So you’ve got a guitar, a ukulele, an autoharp. You can play and sing reasonably well at the same time. Friends say you’re talented. What next? Put a band together and struggle, realizing you weren’t really all that prepared?
You could do worse than getting a few songs together and heading to an open mic event. And, luckily, the Harrisburg area has more than a few that are well-run, giving a chance for amateurs young and old to hone their chops, gain confidence and take part in the rich music scene this area has to offer.
There are, though, a few rules to follow, along with some best practices. So, we asked for advice and observations from the hosts of some of the best events in and around Harrisburg. Before you take your star turn, listen to the sage advice offered by veteran hosts Mike Banks (HMAC Stage on Herr), Justin Clauser (Bube’s Brewery), Janelle Eurich (Holly Inn), Phil Freeman (The Cove) and Jonathan Frazier (Cornerstone Coffeehouse).
Play it like you mean it
Of course, you are nervous—who wouldn’t be? But, if you do one thing right, do this: play your songs like you mean them. If you’ve practiced enough, listened to yourself, prepared your gear, gotten comfortable with the idea that you will likely make a mistake, there is no point being sheepish, timid or shy.
Banks: “For many folks new to open mic, there’s a huge disparity between what they’re accustomed to in their living room and what it’s actually like on an amplified stage. While it may be appropriate to be delicate and quiet when rehearsing at home, the stage is no place for such subtlety. Microphones and monitors only work well when folks put as much sound into them as possible. Dig in—physically and spiritually.”
Clauser: “What makes a good open mic performance is no different than any other performance. At the heart of it is good music. It also helps to have good stage presence and connection with the audience.”
Eurich: “Have fun. Your natural feeling for the song should be what is portrayed. We are not recording you. You are not being paid. Relax.”
But don’t make it about you
This is not the place to exorcise your childhood demons or get over a heart-trampling breakup. If you have songs about them, that’s one thing. But do not take half your time explaining the gory details of your tumultuous life. Let the songs do it, and let the audience connect to them in their own way. Good songs and good performances connect, almost all the time. Don’t force it.
Banks: “Generally speaking, an audience is much more likely to be interested in your stories after you’ve gotten their attention with your music, not before. But, either way, don’t squander away precious stage time with banter.”
Know the room, know the audience, know the host
It’s always a good idea to be a spectator before being a performer. Go to the venue without your instrument and observe. What does the audience respond to? Is it too big a place for you to feel comfortable? Is it a bar or a coffee house? There will be a difference. Most importantly, introduce yourself to the host and get to know how they like to run things. Get any technical stuff out of the way before you show up to play. Does your guitar have a preamp? Do you know what one is? Watch and be supportive of whomever is playing.
Banks: “Do your homework: know what your gear is and how it works before you show up—and make sure your instrument is strung, in tune, and has working batteries before you get on stage. While I’m happy to help folks fine-tune technical details on the fly, the stage is no place for Audio 101.”
Freeman: “From folk rock to country to spoken word, anything and everything is welcome as long as it doesn’t make the bartender’s or the patrons’ ears bleed. Definitely make the effort to connect with the host. People who do this are at the top of my ‘awesome’ list, so this is a priority.”
And know your songs
This should be a no brainer, but it deserves emphasis. Do not think a song you finished this afternoon is going to be one that connects. It might, but probably not. Few performers, even seasoned ones, can bluff their way through a set without looking awkward. Play your songs to the mirror, to friends, your cat. Be aware of your pacing because you will probably do them faster onstage. And make sure the arrangement you are going to play actually works.
Frazier: “So many people try to play full-length versions of songs, totally neglecting the fact that the layered variety of sounds in the original is lacking in their guitar rendition. Perhaps they hear the drums…but all the audience hears is someone banging out the same four chords in mind-numbing repetition. It’s usually best to cut the song down, get to the point, and wrap it up while you’re still ahead of the game.”
Try not to suck, but know there are worse things than sucking
Even if you do the above, there is a good chance you will mess up once—or several times. No worries. This is the place to do that, not once someone has offered you money to play. You will see onstage, before and after you, people who may be 10 times better or 10 times worse than you. However, there are worse things than playing slightly out of tune, forgetting words, fumbling chords.
Banks: “Remember: open mic isn’t a competition. In fact, what comes as a surprise to many is that it’s actually quite the opposite. Do your best and be prepared to learn from others—they’ll certainly learn something from you.”
Clauser: “I have seen people come in who were shy and barely spoke to other musicians turn into confident players.”
Freeman: “Performers should always start with a song that is both familiar to them as well as technically easy. For instance, I usually start with a slow- to mid-tempo song that is easy to play and that is lower in my vocal range so that I can use it as an extended warm-up.”
Choose your tunes wisely
If you’ve done the above, this should be no problem. You pick two of your own songs and decide to add a cover in the middle. Smart move, but you could completely ruin things by choosing poorly. There are 20 other people playing before and after you; chances are good that the Lorde or Dylan or Mumford hits have already been done. So go deep! An obscure J.J. Cale or a completely re-arranged Bright Eyes can convey just as much about you—maybe even more—than a smart-sounding “Angel From Montgomery” or “Wagon Wheel.” And, no, Nickelback is not acceptable in any situation!
