Open the Mic! How to play a live show

by Sorcha Chisholm

Open the Mic! How to play a live show by Sorcha Chisholm
Now you’ve mastered that cover song it’s time to take it to the stage! Ever wanted to take a chance on an open mic and see what it feels like to play with some amplification? Hearing yourself sing on a mic and hear your instrument played through an amp or bigass speakers? The stage can be a hella scary place and having jitters is completely natural. So let’s digest those butterflies and get under that spotlight!

Listen to Hymns for Her while reading the text.

Every city on the planet worth it’s salt will have regular open mic sessions dotted around. It’s a great way to cut your teeth on performing live and getting familiar with a live setup. I went to my first open mic in the Dandenong Ranges just outside of Melbourne when I was living there in the early 2000’s. The event was held at a cute little venue called “The Tin Shed” and was run by a lovely woman. She was very gracious and helped me get comfortable on stage and I am very grateful to her for helping me get over my initial stage fright! Since then I have appeared at countless open mic events – some good, some bad, some weird but all wonderful.

Since 2015 I have been hosting “Open Acoustika” at a little underground venue in Tokyo called Bar Gari Gari. It’s an awesome space and just the right size and vibe for people to come and play songs and make new friends over a few beers. The event is monthly (every third Thursday) and is mostly for acoustic instruments, hence the name.

It’s a fairly small stage and usually we just have solo performers but occasionally up to four or five people will get on stage and jam out! We get a lot of “newbies” and I’m always very chuffed to see people open up for the first time. And the thrill of getting those songs out of your soul is always satisfying. Before you add your name to that sign up sheet be sure to check these tips for making your performance solid.

1. Bring a spare cable. 
Whether you’re playing a keyboard, guitar or bass make sure you bring your own cables to plug in! The venue may have some in store but it’s best to have your own just in case.

2. Tune your instrument ahead of your spot on stage.
I cannot stress this enough. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to endure an out of tune guitar or see the person tuning away for ages on stage I’d be loaded by now. It’s annoying for the audience and it also eats into your time. If your guitar is going out of tune during the performance that’s fair enough but try to be subtle and quick about it!

3. Use lyrics.
There’s no law that says you have to remember the lyrics to a song at an open mic. In fact its common practice. I prefer not to use cheat sheets for a serious gig but at a casual event its totally fine! Be sure to ask for a music stand if one is not setup already.

4. Be mindful of your allotted time on stage.
While I’m sure everyone would love to hear your 20 minute solo on “Freebird” it probably isn’t the place at an open mic. Most events will have 10-15 minute slots so be aware of how many songs that will be. A general rule of thumb is one song = 3-5 minutes (not accounting for preamble if you wish to tell the backstory), so a 15 minute slot will give you 3 average songs or 2 long ones. Also take note that if you are playing with a band it will take time to set up everyone’s instruments and that may eat into your allotted time.

5. Check with the host or venue about plugging into the PA or an amp.
It’s totally up to you whether you want to put a line in through the PA (Public Address) system or through an amp or just stick a mic in front of the sound hole on your guitar. Each of these ways works well enough, but obviously if you don’t have a pick-up on your guitar you will have to go for the third option. The open mic should have a host or someone who can help you set up. If it doesn’t and you have to set up for yourself then I suggest using an amp (positioned behind you facing the audience). Make sure you can hear yourself OK. Most venues have monitor speakers facing you so you can hear your sound. Make sure it sounds balanced and that the voice isn’t louder than the instrument or vice versa. Ask someone to stand at the back of the room and ask them how it sounds. If your guitar has a pickup I recommend setting all EQ modes to centre. You can play around on the amp for treble, middle, bass and effect settings if you choose.

6. Make sure you are physically comfortable.
If your guitar has a strap then you should practice performing standing up! If you are playing an acoustic guitar with a mic in front of it, sitting is better. Be careful of feedback, or a howling sound that might emit from the speakers. You may have to play around with the position of the mic in front of the sound hole or on the neck of the guitar. Trust me, it’s very annoying when this happens during a song.

7. If you make a mistake just keep going!
Naturally you will be nervous and you may feel the urge to apologise mid-song for a flub or a  forgotten lyric or something. The idea is not to draw attention to it. It may be miniscule enough for the audience to NOT EVEN NOTICE. If its a big boo-boo then just stop, take a breath and strum the chords a bit to orientate yourself back into the song.

8. Make eye contact with the audience.
This is probably the most difficult thing to do. You will be thinking about so many other things at the time and connecting with perfect strangers is the last thing you want to do right? Believe me it does make a difference. Even if it’s just looking at them, or in their general direction for a moment it will give the audience a feeling of connection – just don’t stare! Also, try not to look at your hands too much on the instrument. This takes practice but it looks so much more pro when you appear to know your song effortlessly.

9. Record yourself.
Take your device or camera and either set it up on stage or ask someone to film you from the audience. It’s hard to watch yourself on video yes, but it will help you pinpoint trouble spots and help you improve your form.

10. Do it on the regular.
Like anything, it will get easier the more you do it!

Artist’s Note
acoustic guitar, songwriter, performance, open-mic

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