Your First Open Mic – A Few Tips

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© I.Woloshen

What is an open mic? For those of you who don’t know the term, it is an event usually held at a bar or a coffeehouse where songwriters or performers take turns going up, sometimes on a stage, sometimes just a riser, and playing a short set of songs. Occasionally, open mics are a mixture of songs and poetry and/or readings. Sometimes there is a microphone, but occasionally it is also acoustic (no mics or amplifiers, etc.) Some are weekly events, others monthly or only occasionally. They are usually “hosted”, meaning that there is someone there to introduce each performer. If you have never been to one, just go to one one evening to see how it works first before putting yourself under the stress! Even if you don’t want to be a performing songwriter, you may find yourself someday sitting nervously in the audience of an open mic event, holding your guitar in your sweaty hands, waiting for your turn 🙂

First of all, why do an open mic if you’re not a performer? Why, to expose your songs, of course! Other than creating a demo tape, which can be expensive, the easiest way to get immediate feedback on your songs is by playing them for somebody. If you want to put them out there with the “best”, this is one small step to taking you there.

I have been to and played at many open mics, and I’m still more nervous at an open mic than at one of my performances! Why? Because there is little time to relax and get in the groove when you’re only playing 1-3 songs, and because you are essentially competing with every other songwriter who gets up there to play. As supportive and as enthusiastic as we songwriters try to be with each other, we are still competing with each other for the same audience! PLUS, if you are playing in front of other songwriters, you KNOW you can’t get away with anything 🙂


 

I have written another article on performing tips (which you can find here), but in this particular article I want to discuss a few other things to think about.

WHICH SONGS TO PLAY? – If you are only allowed one song to play, this can be a tough one! My immediate response would be this: don’t make it a ballad! Why? Slow tempos are not always a good choice because the energy level of the performance can be so low key. Now, if you have a particularly KILLER ballad that you KNOW blows people away, this might be a different story! But for the most part, you are better off choosing an upbeat, or at least a faster song. Chances are, you’re going to play it the fastest that you ever have! That’s because you’ll be nervous and there will be a lot of adrenaline in your body! Better to play a fast song faster than a slow song too fast!

If you have a choice of two or three songs, make them all very different. This not only provides contrast in your performance, but it will show your diversity as a songwriter!

Something else to consider…depending on whoever plays before you, you might actually think of having a couple of songs to choose from as your first song (or only song!). You don’t want to sound like the songwriter who just played, you want to stand out! This actually might be a good time for your killer ballad…if the last three songwriters have all performed fast, upbeat songs, your ballad would be a wonderful contrast, and really make you stand out!

HOW LONG? – I don’t mean how long will you be playing, I mean, how long should your songs be? There is nothing worse than a 10 minute song at an open mic. I don’t care how much you like it, you will come across as self-indulgent and not caring about keeping your audience’s attention. Many open mics will give you 10 minutes, rather than giving you 3 songs. Don’t fill the whole 10 minutes with one song, pick three of your shortest, and come out under your ten minute limit! This will also engraciate you to the hosts of the evening…they just love it when somebody actually sticks to the rules or makes things easier for them!

ORDER OF PERFORMERS – This is a toughie…so much can depend on where you are in the list of performers. Many times you don’t have a choice, but if you do, I suggest sticking yourself somewhere in the middle your first time out. Playing first is just TOO nerve-wracking, and so is waiting to play last! In the middle, you have a chance to see what some of the others are doing, and then once you’ve done your set, you have a chance to relax enough to actually hear the rest!

However, if you are stuck with first, there are some positive things you can focus on. You can blow them away with your songs and give the rest of the songwriters something to live up to! If you are last, you can show them all that you were saving the best for last! Okay, I’m just pumping you up here…but that’s my job 🙂 Sometimes the size of the audience will vary extremely from the first to the last person up. Occasionally, everyone shows up at the beginning and then they slowly wander off as the evening progresses…but the opposite can happen too! Sometimes the audience kind of saunters in over the evening and the biggest numbers of people are at the end. You just never know! I have been in both situations…sometimes playing at the wrong end of the evening where there were the least people. There’s nothing you can do about that. It could be the venue, it could just be a fluke.

