journalist, musician, guitar geek

Opening up to open mic

Michael Brown faces his fear and goes it alone in front of an oblivious audience…

I’ve never been able to just pick up a microphone and sing. It’s a level of confidence that has eluded me, and no amount of singing lessons or live performances with numerous bands has changed that. So to play an open mic night, alone and unaccompanied, has long been my idea of fear itself, yet here I was, onstage, poised to open my mouth.

Despite my ill-advised attempt, open mic is alive and well, even though 2011 saw pop albums outsell rock records for the first time in seven years. In fact, with the new Live Music Bill receiving Royal Assent and Open Mic UK competition reaching 10,000 participants per year, open mic nights look set to only grow in popularity.

Stepping into the spotlight

If I was to truly label myself a musician and a journalist, I had to investigate this phenomenon. However, in order to minimise my nervousness and avoid offending too many eardrums, I also had to play an incredibly cunning game. As I entered The North Star pub, the unlucky recipient of my acoustic set, I quietly observed the situation. My surroundings were elegantly decorated, spacious and unnervingly well lit: hardly suitable for an onstage emotional disembowelling.

To get the insider info, I sought out Anthony Lee Wickham, the evening’s organiser and performer in his own right, and struck up a conversation. When asked about the evening’s popularity, Anthony informed me that, while Christmas had been incredibly busy, things had been fairly quiet this year. Apparently, however, the night did tend to pick up at 10 o’clock. Would I like to wait for a larger audience? “Oh,” I replied, casually. “I’m sure I’ll be finished before then.”

Onstage and alone

Considering the intense nerves I was experiencing, I wondered why Anthony thought performers and audiences still flocked to open mic nights. “It’s the heartbeat of any musical scene,” he said. “If anyone wants to join a band or get gigs, it’s a great networking system.”

I didn’t want to join a band. I already play guitar in a trio and, following some heated debates, no longer provide vocal accompaniment. This history, combined with weeks of apprehension, undoubtedly contributed to my feelings of pure, unadulterated fear.

Fortunately, I had formulated a game plan. Anthony would go on first to warm up the stage, and I would follow in the enviable second place slot. Unfortunately, my organiser friend turned out to be pretty bloody impressive, his feelgood medley of Bill Withers’s Lovely Day into Estelle’s American Boy providing a level of entertainment my 90s acoustic dirges could never hope to match.

Still, Anthony had left the stage: this was my moment. Grabbing my battered acoustic guitar, I clambered onto the platform and tuned up. While the stage was in the centre of the pub, its position was such that none of the surrounding tables faced the performer. Combine this with the apparently endlessly engaging conversations being held around me and I was feeling pretty confident. Confident that if I made a mistake, nobody would notice and, if they did, they simply wouldn’t care.

Like my picking hand, the open mic experience was a bit of a blur

Sitting in that chair, time seemed to stand still, although I’m not entirely sure whether anybody was watching during this period as I spent most of it with eyes tightly shut behind glasses. My set consisted of one original and three covers, all of which I’d practised religiously, much to my housemates’ annoyance. Yet, despite my hard work, a number of things went wrong. So, in reflecting on my experience, I have devised three open mic tips, compiled from memories of the evening and a recording made in a fit of masochistic archival madness.

1. Introduce yourself

I kept very quiet during my set, only apologising for playing depressing material and awkwardly blurting out “thank you” before anyone was even aware I’d finished a song. In all the excitement I forgot to mention my name, which I feel would have endeared me to the audience and resulted in a wider appreciation of my music. Maybe. Instead, I received a rally of support from Anthony as I stumbled offstage. “Give it up for Michael; that was his first open mic!” he whooped. Cue another round of muted applause.

2. Don’t forget the first line of your opening song

At ease and relieved post-performance

Although I found learning lyrics one of the more difficult aspects of the open mic process, I felt confident that, having chosen songs with repetitive or simple rhymes, the words would leap into my head just before I opened my mouth. This did not happen. The opening vocal of Alice in Chains’s Nutshell may be an elongated “ooh”, yes, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what came next. In hindsight, I don’t think singing “mah-boom-pa-ta-LIES” made for a good first impression.

3. Alcohol helps with nerves… but not with vocals

I’ve never been one to sing the praises of alcohol in any shape or form, merely viewing it as a way of facilitating otherwise awkward conversation. However, when it came to getting up onstage and singing in public, I think a couple of pints helped tremendously, but may have also contributed to my oft-flattened vocals.


An audible record of my own composition, CTO, recorded right in the heart of the action (i.e. in amongst the highly conversational audience)

Once my set had been forgotten, I attempted to glean some perspectives from other open mic warriors. “It’s a performance opportunity really,” said middle-aged ukulele whiz Nick Canham. “You only get better if you keep performing, and this is the perfect way to do that.” Meanwhile, a young man who called himself “The Skunk-Boy Project” had this to share. “It’s great to play a set where you don’t feel much pressure,” he explained. “I love playing whether people are listening or not.”

Maybe after facing my fear, I too could relate to this sentiment. Certainly, there was a post-set buzz, but this was more likely due to immense relief rather than self-satisfaction. Would I do it again? Perhaps. The vocal barrier has been broken and that feeling of relief was not unpleasant. But, for now, I think I love playing more when nobody’s listening: the indifference is truly liberating.

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