Banks: “The goal should be to sound like yourself, not someone else—whether the material you’re performing is yours or someone else’s. And, please, no matter how fond you are of their music, don’t ever try to mimic the singing of Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews, Adam Duritz, Janis Joplin or anyone else. They certainly didn’t—and, unless it’s a spoof, neither should you.”
Freeman: “If you’re a metal band that’s hoping to destroy a stage and incite a riot, that’s awesome, but you’ll never be welcome at most, if any, open mics in bars and restaurants. Save that for the basement show or the rock club. No death metal—unless it’s a killer acoustic version of it.”
Don’t overstay your welcome
If it’s three songs, then play three songs. If it’s 15 minutes, finish up in 13. All the same, have five songs ready. You never know when people are going to bail or the host is going to need to pad some time. If he or she says, “Give us another one,” be ready to do so. Plus, you never know when a certain song is just not going to feel right once you get onstage. Have another couple in your back pocket.
Banks: “Asking for extra time over the microphone is about the worst thing one can do at open mic. The host is responsible for making everyone happy—no small task, let me assure you—and that means lots of time management and diplomacy involving many more people than just yourself. Forcing the issue through the PA only makes you look foolish and gives the host little reason to want to go the extra mile for you in the future. ”
Eurich: “Be aware that there are different formats and timeframes for different open mics. For example, Roy Bennett and I conduct our open mics in order of arrival. So, if you need an early out, arrive early.”
But do stick around
Unless you have somewhere specific to be, hang around and watch other performers. Chances are most performers are going to be at a similar skill level as you. You can learn a lot by just watching them and maybe even more by sharing a beverage. Plenty of great musical partnerships have begun this way. And, since everyone is going to tell you how awesome you were, you need to be there to hear it. No points awarded for being the mysterious disappearing musician.
Banks: “The cross-pollination of ideas and influences may be the most under-appreciated benefit of open mic—for both beginners and seasoned players. Newer players do themselves a tremendous disservice by avoiding interacting with more experienced performers, who are typically happy to share their insights.”
Clauser: “Amateurs who do well are the ones who already have the talent but need to gain confidence, experience playing with others, and connections with their local music scene. I have seen a lot of music partnerships born of musicians meeting and collaborating at open mics.”
Eurich: “Do your best to connect with the audience, host and other musicians. Staying and listening to other performers helps everyone.”
You’re an amateur, but act professional
When you’re onstage, make NO apologies, even if you make a mistake. When you are offstage, make even fewer. Don’t tell the audience this is your first time doing this. They can tell. Don’t downplay your abilities, degrade your songwriting, or appear otherwise unworthy. You are in a strip mall coffee shop playing for free on a Wednesday night—you don’t need to make yourself any lower. Say “thank you” when you’re done, and thank the host. And it should not have to be said at this point, but, if you cannot get up and play without excessive amounts of liquid courage, you are not ready.
Banks: “Everybody makes mistakes on stage—everybody, at every level. Play through them, forget about it, and move on. Stopping to start over almost always does far more harm than good, and apologizing on stage is worse still.”
Frazier: “I’ve seen people show up late, tune their guitars while others are playing and not listen to anyone else, then play their own slot and promptly leave without even hanging around to hear the next performer. That sort of behavior definitely makes a statement.”
Learn from your mistakes, learn from your triumphs
So you bombed? No worries, plenty of people have. That’s what an open mic night is about: getting the failure out of the way early. There is nowhere to go but up, right? So, practice more. Play more. Think about partnering with someone. There is strength in numbers. Take note of what you did well and double down on it for next time. And make sure next time is not six months from now, that is, if you want to get good.
Banks: “The key is to listen to yourself as objectively and critically as possible and solicit input from those with more experience. Identify your strengths and weaknesses and focus on the former while working to improve the latter.”
Eurich: “It is important for our community to foster a welcoming environment at our open mics. Ultimately, as these people grow, it will help perpetuate live music.”
Freeman: “Recently, I saw a guy who used to whisper into the mic and stop in the middle of songs to apologize just tear up a version of Rolling Stone’s “Dead Flowers.” It was a huge step, and it made me very proud for him to see that happen.”
Looking for a positive, supportive and well-run open mic? Then catch the contributors to this story at the following places:
Mike Banks: HMAC Stage on Herr, 268 Herr St., Harrisburg, Wednesday, starts 7:30 p.m.
Justin Clauser: Bube’s Brewery, 102 N. Market St., Mount Joy, Thursday, starts 8:30 p.m.
Janelle Eurich: Holly Inn, 31 S. Baltimore Ave., Holly Springs, first and third Sunday, 7-11 p.m.
Jonathan Frazier: Cornerstone Coffeehouse, 2133 Market St., Camp Hill, second Wednesday, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.; Holly Inn, 31 S. Baltimore Ave., Holly Springs, second and fourth Sunday, 7-11 p.m.
Phil Freeman: The Cove, 1500 S. George St., York, Wednesday, 8 p.m. to 12 a.m.