INVITING FRIENDS – Some people are more nervous if they are playing to people they know. If this is the way you are, don’t bring anybody! But there might be a comfort level in having people you know in the audience, a support group, if you will. You are guaranteed noisy, raucous applause for one thing! And they might be able to help keep you calm while you are waiting to play. Think about how you are with people…do you turn into a nasty jerk when you’re nervous, or just a sobbing misfit? 🙂

PREPARING YOURSELF – Your first time at an open mic should be thought of as a learning experience so don’t have too many expectations of yourself. There are a couple of things you should think about when you’re preparing to play your first open mic. First of all, it goes without saying…know your songs well! Choose the songs you are most comfortable with, not necessarily your newest.

Having said that, there is such a thing, I believe, as OVER-practicing. I say this for a couple of reasons. First of all, you will never be able to duplicate what you are going to feel like on a stage when you are in the comfort of your own home. You are likely going to make mistakes, no matter how hard you practise. It is good to practise enough to be able to recover from those mistakes, but sometimes there is an expectation that arrises with a LOT of practice. If you insist on practising the day of the open mic, do it early and then leave it alone. This is the second reason I say don’t over-practise…you want to feel “fresh” with the songs…sometimes knowing them too well affects the energy of your performance. Don’t believe me? Okay, try it your way 🙂

  • If you’re playing guitar, put on new strings, but put them on the day before. This way they have a chance to stretch so they won’t go out of tune on you too quickly. And make SURE you are in tune! Don’t waste any time on stage tuning…this should all be done beforehand…it bores the heck out of your audience! Sometimes you’ll have a minute to tune at the venue before the open mic begins. This is ideal.
  • Do you need to warm up your voice? Go into the bathroom and hum a little to yourself before the evening begins. Online tutoring sites like takelessons.com provide great resources for vocal warm-ups.
  • Get to the place early. I always recommend this…if you are in too much of a rush, not only will you have to deal with adrenaline, but also a fast heart rate and a panicked state-of-mind (not to mention a few extra wet patches on your new shirt!). Give yourself lots of time to get used to the place, even go up on the stage if you can so you’re going to know what it’s going to look like “out there”.
  • And lastly, in terms of preparation, forgive yourself in advance for your mistakes, because you’re likely going to make a couple. They may not be HUGE errors, but they will be the ones that will bug you, because you know what your songs is supposed to sound like! Remember that chances are nobody else does! This always helps me to get through my blunders. Until I get people who show up who know my songs REALLY WELL…then I know I’m in big trouble 🙂

OTHER PREPARATION – Be well-rested, don’t drink coffee beforehand (coffee will just make you more jittery than you already are), go to the bathroom, have a glass of water…okay, not necessarily in that order. While you’re sitting in the audience beforehand, do some deep breathing…take a slow breath in through the nose and quietly blow it out of your mouth. Focus on something that calms you. Wear clothes you are really comfortable in. I once wore a pair of jeans that were too tight, and when I had to sit on the stool, which had a shiny finish, I kept sliding off! This was so distracting, I almost messed up my entire set! So much for vanity!

WHEN IT’S YOUR TURN – I know you’re going to be nervous, almost everyone is to one extent or another, so it’s almost silly to say “enjoy yourself”, but I’m going to! The first time is just too much pressure to be all and to do everything right. But think of this: these are your wonderful songs!! Don’t you just love playing them and hearing them? Get into that state of mind if you can think of it, and it will help you to relax a little. Try to smile, don’t avoid eye contact with your audience if you can help it, and go for it!

As I said in the beginning, try not to have HUGE expectations of yourself on your first time out. The more open mics you attend, the more you will get used to what happens to you when you’re nervous, and you’ll be able to cope more effectively. Every time is different, every open mic another chance for people to hear your wonderful songs. You’ll be an open mic “pro” in no time! Good luck 🙂

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33 comments

    1. Hi Shannon…absolutely. I’ve seen this done before and sometimes it makes a nice contrast to the other performers with instruments. Go for it 🙂

    2. I sang Acapella as the last performer at an open mike night. It was right after the world trade center bombing. I sang “America the Beautiful” and the whole crowd was on their feet with hands over their hearts by the end of the song. When I went back to the bar someone had paid my tab.

  1. Can i use a CD for instrumental while i sing? Is that commonly used? Or should i sing acapella .. Because i dont play an instrument.

