Over 12 years ago I used to host and promote Open mics in several different venues and now more recently I am performing at them to practice the craft of performing song.
I have noticed that what was true then is the same now and I would like to share with you what I consider to be good things to remember to make your performance stand out.
OK before we get into this, I assuming at this point that you have a competent act whether you're a Singer/songwriter, band, duo, poet or other creative, entertaining turn.
Whilst this is broadly aimed at Singer/Songwriters the same principles can be applied to any act really.
1. What's the Point? - “Nothing is more creative than a brilliant mind with a purpose.” Dan Brown
This is the first and most important question you need to ask yourself before going to the time, trouble and expense of getting yourself and your equipment to an open Mic night.
Be honest, if you're just going to 'Have a go and see what happens' then you are likely to have a disappointing experience. It's much more rewarding to use the opportunity to perform to either practice a new song, a new set of songs, a new instrument, promote your CD/Download/gig/website, find other musicians to form a band with, sign up some new fans or likely a combination of some or all of these things but if you have an intent behind your performance then you will feel much more satisfied once you have achieved that at the end of the night, any thing else that happens like gaining new fans or getting offered another gig by the promoter is a bonus!
2. The 5 P's
“All things are ready, if our mind be so.” - Shakespeare
What are they? Well they have a saying in the armed forces that Preparation Prevents, Piss Poor Performance and with any creative endevour you will be challenged to push yourself to be the best you can be and that needs a game plan and preparation.
3. Plan your set-
'Fail to plan, plan to fail' Abraham Lincoln
At most open mic events you will get around 20 mins so that means on average 5 songs, sometimes more, sometimes less. You can of course call or drop in before hand to ask about this but generally if you prepare 5 then you can always add a Bonus track in case or just drop one if you are given less time. When you do this actually time yourself playing the set with natural breaks in between songs so you know almost exactly the set length time you have, you might be surprised to find that 5 songs for you might be 30 mins+ or only 10.
The next thing to do is choose what type of songs you are going to play, now this depends on what the point is (back to point 1) If you are going to try out new material then it's also a good idea to put in a few songs that you are very comfortable playing so that you can get warmed up and settled into your performance before attempting the newer material, this also allows you to judge the room as well and you can measure what the response might be.
Example, you might find that on the night you're playing that the atmosphere is very laidback and the punters are all dining and relaxing so you're new screamcore tune might not get the best reaction and of course the opposite is true, a very rowdy atmosphere might not appreciate your delicate lullaby you have just written, however this isn't to say you shouldn't do it, just don't expect wild applause or even any applause.
So a good suggestion 3 solid songs that you know well and are confident and comfortable playing and 2 that are quite new.
Then think about the transition of the songs, in other words, do they flow well together.
Let's say you start with an up neat Rock n Roll song to grab people's attention and then the next song is a ballad, then followed by another foot stomper, this is going to jar your audience and they may well lose interest.
It's far better to follow an upbeat track by one that's up tempo but not as intense, then another one slightly less, then play the ballad, then bring it up slightly for the last track. This way the audience has a chance to follow the set and their attention will be on you.
Another popular technique is to start off with a cover version that isn't obvious but fairly recognisable, this will give the audience something familiar to latch their ear to and they're much more likely to listen to your own material if they can see you can deliver an familiar song well.
Something that also works well is listen to the previous acts last song, if it's a slow ballad, then make your first song and upbeat song to contrast and of course the opposite works just as well.
4. Who are you? -
'It's not who you know, it's who knows YOU!' - Brian Tracy
One of my personal bugbears is performers who don't announce who they are. Yes, the host may well introduce you but you should also take responsibility and make sure that you at least Top and tail your set, by that I mean announce your name clearly at the beginning of your set or just after your first song can be nicely effective and again, clearly at the end. I personally like to remind people in the middle of the set as well as people leaving or just arriving will know who you are as well.
These days it's also good to double up your introduction with a reminder of where they can find out more about you so adding your facebook link or website is a good way of engaging with the audience.
You could go a step further and ask people to go on your facebook site and upload a comment whilst your playing and you'll reward the best comment afterwards with a free CD or request or something that captures peoples attention.
5. Deliver the performance -
'My purpose of performing is to communicate the joy I experience of living' - John Denver
Anyone can sing a song but delivering a song is different.
This is the part that you are preparing for, the bit where everything is in place and you can now centre your attention and focus your energy on delivering your song to the audience, to serve them your song on a silver platter, to use your whole being to communicate the song to them so they not only hear it but feel it.
I hear a lot of talented singers and songwriters at open mic's that really don't do their songs justice, there's a lack of conviction, humility and presence in their delivery, it's like they are just playing at home to themselves and everyone else can just be damned.
Stage craft and performance is just too huge a subject to be covered in one post but it all boils down really to communicating emotions to an audience.
If the song is happy then be happy playing it smile, laugh , move around, if it's a sad break up song, then be heartbroken when you're performing it, be angry and hurt.
Just check this out for a great example how to deliver a song http://youtu.be/iUiTQvT0W_0
It's also good to get eye contact with your audience, a good tip here is to pick out 3 different people, one on the left, one in the middle and one on the left and keep coming back to them, look into their eyes and sing the song to them, make them feel your intent.
When you're playing an instrumental part of a song then back off from the mic and 'get into' the music, if you're a vocalist then moving around the stage is a great way of keeping the audience engaged, just look at performers like Freddy Mercury and Axl Rose, they are masters at stage movement, don't copy them but look at how you can incorporate your own moves into your performance.
So, now you have some pointers to developing your stage presence.
Use open mic nights to try these things out, have fun with it, try things out, experiment, enjoy yourself and the audience will no doubt enjoy it too.