Open Mics: Trevor’s Top 10 Tips

By: Trevor Burnett

So you wanna be a rockstar? Get in line, give up. That’s what they tell ya. You keep on, practice hard every night and day, start writing your own songs. You’re ready to hit the stage. You check out AudioBarn and find the perfect venue. You sign up, they call your name. Here’s how to make your first performances count and avoid blowing it, packing up your instrument, and carrying on with that accounting degree (no offence to accountants, thank you for keeping my music earnings tax free).

1. Breathe, Relax, Take a Moment

Here it is, the moment you’ve been waiting for all day, all week, maybe your whole life: on stage, ready to shine. Tune up before you hit the stage. Whether they give you 5 minutes or 20, it’s gonna pass in a flash (unless you start flailing and freak out, but you won’t, you’re a star). Before jumping into your set ground yourself. Develop a ritual you can repeat every time you gig. I like to play barefoot, so when I take off my shoes I remind myself, “It’s my turn to play, don’t feel rushed.” Adjust the guitar strap, say a mantra, think of your mum… Whatever it is, this moment is yours. Embrace it.

2. Don’t Tell Us It’s Your First Time

Maybe you arrived with some friends who want to show moral support (lucky!), or perhaps you’re on your own trying to make quick friends in the audience before you psyche yourself entirely (likely). Whatever the case, to the crowd, you’re a no name just like everyone else who isn’t a regular or a local celebrity. If you’ve told the host that it’s your first time and they mention it, great, the crowd’s been warned and we’re gonna hoot and holler whether you nail or flail it. Odds are once you start singing we’re going to know you’re new to this, or you’re going to blow everyone away and we’ll assume you’re someone famous visiting from another city. Point being the audience is going to act accordingly: we’ll support you by clapping and hollering if you need it and we’ll lose our marbles if you kill it.

3. Feel the Crowd

You’re going to be playing in cafes, bars, and festivals for old people and youngens alike… every venue has its crowd and it’s worth taking the time to feel them out before your set. There’s no reason to play Ramstein’s Du Hast to a bunch of folk-loving 70 year olds, the same way a bunch of punk kids aren’t going to want to sit through Neil Young’s Heart of Gold. Also consider the act that played before you. What kind of a vibe did they leave everyone in, where do you plan to take them on your journey?

Photo: Sliman, Lea Keeley & Trevor Burnett at Brutopia Open Mic

Photographed by audiobarn_mtl

4. Originals vs Covers

I’m an original guy through and through. I was stubborn when I learnt guitar. That’s not to say there aren’t good covers out there. But before you sing Under the Bridge, Creep, or Wonderwall, please, and here I think I speak for most performers, PLEASE consider how many times the crowd has heard the song before. If you’re going to play a cover, pick something “rare” like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a song everyone will remember but never think of hearing at an open mic.

And here’s where it gets really fun: Originals. As my buddy T-Rav from The Party on High Street explained: when you play an original song for a crowd it’s the first and possibly only time those people will ever hear it. Imagine the power when something you wrote connects with someone in the crowd. You might make a fan, or better yet, a friend. Never feel ashamed for something that came from the heart. All of the musicians I know would rather hear a mediocre original and learn about the performer than hear someone do a spot-on cover of Hotel California.

A bonus when you play originals: no one will notice if you mess up! Which brings us to:

5. Never Apologize (And This is Tip #1)

This one applies to life as much as it does for open mic (unless you’ve actually done something wrong). All too often first-time performers apologize to the crowd about their “lack of” talent, mistakes they made while playing, for being awkward… Chill. Take a step back: you’re on stage, singing your heart out, for us, the audience. You don’t owe us anything, you’re the one giving. And most of the time no ones paying enough attention to notice the little mistakes you might make. When you start performing it’s more of a head game than a reflection of your talent. Master your thoughts so you can focus on the magic of performance.

