and do their thing. It’s sometimes aquward at times, but it helps their business to have a good performer show up at their open mic. If you are not being treated in this manner you may want to ask yourself why.

  5. I found Open-mics to be the quickest way to plug into a music scene. When I lived in England for a couple years I just went along to the local open-mic which was called “Plug & Play”. I made sure I got there early so I could help with setup and meet the folks behind-the-scenes. This was great because I could get one of the earlier slots (found the crowds to be more attentive earlier on in the evenings) and build relationships. Also, getting to know the sound engineer was very useful. I played every week and soon got booked for some paid gigs by the organisers (and made some great friends). Oh and try stay to the end of the evening. Don’t be like so many performers who show up, do their songs and then leave (some even have the nerve to sit and chat loudly during other peoples sets). Treat others as you would wish to be treated – with respect.

  6. kudos! I like the fact that an artical was written for the basics of open-mic! Let’s not forget to have a good time! Open-mics are 99.3% fun. You go because you got something you want to perform. Simple as that! Oh, the stories of open-mics. The triumphs and the tragedies…For musicians it can be the stuff that sustains you. It can also be a damn good way to meet other local musicians and help support the community. Open-mics even have their own laws. Be respectful. Take into account that the folks that come every week are not coming just to see you. Open-mics are open forum and if your trying to get noticed in an open it’s best to get noticed by having material that stands alone.

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