Handling the Open Mic
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!
Practice with Intention
When music is your “jobby”; you have a busy life with children, and a primary career that you depend on to pay the bills, you are arguably not able to dedicate the same intensity to practice as the fully professional musician might. Maximizing the effectiveness of the practice time you have is important if you are to develop and grow. In this article I offer an unstructured list of motivational and practical concepts to help, if you face this dilemma.
1. Practice with Intention: When you practice, have an end goal in mind. What are you trying to achieve? Broadly speaking there are two aspects to any practice. You are either working on developing technique, or you are working on musical intuition.
Technique development involves woodshedding type exercises (chords, changes, turnarounds, scales, riffs, arpeggios, picking and strumming patterns), or learning a new song note for note.
Intuition development involves playing along to a jam track or song, just noodling around, experimenting with ideas, creating, or trying to approximate something you have heard.
2. Have fun!
3. Short intense bursts, with breaks: Don’t persevere beyond the point of diminishing returns. Not only does the brain continue learning during downtime, but downtime is necessary for the brain to learn. When you return, you are refreshed.
4. Don’t push yourself to physical injury. Correct posture, holding the guitar properly, and taking a break when things hurt can prevent injury that could lead to long term problems.
5. Don’t practice your mistakes: Often speed on guitar is equated with effectiveness, and while this is certainly an indicator of mastery; I would argue that feel, control and tone, rather than speed, are the hallmarks of effective musicianship. Play it slow, focus on playing one perfect note. If you play one perfect note, it is reasonable that you can follow it with another perfect note, and so on. Speed will come with patience … focus on playing it correctly with feel, control and tone, rather than playing it fast. And, remember, if you are reaching the point of diminishing returns, take a break.
6. Keep a log, and periodically celebrate your progress and success.
7. Record or video yourself, and listen or watch back. And listen back after some time has passed. We are often doing better than we think. :-)
8. Get honest and constructive feedback from an encouraging friend you trust. A guitar teacher can fill this role, but I am thinking from the paradigm of the self taught. False praise or needless nitpicking don’t help you with maintaining a positive, realistic, growth oriented frame of mind.
This list is by no means exhaustive, nor is it structured, but it should help you form an attitude that leads to maximizing limited practice time for productive and goal oriented practices. There are a wealth of great free resources nowadays for the self taught that simply did not exist when I started out; tutorials on youtube, mobile apps (audio recording apps, jam track apps, drum pattern apps, learning games). Take advantage of these. Set a few realistic goals, work toward them, review progress, celebrate your success, and update your goals. Don’t overdo it, start slow, focus on correctness rather than speed, and have fun.