    1. Hi Kay…it very much depends on the open mic you are planning to sing at. You might want to ask them beforehand if they are open to you having a CD providing your back up. Acapella, if you can pull it off, might be a fresh change from the other performers too 🙂 So my simple answer is, just ask them. Go to the event at an earlier time and see what they say.
      Good luck!
      Irene

    1. Hi Jay…some open mics are meant more for songwriters to try out their songs. Most of the time, however, covers are perfectly fine, and many are a mix of covers and originals. If you’re worried about it, go to the place ahead of time and ask whoever is in charge.
      Good luck!
      IJ

  2. Great advice! Thanks! It really helps to boost my conv\fidence for my very first open mic i’m planning. But just a question. I would probably sing more of covers instead of my originals (not much originals i have now). Would it be awkward to bring up a chord sheet for the covers I’m gonna play?

    1. Hi Cyn…I don’t really think so. Especially for your first time! One day you’ll have the confidence to do it without the chord sheet, but there’s nothing wrong with having it there for a little security 🙂
      Good luck!
      IJ

    1. Hi Lindsey…thanks for your questions. Both of them depend entirely on the open mic itself. Some have no P.A. system, but I would say that most do. If they have a P.A., then they are usually prepared for either situation. If your guitar doesn’t have a pickup, they’ll mic it. Sometimes they only have one mic, which means you’ll have to play your guitar a little harder :-).

      The type of songs you do also depend on the venue. A few of them are for songwriters, but many of them accept just about anything. If you really want to perform your own songs, then do it. If you’re worried about only doing only originals, then mix it up; do one of yours and then do a cover. Again, ask the person who is hosting the open mic what is appropriate. I think most of them are pretty open to anything.

      Good luck!
      IJ

  3. Hello, and thank you very much for this article. All my songs have strings, background vocals, drums, etc.; what are your thoughts on having those tracks playing in Logic Pro on a Mac, while playing live keyboard over them?

    1. Hi Juls…I’ve certainly seen backing tracks used at open mics. It’s not common, but it does happen. You have to check with the venue or the people who are hosting the open mic. Some of them are open to extra technology, others may not have the equipment to accommodate it. Also, some open mics are more “purist” and prefer everything live. Ask the questions first so you won’t be disappointed!
      Cheers!
      IJ

  4. Hi , I’m a musical theatre student. I love to perform comedic character songs but concerts and performance opportunities are a bit more sparse than I would like ! I don’t know loads about open mic nights but I thought they might be a great way to perform these songs, get experience and work out whats funny . I was just wondering is it okay at these nights to perform musical theatre songs that I havent written myself. They are generally fairly unknown and are real crowd pleasers. Does anyone ever do this ? would i get booed off ? thankyou

    1. Hi Lucy…it depends very much on the open mic itself. Some of them are strictly for songwriters, others are much more open ended. I would find some in your area and attend them just to meet the people who are hosting. Then you can ask what is appropriate for their open mic.
      Sounds like what you do would be very entertaining! Good luck with it!
      IJ

  5. I am doing my first open mic night tomorrow night and am wondering if i would be ok doing stand up comedy. I have never done this before but i make people laugh all the time what do you think?

  6. There are open mics that are dedicated to stand up comedy, but most are geared towards songs or songwriting. I would ask the hosts what they think. They might think it’s a great idea!
    IJ

  7. I’ve never been to an open Mic before but I know a place close to where I live that has open Mic and tonight I was supposed to go to one and I was going to bring two of my songs that I sang And recorded in the studio and those are my songs that I wrote and I was going to perform those.

    And I have a guitar but I’m still taking lessons and I’m not a pro yet and I can’t play my own songs yet on the guitar but I can play other songs and the one I would want to sing and play is Amazing Grace because that song is perfect for my voice and its one of my favorites. Would this be a bad song to sing and play on the guitar at a bar or would I look stupid?

    1. I don’t think you’d look stupid at all. By way of introduction, tell your audience exactly what you told me. And tell them you’d like to come back some day and perform your own songs when you’re ready to. I think you’ll get a lot of support!
      Enjoy yourself!
      IJ

      1. But I’ll be singing my two songs that I wrote and recorded in the recording studio. Those are my songs I own them. I can ding them I just can’t play them on the guitar yet.