6. Make Eye Contact With the Crowd

It’s a real shame when someone’s got their eyes closed and end up singing next to the mic instead of into it. This isn’t to say you can’t close your eyes at all…you’ll find it happens naturally when you try to hit high notes or scream. But don’t blot out the venue or get lost in your performance by clamping your eyes shut or staring at your feet. There’s something to be said for the old adage, “the eyes are the gateway to the soul”. As a member in the crowd, it’s nice to connect eye-to-eye with an artist when they perform. Otherwise we’re watching someone actively meditate in their own remote world. We want to be there with you.

Also, if you’ve got your eyes closed, how are you gonna notice the cuties in the audience giving you googly eyes?

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7. In Between Songs: Talking & Drinking

Now this one’s a separate skill that develops over time and what eventually sets a performer apart from a musician. By no means do you have to talk between songs, but it’s cool and fun to build rapport with the audience. It helps people get to know you a bit more and brings them into your set.

Talk about your songs a bit, what inspired them, a quirky thought, but stay away from giving us your life story or losing yourself in a monologue about shopping for groceries. Each person has their unique dialogue and you’ll find yours eventually.

Another T-Rav tip: If you need to rehydrate or refuel on liquid courage, sip your drink when you finish your song and everyone’s clapping. Otherwise you’ll create an awkward silence between speaking and getting back to the music. Keep in mind carbonated drinks might make you burp while you sing.

Photo: Trevor Burnett at Mariposa Open Mic

Photographed by Linda Rutenberg

8. Don’t Ask People to Quiet Down and Never Heckle the Crowd

Just because you’ve been waiting all day to perform doesn’t mean anyone will necessarily care. Ideally it’s a respectable joint where people come for the music as much as the scene, but it’s likely they’re there to be social with friends and you’re an extra. Don’t ask the crowd to quiet down or give them a hard time if they don’t like your stuff. It’s a terrible habit to get into. Let the host deal with the audience. If it’s really a terrible venue, there’s no need to go back. There are plenty of places I’ve played at that I have no intent of rushing back to.

9. Make a Night Out of It: Learn from Others, Emulate What You Like

After your set don’t just pack up and head out. Honing your craft is part one of open mics. Part two is learning and developing it by assimilating traits you see in other musicians. If it’s your first time performing you’re probably not the best one there, so learn from who is. What sets apart an act that you really like from someone clanging away that you can’t wait to finish? Don’t hesitate to approach performers, congratulate them, thank them for a good show, and ask for some advice or just questions in general. Musicians that are worth it will share time and knowledge with a budding artist.

10. Don’t Compare

Everyone’s different, and that’s what makes us wonderful. Most of my work is based on rhythmic strumming, so when I watch John Petronko fingerpick with all five digits I’m left in a mesmerized state of awe. I once approached him after a show to tell him how incredible he is, and how one day I hope I’m good enough to play properly like him. He gave me an honest scold, reminding me that I have my own unique style that works well with how I sing. If we all play the same way, we all sound the same, and that’s no fun for anyone, especially the crowd. Keep playing and you’ll continue to grow and develop your sound. You’ll incorporate what you need into your own style, so don’t worry if you don’t sound funky when you’re playing the blues just yet. Be you, and love what you do.

. . .

Those are my top ten tips. I wrote them out sequentially in order of performance, but you can choose which tips are the most important to you. I hope you enjoy them, and more so hope to see you at an open mic someday. When I’m in town you can find me at Brutopia most Sunday nights. And if I’m not there, say hello to who is, and tell them Trev sent ya!

About the author: Trevor Burnett

Trevor Burnett is a retired world traveller, performing musician, who’s written a couple of books and loves to garden. Yup, he’s been busy. If you’d like to hear his music, see his art, or contact him, head on over to Pursuing your dreams is a hard road with many obstacles, but every step forward is worth the effort. Whether you want to be a doctor or a painter, success comes with hard work and rewarding breaks. So enjoy yourself and the journey. You’ll arrive at your goals before you know it, and when you do, there will be new challenges waiting for you to conquer

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