5 Tips For a Great Open Mike Experience

Even after over a decade-and-a-half of performing in all kinds of venues, from subway platforms to coffee shops to house concerts to music clubs, I still think an open mike is one of the best ways you’ll ever find to get your old songs heard by new fans, practice performing your new tunes and meet fellow musicians.

Open mikes (or mics, however you like to spell it) are the reason I got started as a singer-songwriter. I spent several years haunting all the popular open mikes in New York City, sometimes 3 and 4 times a week. And I still attend open mikes when I can.

But after years in the open mike trenches, many songwriters I know are happy to say “sayonara” to what some see as an evening of listening to terrible songwriters sing mediocre tunes while waiting for their chance to get up and sing.

Clearly, I don’t agree. Sure, at any given open mike you may hear performers you think are great and those you think are middling and those you think, well, stink. But watching and listening to other performing songwriters is always a great way to learn. And, it has always been a wonderful way for me to network and meet other like-minded folks, and sometimes I’ve booked gigs based on my open mike appearances. Plus, I almost always see at least one artist that I think is truly talented and I enjoy hearing, if not several! In addition, it’s one of the best community-minded ways I can think of to support songwriting and songwriters in your neighborhood, your city, your state.

No, I don’t spend every single weekend heading to open mikes. But I still get there when I can — and I often check out www.openmikes.org for new places to try.

Some of my best do-and-don’t tips for a great open mike experience:

1. Don’t be a diva.

There are always going to be songwriters with less or more experience than you at any given open mike. Don’t assume that you’re the bomb just because you decided to walk through the door. Be respectful of the local scene and polite to your hard-working host.

2. Don’t be nervous.

If this is your first open mike or the first you’ve been to in a long time, take a deep breath: Everyone gets a little jittery before performing, especially when you only have a chance to play a couple of songs to give your best impression. It’s an open mike — no one is expecting the performance of your life. Just give it what you’ve got and hey, the greatest thing about open mikes is that there’s usually another one next week, or next month — you can always give it another try.

3. Don’t be afraid to play something new.

I’m guilty of this as anyone…I’m planning on playing tunes from my CD at the open mikes this weekend, for instance, rather than trying something new. But it’s important, I think, to slip in some new material whenever you can. After all, one of the best ways to decide whether your new tune hits the mark is to gauge response from a variety of audiences. If you get big applause, it’s a keeper. If no one looks up from their drink, maybe you should think about what you can improve. Either way, feedback is feedback.

4. Do introduce yourself — on stage, and to others in the audience.

So often, I’ll see someone play an open mike who I think is terrific — only to have him/her leave the stage without letting the audience know his or her name. While you don’t want to promote yourself endlessly from an open mike stage, don’t hesitate to introduce yourself at the beginning, middle OR end of your one-to-three song set by saying, “Hi, my name is [insert your own name here]  – thanks for listening!”

5. Do focus on performing your song, rather than prefacing your performance.

One of my pet peeves is watching songwriters take an open mike stage with some version of the following: “Hi there…this is a new song I wrote just this morning, so it’s going to probably suck and I probably won’t remember the lyrics, so you might want to just talk to each other instead of listening because this is really bad.” Don’t preface your performance and turn people off ASAP; instead, just get out there and do the best you can. You might surprise yourself!

For more open mic inspiration: Check out this interview with Barbara Cloyd, songwriting teacher and host of the Bluebird Cafe open mic in Nashville!


  • http://www.bradsanzmusic.com Brad

    Go alone or with another musician. When I take non-musicians, I often feel pressure to entertain them during other performances, when I feel what I should be doing is listening respectfully or politely/discretely networking with other musicians. There is also sometimes an expectation that we will leave immediately after my own performance, when I usually prefer to stay until the end(or as late as I can).

    If you do take a non-musician, make the protocol clear to them before you arrive. My girlfriend enjoys coming to open mics with me, and understands that I may abandon her for a few minutes at a time while I network.

  • http://www.sharongoldmanmusic.com Sharon Goldman

    yeah, that’s one of my other pet peeves — people who come only to play and not to listen to others, so they duck out ASAP after their mini-set. Sure, I get that you can’t always stay for the whole open mic…but at least stay to listen to a couple of folks before and after you play!

  • Mike

    Wow. I never thought about trying out new material. But, you know? It kind of makes sense. I mean, yeah, I want to put on a good show, but I’m not getting paid for anything, so why not use the event as a lab of sorts?

  • http://jimcolbertmusic.com Jim Colbert

    I hosted an open mic for 6 of the first 7 years I played, and I absolutely loved the vibe and feel we had at ours. Nurturing, supportive, fun and friendly. I always tried new songs out there. I agree about the folks that only come to play their songs and run, with no interest in what other people are bringing – I tried to discourage that as gently as I could. I don’t mind prefacing a song if it makes me understand the material better, especially story songs – but I always did hate things like pre-song apologies or lack of consideration towards hogging more than the performer’s allotted time. (When we had time left over at the end, people got to play again if they wanted to.) To this day I travel to do open mics, because I am often amazed at the talent that is out there! (I do avoid the State College “college town” open mics in bars though; very different feel there.)

  • http://jimcolbertmusic.com Jim Colbert

    Just as an fyi, I played in pubic for the first time 2 days before my 40th birthday, after having played guitar for about 9 months. Only reason I mention this, if there is somebody out there reading this that is intimidated by the idea of trying it, don’t be!

  • http://jimcolbertmusic.com Jim Colbert

    Ooops. “Played in PUBLIC.” Wow. I don’t remember the last time I blushed.

  • Lola

    Hi

    I am planning on going to my first open mic. I am a singer song writer but a poor guitar player and I am afraid I will be the one that stinks… not the diva… I have quite low self esteem but my friends are very encourageing…

    I just dont know how to deal with being the worst one there…

    Any tips people?

    Thanx…

  • Dale Doerman

    Lola,

    Try to remember that the audience WANTS to like you. Smile and be gracious and don’t apologise for your inexperience. Give them a chance to like you and give yourself the same opportunity. Most of us are just as nervous as you are. If your strength is singing (as mine is) give that your focus and keep your guitar in reserve support (small spotlight). And always remember to have a good time! When you have fun, you give license to your audience to do the same.

  • http://www.singsangsongbook.blogspot.com Sing Sang Matt

    Hello!

    Although this is an old post, it still helped me out. I was thinking of ways to fight through my stage fright. I thought of arranging as many people as I could into a lecture hall, letting them know why I was doing it, and just talking to them until my legs stop shaking. My legs always shake for some reason.

    The idea here of going alone to an open mic really appeals to me, too. I write good songs and play them well, but have never played for anyone who doesn’t know me. I’d hate the idea of going with anyone I know, not for embarrassment, just for anonymity (which is always fun).

    I actually like being nervous. It feels good. It doesn’t translate to a crowd well, though, so I’m hoping practice and help me control it.

    Cheers for the advice.

  • http://www.sharongoldmanmusic.com Sharon Goldman

    @Sing Sang Matt, so glad the post helped you out! i like your blog, btw…power to songwriting blogs! Yeah, I almost always go alone to open mics or with another musician…although early on I sometimes brought a friend or familiy member because it was the only places I was performing. It might be a great experiment to try singing your original songs to people who don’t know you!

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