By Jen Levins
Photo by Mike Dillon
Never let the words “I just learned this today so it might be a train wreck” escape your mouth while you’re on stage. NEVER.
Welcome to my open mic survival guide for the New Year. I’m guessing that a few of you have been slacking off as of late. Now you’ve made a resolution to get back on stage. Maybe you were gifted with gear over the holidays and need to show off your newly found skills . . . or toys. I’m not judging. At any rate, the chances are pretty good that I will run into you somewhere in the land of open mics. Let’s make sure that it goes well for both of us.
The first thing you need to do is figure out where to play. Some venues cater to bands; others don’t want to see an electric guitar carried through the door. Think about the music you play and then find a place where it would make sense to perform. Look up open mic calendars on the internet and talk to fellow musicians. Do whatever you can to avoid playing country tunes in a heavy metal bar. The crowd will turn against you. No one is good enough to pull that off.
I should confess that I am guilty of playing the wrong music for the venue and I really did know better. I was trying to impress a guy who happened to be in a band hosting the open mic. I played the only solo acoustic set in a bar full of rock bands. It’s the kind of place where everyone wears the same black t-shirt and the only food consists of wings and cheese fries. Everyone was polite, but I didn’t perform well. I didn’t have my usual confidence because I was in the wrong place. Learn from my mistakes. Somebody should.
Before you head off to this magical place where you will be allowed on stage, you need to do some prep work. Learn the house rules. I don’t know of any two open mics that are run the same way. If you walk into a family-friendly all-ages event, they will kick you out for dropping the f-bomb. If you are allotted two songs, don’t try to sneak in a third. If you only get 5 minutes on stage, don’t spend three of them talking about the five-minute song you are about to play. You also shouldn’t spend it trying to hook together five pedal boards and scratching your head because nothing is working right.
Once you know the rules, decide exactly what you will play, then practice. There are going to be a million distractions. The guitar solo you haven’t quite worked out or the lyrics you never memorized should not be amongst them.
Be prepared to start performing within 30 seconds of setting foot on stage. If you can’t get ready that quickly, simplify your set-up. Although I recommend a minimal approach, there are some supplies you should always have on hand. This includes extra strings, picks and batteries. Take an electronic tuner. I assure you that wherever you are, it will be too loud to tune by ear. You could step outside, but the change in temperature and humidity between the indoor and outdoor air can knock you tuning out completely. I recommend pre-tuning as soon as you get to the venue, giving your instrument time to adjust, and then re-tuning during the set of the person before you.
Now that you’ve arrived and are prepared, you need to fight your way onto the list. Hopefully not literally, but I am sincerely amazed that I have never seen the gloves thrown down in the line for the list. Your best shot is to get there early, but this still doesn’t guarantee a spot. Some venues will stay open until everyone has performed. Others must close by a certain time and will cut things short. Whatever slot you get, don’t complain about it. Just be happy that you are there. There is no good time or bad time if you have been preparing.
When it’s your turn, walk up to the stage like you mean it. Don’t hesitate or second guess yourself. This is exactly where you are supposed to be. Keep the chatter short and focus on the music. If you mess up, play through it and act like it never happened. Remember, no one is there to see you. The audience’s attention needs to be earned away from the friends, food, and booze. Open mics are often like families and are full of veteran performers who can mentor you. The only way in is to prove yourself by performing. There are few things in this world more glorious than quieting a room. When that happens, you’ve done everything right.