At some point you are going to have to perform your songs for a live audience, so it’s best to be prepared. 

A great way to cut your teeth on live performance is to participate at an open mic at a local bar (or a not so local bar if you really want to remain incognito). Open mics are informal shows where everyone can get up on stage and perform a couple of songs, tell jokes or otherwise entertain the audience.

In part one of this series we looked at what you need to bring so you have those bases covered.

Part 2: What you do.

First, you’ll need to hunt down a club that has an open mic night (or songwriter night, if you feel like you’re ready to do a whole show). These will be listed in the usually free entertainment magazines such as the L.A. Weekly or the Nashville Scene that you can find at convenience stores, record shops, restaurants or liquor stores, especially in the most happening parts of town. They can also sometimes be found in magazine stands, corner newspaper vending machines and music stores.

Usually, there’s a listing by days of the week of which acts are playing at which club. Of course, you’ll be looking for “open mic” rather than the name of an act. 

Many places also run listings on Craigslist (just search “open mic” on all community) and on their own social networking pages and websites.

Hopefully, it will be a place you are already familiar with, but if not, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to stop by the joint a day or two before the open mic so you can scope it out. Or, better yet, attend one of their open mics on a night that you don’t intend on playing.

That way you can see who hosts the show, who runs sound, how many songs people typically get to play, where the stage is, and the general format of the show.

What you shouldn’t do is feel intimidated in any way. There may be nothing but great performers the night you visit, but an open mic by definition is open to everyone. And while professionals may occasionally grace the stage, it is typically a night for amateurs.

If the host doesn’t come around your table and introduce himself/herself to you (which is likely, as he/she will be wrangling acts to fill out his entire allotted time), see if you can catch him or her at a moment when they are not busy. After introducing yourself, tell them that you are planning on coming back out next time to perform and ask what would be the best time to show up, if they were going to be the host that night, too, and you can ask how many songs you can play if you don’t already have a bead on that by watching the show.

It is highly likely at that point that you will be asked if you want to perform that night. So be prepared for that.

The day before you plan on playing, draft your set list. This shouldn’t take long, as most folks are only allowed a couple of songs. But sometimes on a slow night you may be allowed to play 15 minutes or take the stage a second time, so having a list prepared is a good thing.

Run through your set in order, and put any performance notes you need next to the song (which fret to put the capo on, the line to the verse you have trouble remembering). Run through the list again the day of the show for warm up and make your minor revisions, if any are needed.

On the night that you’re actually prepared to perform, you’ll want to show up before the starting time listed in the magazine or website, or at the time the host suggested during your previous visit. If you’re going by the listing time, an hour might be too much earlier, but fifteen minutes before may be too late. There usually is a sign-up list and typically the order of the performers is the order in which they sign up on the list.

After you get your name on the list, ask the host if he/she runs sound, and, if not, the name of the sound guy. You should also ask, if you were not already told, how long you’ll get to play and how long until you get to play. Find the sound guy, introduce yourself and ask if you’ll need anything other than your guitar (such as a cable or D.I.).

After you sit down and get comfortable awaiting your turn, take your guitar out of the case, tune it up, and put it back in the case. This is insurance.

Generally, you’ll be announced over the P.A. system that you’re the act after the one that is currently taking the stage: and this will be when you get your guitar out of the case and tune it up. But, it is not uncommon for the Host to proclaim, “Next is (your name here), let’s give (your name here) a big hand and get (your name here) on stage.”

Make sure you have your picks, capo, strap (if needed) and setlist handy.

When your time comes, take your time. What seems like an eternity to you while you’re walking on stage and getting plugged in and otherwise settled in is much shorter to the audience. Place your setlist at your feet.

Ask the sound guy is the cable is muted and if it’s ready to be plugged in, then do so. Start with the volume control on your guitar turned down, and after you get plugged in, bring the volume to the halfway point. Strum a chord for a few seconds (maybe 30 seconds) so the soundman can set the gain and bring the volume up in the mix. He’ll most likely say, “got it” when he’s set. Then stop playing.

At this point the host will either introduce you again (you’ll know by watching what he does during the night), or you can say hi and introduce yourself and kick off a song.

You may want to introduce your song, but keep it short unless it’s a real gripping and/or interesting story and even then keep it short: this isn’t your audience. This is a group of people waiting for their turn on stage.

Play your allotted time or number of songs or less. Don’t run over. Then thank the host and the audience for listening. Then hold still for a moment.

If you’re not asked to play another, ask the soundman if your guitar is muted. Then unplug, gather up your setlist and anything else you set down, put your guitar back in the case and unwind a little bit.

Thank the soundman and the host when you have the chance, and compliment them if it applies. (“Thanks, it sounded great on stage.” “Thanks for letting me play. You got a cool thing going on here.”)

Don’t critique your performance (yet. That’s for the next day). If it went well, be happy. If it didn’t, pretend to be happy. Most people wouldn’t notice the difference, and why clue them in on it?

Most likely, you’ll get compliments yourself. If it’s from someone else who had performed you should reciprocate.

The next day honestly evaluate your performance and make some mental notes for next time. It may take a few of these to find your legs, but once you learn how to walk…soon you’ll be up and running.

Jake Kelly is a man on the constant search for enlightenment, if anyone finds it let him know so he can get some. For more of this hombre’s ramblings and the rest of L2P check out L2Pbandspace and


Originally posted 2010-10-01 14:59:28.