        But on the guitar I’ll be singing & playing Amazing Grace.

        1. Oh I see…you’ll perform your own two songs without guitar and then Amazing Grace. Will you sing your own songs acapella? Mean, no music at all to back you up? A lot of people ask about that, and I think it’s just fine to sing them that way. Open mics are meant for people to try their songs and performances out on an audience, and most audiences know that, and appreciate any type of performance. So I think you should go for it 🙂
          Cheers,
          IJ

          1. I have a No Vocals Mix on my songs that I wrote and recorded in the recording studio it Just has the music and not my vocals. I was thinking about using that one.

            I have other copies but They have my vocals on them and I don’t think they’ll let me sing with my vocals on them so that’s why I got a No Vocals Mix of my songs.

  8. Not sure if you can answer my question but maybe you can help me find someplace to start. I sing but I do not play an instrument. I want to up load my sound tracks so I can take them to open mic nights so I can sing. My problem is I’m not sure what kind of thing to up load them on that would work on open mic equipment. Isnt there some kind of equipment out there that I can get that will play my music plus act as a speaker for my mic as well?? I’m not sure where to start looking.

    1. Hi there…first of all, open mic setups can be different. I would highly suggest that you attend the one you’re interested in performing at and see what their setup is. Tell the organizers what you want to do and they’ll tell you if they can accommodate you. Also, some open mics are acoustic, meaning they don’t have mics or amps. In that case, you should ask if they’ll accept what you want to do.

      I think you could accomplish what you want to do by using the mic that the organizers provide (if they do), and then bring your own bluetooth speaker so that you can play your backing tracks from your smart phone. A decent bluetooth speaker can give you good volume (remember, most of these venues are not very big, so they shouldn’t have too much trouble hearing you), and even if you don’t have a mic, you can adjust the volume of the speaker to your liking.

      But my main point is to ask what they will accept and what they can accommodate.
      Good luck!
      IJ

  9. Hello,

    Thanks for a great article! My question is about introductions and/or banter. Would you have some tips on a good introduction when you get on stage, between songs, and when you finish?

    1. Hi Char,

      That’s a good question! The upside to a little banter is that it lets people get to know your personality a bit. So you want to be real and let your natural self take over. I never really rehearsed my banter too much so I felt a little looser. It’s also important to not talk too long, you don’t want to use up your too much of your time talking!

      When you’re introducing yourself, talk a little bit about your purpose in playing the open mic. Why are you there? To introduce your songs, or to get a little practice playing in front of people? Or maybe just because you like performing!

      In between songs, you can talk about them a little bit. If they’re your songs, don’t explain them too much, maybe just talk about the inspiration behind them. Songs should explain themselves! If they are covers, maybe talk about what they mean to you or why you chose to sing them. Again, keep it short, and be yourself!

      At the end, there should be so much applause that all you have time for is to say THANK YOU! 🙂

      Have fun!
      IJ

  10. Hello IJ,

    I’m planning to perform at my first open-mic event very soon, so I was looking for advice on google as to how to approach the event. This article, and the questions posed by folks, has been “very” helpful! Also, your answers to all of the commenters, I felt, were wonderful. You’re very positive in your responses, and you add good ideas for finding more information. I’m sure those two things were appreciated by most all of your commenters/inquirers.

    Thank you!

    Jim

  11. This really boosted my confidence thank you so much for publishing! Im playing at an open mic tommorrow and i am feeling a lot better about it after reading this article ❤ the venue says they can provide all types of guitars but i think id perform better on my usual semi acoustic is that silly… bringing my own?

    1. Hi Lena…it’s absolutely okay to bring your own guitar. That’s what you’re most comfortable playing, right? And being as comfortable as possible is important! So I hope you got to read this in time and good luck with your open mic performance!
      Cheers,
      IJ

  12. Thanks for the great advice! Playing at an open mic is like jumping off a high dive for the first time. It takes some guts to push your envelope, to face criticism and to grow beyond where you were yesterday. Do it. You’ll find your audience is friendly, they know you’re nervous…they’re with you and want you to do your best. I recently played an open mic after 30 years of not playing in front of anyone but my wife and my dogs….it went better than I could have imagined….you’ll be fine, make your mark!

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