5 Great Tips For Playing Music Open Mic Nights

Over the last year, I’ve started playing open mic nights in my area. It’s been a source of joy for me and playing out is now one of my favorite things to do. But, being the semi-perfectionist that I am, I always want to do a better job and play a better set. 

Over the last year or so, I’ve definitely learned some tips for helping me to improve myself at the show. But, I think these tips could apply to anyone who is new to playing open mic nights. And, if you’re a veteran, perhaps this could be a helpful refresher. 

A man playing guitar and singing.

Tips for Playing Open Mic

Tip 1: Get Familiar with the Show

The first time you check out a particular open mic night you haven’t played before, I’d consider leaving your instrument at home altogether. This way, you can familiarize yourself with the show and environment without being tempted to get on the list. But, I’ll admit I don’t always follow this advice. 

Mission critical the first time you go is simply absorbing everything you can about the environment. Some of the things it is best pick up on include:

  • How loud or intimate is the venue?
  • Is it crowded or a light and sparse crowd?
  • What kind of music are the musicians playing? Covers, originals, both? Genres?
  • How long is each set?
  • How is the audience responding to each set and musician?
  • What is the host like?
  • What kind of instruments are musicians playing?

These are clues that will indicate what to prepare for when signing up to be on the list the next time. I would also suggest introducing yourself to the host and expressing that next time you’d like to play. The host will likely give you some tips and details of his own that may help you prepare to have a great set next time.

Tip 2. Prepare Five Songs You Love To Play

A typical open mic night will give each musician about three – give or take one – songs. I prefer to play shows where I can play at least three songs. Fewer seems too brief and I don’t get into a groove. More than four feels too long and like I’m playing a mini-solo show. Plus, it gets boring when the audience has to sit through more than four songs from a not-great fellow act.

I suggest choosing five songs that you know to play really well and truly enjoy playing. You want performing the song in front of people and on a stage to feel completely natural and like second nature. You want to basically achieve a flow state. You don’t want to have to be worrying constantly about what chord or lyrics come next.

By choosing songs you love to play, your musical zeal will shine through as well. All of this will help go to your confidence, which is one of the real keys to having a great set. When you play music you really love, you will have more fun and so will the audience. But don’t play a song you love until you’ve practiced it enough to be truly great at it.

Five songs is a great number to start with in terms of having material ready to go. If a typical set is three to four songs, you’ll be covered. And you’ll even have an extra if the host asks for it or the audience demands an encore – which could definitely happen if you have a great show.

Tip 3. Stay For The Whole Show

You might not be able to stay the entire time every time you go to a musical open mic night. But, staying should be your goal. There are a few reasons for this. First, it allows you to be flexible as to when the host can slot you in on the list if you haven’t already claimed a spot. Or, the host may ask you to play in a different slot if it helps them get other musicians plugged into the list at the right time. This way, you’ll be doing the host a solid.

Further, it will generally be appreciated all around. Nothing looks less cool than someone who arrives right before the allotted time or ducks out almost immediately after they finish on a regular basis. They may be times you absolutely have to, but we’re talking about the norm here.

Most importantly, treat people the way you want to be treated. You want people to show up for your set and appreciate it, care, and engage. You should do the same for others. Plus it will give you more time to order a drink or some food from the venue, a fact that both the proprietor of the establishment and the staff will truly appreciate. If you can bring friends along to order something and support the musicians too, all the better. 

Tip 4. Musical Variation Is Your Friend

In music, dynamics refer to the differences in the loudness or quietness within a piece of music. Think of your average Nirvana song. The verses tend to be rather soft or at least medium-quiet. But when the chorus hits, the electric guitars start crunching and Kurt starts shouting and growling. These are dynamics at work. 

At my last show, I played Nirvana’s “Pennyroyal Tea” and the loud-quiet-loud dynamics of the tune were quite effective. “Creep” by Radiohead is another like this.

One major missed opportunity I hear at open mics is musicians kind of keeping everything level throughout their set. Within a song, the dynamics often tend not to vary. Moreover, there is often a similarly between the loudness and quietness in each song of a set.

Variation is your friend more generally, and this can also apply to things like the key signature of the song, the tempo, the mood and emotion, and a variety of other attributes of the music. The point is you don’t want everything to sound the same and you want to use variation to keep the audience on its toes and entertained.

Tip 5. Make Friends or Network with People

You never know what cool people you will meet at a show. And this includes everyone from the host, to other musicians, audience members, and venue staff. Be generally friendly, smile, and have a good vibe. Make friends with people.

This will lead to a better experience for you and people will start to appreciate you more when you walk into the venue with your guitar. They’ll be looking forward to your set regardless of your level of innate skill. 

Plus, you never know. Perhaps you can find a collaboration partner. Or someone will give you a tip about where to find other great open mic nights to play. Or maybe the venue staff or booking manager will love your energy and want to hire you to play your own solo gig. These are all great outcomes that you can achieve with just a little bit of social effort.

I’m an introvert so this is hard for me sometimes. But trust me, when I push myself to do it, it is absolutely worth it. It makes the whole experience more rewarding and fun for me, and I, hope, the people I get to know as well.

Go Get Out There

I hope you found some or all of these tips helpful at your future open mic night performances. They have all definitely helped me have better shows than when I started playing out. And the more I play, the more I learn. This means go take the tips that feel helpful to you and get out there on the stage, open mic musician army.

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