The open mic night is a fantastic way to get on stage and share your original material. For a lot of us, it can feel scary – like stepping off the deep end into a new world where we have to perform and become someone we’re not. What if I mess up? you may be thinking. What if I trip and fall on my face? What do I even expect when I’m on stage?
Here are my best tips on exactly how to prepare and what to expect for your first open mic night!
Print out this guide and keep it close. You’re going to rock this open mic!
Preparing for the open mic night
Pack your gig bag with anything that could save you from on-stage disaster
A good gig bag is life! It’s there to help you out of any tough spot. You can pack as much or as little as you need to feel comfortable. I can typically pack everything I need within the compartment inside my guitar case and my pockets. Here are bare essentials of a good gig bag:
- Guitar strings – in case you pop a string on stage.
- String winder – again, in case of a popped string.
- Picks – Picks always manage to get lost! Better to have extra.
- Extra tuner – If your battery decides to die in the one you have on your guitar.
- 9 volt battery – If you have a guitar with pickups, then an extra 9 volt is essential! These, too, like to die on stage.
- Extra quarter inch cable – On the off chance the venue’s cable is old (or nonexistent).
- Guitar strap – You’ll need if you’re standing up and playing.
- Music Stand or ipad Holder – If you know you need to look at your lyrics or music, these are great tools to have.
- Set list or lyrics if you need them
- Business cards – With your name, socials, and where people can hear your music
- Anything else you need on stage with you. I usually have lip gloss tucked in my back pocket!
Practice makes perfect
I stand by my opinion that practicing is the number one way to feel confident about playing a show. The more you practice, the less you have to worry about forgetting words or chords. You’ll have more brain power to enjoy your time performing!
Practice your banter, too!
It’s always a good idea to practice what you’re going to say between songs, so you know exactly what you’ll say when you’re on stage with everyone watching. When you’re practicing for the open mic, play the set exactly as you will on the night of: Introduce yourself, play your song, banter, song, banter, etc. for however many songs you’re going to play.
Have a goal for the night & know why you’re there
Make sure to consciously state why you’re going to this open mic in the first place. Are you going there to perform your music on a stage because you feel like you need to? That’s cool – make the focus of the night to put on the best performance you can!
Are you going to make friends and potential cowriters? Make the focus of the night to shake hands and pass out business cards!
When you know why you’re doing this (crazy, scary) thing, you’ll know how to manage your expectations for the evening. And you’ll feel that much more accomplished after the show!
Tune your guitar! You really can’t tune too much. Tune before you practice. Tune after you practice. Tune the night before the show. Tune before you leave for the show. Tune before you get on stage. You can’t over-tune! The last thing you want is an out of tune guitar when you’re performing. Yikes.
Piano players: Call the venue ahead of time to see if they have a house piano or keyboard.
You might find that the venue has a piano or keyboard all set up and ready for you to play. Give them a ring a few days before the open mic night to see if they have one, or if you need to bring your own gear.
Do you need to bring an amp?
Some venues have a nice in house system that’s manned by a sound person. Some venues count on their performers to bring amplification. Call them ahead of time to see if you need to bring an amp.
On stage at the open mic night:
Tune up again
I obviously can’t stress this point enough. Tune your instrument!
Try to tune before you go on stage if you can! If you can avoid tuning in front of your crowd, it’s just easier. But if you can’t, no worries. Do a quick tune on stage if you need to. Snark tuners work great for this because they tune based on the vibrations in your instrument, not by “listening” with a mic. That means you can tune accurately in a loud room with lots of other sound (and music) happening.
How to use the gear on stage:
Here’s a quick overview of what you’ll see in front of you and be asked to do on stage:
- Will you need to plug or mic your guitar? If your guitar has pickups, there will be a cable on the stage that you plug your guitar into. It looks like this. Plug in! If your guitar doesn’t have a way to plug in, it will need to be mic’ed. The sound guy or host will help set up a mic in front of your guitar.
- There may be a quick sound check when you get up to the mic. Typically the sound guy might ask you to check your guitar and vocal. You’ll want to play and sing a few bars at the intensity you’ll be playing your songs at. Soft fingerpicking? Play that. Loud strumming? Play that. The sound person will tell you what he needs to hear. It doesn’t have to be perfect! He’s just getting levels.
- Sing close into the mic. Chances are you’ll be singing into an SM58. This type of mic is meant for you to get real close. Don’t worry about being too loud! The sound guy will make sure your levels sound good in the room.
- If there are monitors, don’t be afraid to ask for more if you can’t hear yourself. The monitors (or wedges) on stage facing you are meant for you to be able to hear what you’re doing. So if you can’t hear your keyboard enough, politely ask “Could I have more of the keyboard in the monitors, please?” Thank your sound guy when he’s done checking you.
- After the show: When you’re done, only unplug your guitar when the sound guy says you’re good. When you’ve strummed your last chord, the sound guy will need to mute your guitar or bring the volume all the way down. This is to ensure that when you unplug, there won’t be a nasty POP that could break speakers and offend ears. So after you’ve thanked the room for listening, look up at your sound person and wait for a nod before unplugging.
Think good thoughts.
You got this. :) Be yourself! 100%. Yourself is the best person you could ever be on stage. The room wants to meet her! Remind yourself of why you’re there, and how cool is it that you get to share never-before-heard music to this group of people?
The audience is excited for you!
This is some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten about performing: No one is sitting there waiting for you to fail. Fact is, the whole room is excited to hear you play! They are on your side. So if you do stumble or make a mistake, everyone is actually rooting for you. Beautiful, right?
Tell the story of your song in 2-3 sentences.
Keep the banter to a minimum, but don’t be afraid to be yourself to talk to the audience like you would talk to your friends. It’s always interesting to hear a little bit about where a song came from. And if you don’t have a story around it, no worries! You just want to make sure you’re not up there talking forever because talking on stage always feels a lot longer to the audience than talking in conversation – the minutes add up quick!
Perform like you perform when you’re alone
Now’s your time to play! Believe in your song. Feel it. Close your eyes if you need to. Allow yourself to play that song the same way you play it when it’s late at night and the house is empty. Let the spirit move you!
Be gracious and thank them for listening
Always, ALWAYS thank your audience for listening. You are each doing each other a service – you’re sharing your music, and they’re sharing their time. Thank them for it. (It also goes a long way to thank the venue and sound guy, too!)
After your performance at the open mic night:
Now that you’re off stage (WHEW! What a doozy!), you can walk around the room and make friends! This is an awesome moment to interface with potential collaborators, friends, and supporters. Just be sure you’re not talking all during someone else’s set!
Hand out business cards
Pass them out like candy! You’ll want to include info like your social media, website, and places people can hear your music. Include contact info that you’re ok with giving out.
If you have CD’s, bring them! Chances are you’ll find people would like to buy them.
Thank the sound guy and the host
It’s always polite to thank the people that made the open mic night happen. They’ve given you an opportunity to come and perform, after all. So give them a thanks, even if it’s just before you leave for the night. If you want to play this venue again, it goes a long way to get to know these guys!
Do it again!
You did it! First open mic night in the books! Feels good, doesn’t it? So come back again next week! Bring new songs. Meet new people. Re-meet familiar people who saw you last time. Become a regular. You’re now a performing songwriter!
Want to write more songs and make more songwriter friends?
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