The open mic format offers great opportunities to increase exposure, while rapidly developing your act. It is a quick way to measure the success and quality of your performances, while finding out what you still need to develop. Jostled between other performers of varying abilities, you typically play a small set of anywhere between 2 to 4 songs. It is focused and intense, almost like the “speed dating” of musical performance contexts. I consider the open mic to be the easiest way to get yourself out there and play publicly. However, it is also the most challenging performance situation because there is no time to warm up, and you have a tiny slice of time in which to make some sort of impact. How do you rock the open mic?
Make sure you know the songs you will play both inside and out. Play your familiars. Be well prepared, and well rehearsed. Simulate and visualize the live situation in your final practices. Unless you are a regular, and they know you well, I would not try something new, or something you are still working on.
Don’t be shy about your originals. Originals that are well conceived are refreshing, and will help you stand apart from the cover performers.
Introduce yourself. Recite a prepared brief “boilerplate” 2 to 3 sentence biographical introduction to tell the audience who you are and what you are musically all about. Be careful of the “this is a song about …”. Unless the message of the song or an interesting story is an integrated part of your overall act, introducing each song breaks the flow and is usually needless. But, I do think it is very important to introduce yourself.
Certain covers should probably be avoided. Several memorable songs that we grew up with, and love, are generally difficult to reproduce without a lot of assistive production. Choose songs that work in the solo performance context, or that can be musically arranged for the situation.
Don’t go first, or last. If you have nerves like I do, you may be tempted to get it over with, but waiting for the late arrivals and the crowd to settle down a bit improves your impact. Going last means you are closing. The mood changes toward the end and many people will have left.
Ask the host to do sound check for you. You will be using unfamiliar gear, and the mix will be set up for your predecessor. Investing in a quick 15 to 30 second sound check will enhance your performance quality.
Consider visiting the venue before deciding to play there. This gives you the opportunity to see whether the reception and feedback is positive. Every open mic venue I have played at has featured a crowd that follows the unspoken courtesies of encouragement, and affirmation. Nonetheless, there are slightly different hosting formats, venue types, and moods. Visiting first might give you a better idea of what to expect.
Finally, it’s all about the music. Focus on your songs. Focus on your sounds. As someone who struggles with performance anxiety, I understand how easy it is to get irrationally intimidated when the person before you is extremely good, did something different and memorable, and you know your performance is overshadowed. It is best to just mentally compartmentalize; be yourself, and trust your plan and preparation. My own experience is that “going the distance”, competent preparation, consistency, sincerity and authenticity rather than “trying to be like” always wins out in the longer run.
Now, get out there and let us hear your music!