If you’re a writer, poet, or musician, one of the best ways to get exposure and get involved with the artist community in your area is to perform at open mics. These are held any place from schools to homes to coffee shops to museums to performing art spaces. I participate in lots of open mics (about as many as I can find) all around San Diego. Recently, it’s come to my attention that not everyone knows the “rules” to good Open Mic etiquette. Especially if you’re new to the game, you might not have a mentor around to advise you.
Some tips to prepare for your first (and every) Open Mic.
-Make sure you’re comfortable with public speaking. This might seem obvious, but people often overestimate their abilities. I had two years in elementary school where we had to give presentations every two weeks. I hated doing it at the time, but those skills have become invaluable in my career and later life. If you’ve never done any public speaking, it’s a good idea to go to a class or workshop. Not only are these skills important for artists, but they’re important for everybody. You don’t get to be the CEO by being afraid to speak to people. For those of you with more training, keep these tips in mind: read clearly, audibly, and slowly. Enunciate your words. Try and make eye contact with your audience. If doesn’t have to be long, just a few seconds here and there, so you don’t stare directly at your paper. The one exception to this I’ve found is that sometimes when you’re performing on the stage, if you try and look out into the audience you’ll end up blinding yourself without those lights.
-Have a copy of what you want to present. Make sure it’s polished and as complete as it can be. If it’s on your computer, print out a copy to bring with you. Make sure it’s large enough that you can read it. If you’re going to be reading a couple different things, put them in the order you’d like to present them or at least print them on separate pages so you can switch it around without too much trouble. Consider not stapling. If you hand write your work in a notebook, copy it onto a fresh page. There’s no need to bring your whole notebook/binder/body of work. You don’t need to prove anything to anybody. And when you’re paging around, looking for what you want to read, it makes you look unprofessional and novice. And for God’s sake, don’t read off your iPod/iPad/cellphone/laptop.
-Practice. If public speaking is difficult for you, practice in front of the mirror. Practice in the car. Practice in front of your parents/friends/siblings/roommates/lovers. You don’t have to memorize it. It’s cool if you do (and impressive), but not a requirement. If you do memorize your work, bring a copy just in case. Even the best readers can choke when they step up to the microphone. Make sure you know how to pronounce every word you want to read (this is where the fresh copy comes in!). I’m the type of person who reads a lot and consequentially, I know and use a lot of words that I have no idea how to pronounce. I also have a slight lisp, so it’s nice to have the phonetics right there on the page. There are tons of pronunciation sites on the web and on the best ones, you can even pick the accent of the speaker! When I’m on the stage, I have enough to worry about without stumbling over my words.
The night of the Open Mic:
-Find the host or hosts and thank them. Open Mics aren’t money-making ventures. They are usually put on out of pocket, by people who love the arts and want to provide spaces for emerging artists to have their work heard. The hosts handle everything from selecting the venue to arranging it to publicizing it to handling the sound system and lighting. Be gracious! If it weren’t for them you wouldn’t even have an Open Mic to perform at!
-Be kind to the other readers. The general rule of thumb is to keep your piece under five minutes. This is where the timer comes in. Practice it a few times so you have a solid idea of how long it should take you. Once you’re a big shot and invited out to readings, you can ramble along for however you want. But when you’re just starting out you have to play by the rules. There’s nothing worse than listening to someone who doesn’t know when to stop. Keep it short and sweet. Stay off your phone/keep it on silent while the Open Mic is going on. Clap for the other performers and talk to them after if you really enjoyed their piece. You never know where you’ll make a new friend!
-When it’s your turn, stand up promptly. Smile and introduce yourself, the type of work and/or title if applicable. If there’s a short, funny anecdote behind it (30 seconds or less), add that it. Don’t say you’re nervous. Everyone’s nervous. When you’re finished reading, smile and thank the audience and your host. Accept praise graciously. You can be humble without putting yourself down. Just smile and say thank you. People hate an artist who self-deprecates as much as one who’s arrogant and conceited.
-Take a deep breath and enjoy!