A Primer on the Etiquette and Benefits of Participation
Is life returning to normal? As vaccination rates increase and Covid-related restrictions on daily activities recede, musicians may be optimistic about returning to a normality of enjoying live performances and performing themselves. As venues reopen, music fans will surely swarm to all kinds of shows, large and small, and including open-mic nights.
MakingMusicMag.com recently spoke with three open-mic hosts in the Syracuse, NY area about the unwritten “rules” at open-mic, and the benefits that participation offers.
Once a regular open-mic participant himself, guitarist Colin Aberdeen hosted open-mic nights for more than two decades. He observed that open-mic “can be the beginning of great things – where stars are born, great bands form from the organic elements of burgeoning musical communities, and life-long friendships are formed in the shared leap of faith into the musical chaos of the moment.”
Joe Henson, guitarist and songwriter, has hosted “Jopen Mic” for some 15 years and is looking forward to starting up again in June at a yet-to-be-disclosed new location. His philosophy is to keep things low-key and informal.
“When hosting I try to be friendly and accommodating,” he said. “I’m not really a rules guy so I keep it pretty loose.”
Joe keeps this approach at the forefront, particularly with the newer, more inexperienced players.
“I like people to be ready and in tune when it’s their time to go onstage, but if they’re not I just roll with it and maybe joke around with them in an attempt to loosen any tension or anxiety they may be experiencing,” he explained.
Colin’s advice is a little more direct – he likes his performers to be ready to go before they hit the stage, in terms of both attitude and gear.
“Have your act together and have a good attitude,” he urged. “Make sure your instruments are in tune and that you have a functioning power supply, batteries and cable if you require them. In light of Covid-19, it’s probably a good idea to bring your own mic if you plan to sing.”
Joanne Perry has hosted or co-hosted open-mic nights for a half-dozen years. A talented singer, songwriter and guitarist, Joanne’s focus is on creating a friendly environment for all performers, regardless of ability or experience. She noted that even professional performers experience stage fright, and that the best remedy for butterflies is lots of practice before getting onstage.
“Smile and do your best,” she said. “If you forget your lyrics or play a wrong note or chord, just take a breath and keep going. We all make mistakes. It’s okay!”
Joe may offer bits of friendly advice and encouragement here and there to the newer players if he thinks it may help them.
“I get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing people grow as musicians and performers,” Henson said.
Joe also noted that the more experienced players who have performed at Jopen Mic have been generally helpful and encouraging toward each other and the newer folks, adding to the overall open-mic experience.
“It’s always a pleasure to have some experienced players on the list who can entertain the audience,” Henson said.
Joanne noted that it’s fine for the more experienced players to offer advice to the newer players, but she advised, “Keep it positive. If you don’t care for what they’re playing, that’s okay. You don’t have to like it but keep it to yourself. We all start somewhere. It takes guts to get onstage. At the very least, clap for their effort.”
Joanne offered further guidance for all performers, both “rookies” and “veterans” – keep your focus on the music and stick to the number of songs or time period that you are allowed.
“Don’t be a hog with your time on stage,” she said. “We don’t need to hear what the weather was like that day [on which you wrote your song] or your devotion to the band who performed [the song you’re covering] first. This is not your personal show.”
Colin offered a similar take on performers’ sets: “Keep your set simple and tight. Be conscious of time in terms of setting up, set time, and getting off the stage as swiftly as possible to allow the host to get the next act up and running.”
Regarding set content, Joanne advises performers with “off-color” songs in their repertoire to check with the host to see that such risqué content will be allowed.
Concerning the audience, Joe said he’s been very lucky over the years, noting that the folks at Jopen Mic are “almost always respectful and attentive. Of course, people are going to want to talk, so I keep the volume down so they don’t have to shout while conversing.”
Joanne takes a different approach, encouraging people who want to converse to take their conversations outside so as not to compete with the performers.
“Someone just like you is onstage and nervous,” she said. “So please keep the chatter down. Be respectful of others as you would like others to be to you.”
Joanne points out that performers should be active audience members.
“Open-mic is really a community event – the audience is as much a part of the experience as the players,” she said. “If possible, stick around. Everyone benefits when we get to know one another a little.”
“Open-mic is all about listening to each other,” Colin agreed. “If the host and the venue can cultivate a culture of mutual interest and respect, it’s going to be fun and successful. It’s not only your opportunity to play, it’s your opportunity to hear others play. When we invest that time and energy in one another we nurture the culture of listening, and that is where and when the magic happens, and we learn from each other. I learned from beginners throughout my time as a host. And when I was doing it right, they exceeded my successes with their own.”
Open-mic events are generally held in venues that are in business to make money. Joanne suggests that in return for the venue providing space and opportunity, performers might spend dollar or two. “Buy something, anything,” she urged. “If you can, buy a meal. If you’re not a drinker, buy a soda, or buy the host a beer. At least put a buck in the venue’s tip jar.”
Open-mic is a great vehicle for meeting new musicians and friends. Joe remembers one person in particular, Marge Nolan, who became a regular fan, dancer and performer at Jopen Mic. She was a beloved regular at many other musical events throughout the Syracuse area and always offered encouragement and support to all performers. She unfortunately passed away in August 2019.
“I’ve met a lot of people and made many friends,” Joe said. “The local legend, Marge, was at Jopen Mic almost every Tuesday. I have fond memories of her yarns about growing up in NYC, her wonderful laugh and her beautiful singing voice. I miss her spirit as was thankful for the opportunity to get to know her. If I hadn’t been hosting Jopen Mic I’d have likely missed out on that experience.”
Colin agrees. While he no longer actively hosts, he still relishes “an incredible experience and opportunity which allowed me to meet all ranges of musicians from absolute beginners to literally world-famous players and bands. I learned something new every time.”
Making Music encourages our readers to get out and offer your support to local musicians and local venues!