So…you want to do an open mic night

Open mic nights are essential for the arts to develop. It’s where people find their voice, try out new things, and make the first step on that infinitely long ladder marked ’emerging artist’.

However, they’re also a place where you might find yourself picking things up as you go along. You’re often going in with just you, your words and no other knowledge.

Here then is a list of things that you should know about when you go to your first open mic. If there’s anything missing please mention it in the comments.

1. Actually go to some open mics first.

Open mics may all have similar formats but they all have different characters. Find the ones that feel right to you, and consider it from an audience perspective. This will help inform your performance and technique.

It will also help you deal with the drinking culture that exists at poetry nights. Often they’re in pubs or BYOB events, and your tolerance is something only you can know. No matter how nervous you get, it’s best not to get pissed before you go on stage.

2. Getting a slot may take time

Search engines or asking friends for advice should present you with some of the open mics in your area. Usually they will put out a request for open mic-ers in the weeks before hand, and ask people to email in requests.

It is possible that they will get more requests than there are slots, so you may not get a place straight away but you should get first rejection for the next event. There may also be dropouts on the night, so you might get put on a reserve list for when this happens.

3. Practice beforehand

Before you go, make sure you practice your pieces. This helps your confidence and gives you a sense of how long your pieces are.

Time them to make sure they don’t go over the limit (this should be given to you in advance). Remember to include patter in your timings. If the only way to finish the pieces is to rush through them, cut one so you can do it properly. If If you’re going over time, either cut the number of pieces you’re reading or perform something else instead.

You want people to like your work, so don’t wang on either really fast or for too long and lose any goodwill you might have gained.

Don’t worry about making a mistake: bear in mind only you know what your poem should sound like, so if you do make a mistake only you will notice. Just continue with the poem rather than trying to go back and fix your mistake.

4. Reading from paper

Reading from paper is fine, if that’s how you prefer to perform. Also it’s likely to be a new piece you’re reading so you’re forgiven for not knowing it off by heart yet.

However, I would recommend that you do not read from individual sheets of paper held in your hand, and instead use a notebook or pad. This is because you’re probably going to be nervous when performing, and if you’re holding sheets of paper they will shake with your nerves. When you notice this it can make you more nervous. Reading from a notepad (with the words written in pencil initially so they’re easier to edit) means it’s much less obvious when you’re nervous as there’s no rustling noise and so this cyclical problem of nerves doesn’t occur.

5. Patter

If you’re nervous, just concentrate on greeting the audience and saying what the name of your poem is. That’s all they need to know. Try to practice this along with the poems beforehand. As you get more confident from repeated performances you’ll get better at talking to the audience (and indeed you will repeat the same patter between poems), but when you’ve got a time limit it’s best not to ramble.

Never self-deprecate. 

6. The microphone

If there is a microphone, use it. Do not assume everyone in the audience is able to hear you without your voice being amplified.

Before we get to the actual microphone, there’s the stand to consider. Microphone stands are adjustable, usually there’s a locking mechanism halfway down the pole which can be loosened when spun to the left or tightened when spun to the right (aka ‘righty tighty, lefty loosy’). If the mic isn’t at the same height as your mouth when you stand normally, loosen this and raise/lower the pole accordingly, then tighten it.

You want the mic to be at mouth height, and you want to speak into it directly, so don’t move around too much or else the sound quality fluctuates. Don’t put your mouth right up to the mic, a few inches away is fine. If you’re speaking directly into it your voice will get picked up.

7. How to end a poem

It isn’t usually that clear when a poem has finished. A simple nod and a ‘thank you’ is a good way of marking this.

Other ways to mark the end use visual clues such as stepping backwards from the mic. If you’re reading from a notepad, you can close it to signal that you’ve finished.

8. Do not fuck off after you’ve finished your slot

If you have no urgent business to attend to, stay and watch the other performers. Obviously it’s polite to do so, but you might actually learn something/be inspired/enjoy it. Plus no one will think you are a dick.

NB. if you are a dick, stop being a dick.

9. You will get feedback, just not necessarily in detail

You always get feedback at open mic nights. You can see the audience, you can hear how they’re reacting to your work, you can gauge the weariness of their applause. If you’re doing a comedic piece, then it’s a lot easier to tell if that’s worked. For anything that isn’t designed to evoke laughter it’s a bit harder to tell.

You will probably not get more detailed feedback than this, though some nights do encourage it.

10. This is where you can fail

The whole point of open mic nights is to try things out. Some of them will not work. This is fine. This is how you find out which things you’ve written are good. If you get offered a feature slot you should know which of your pieces people like from doing open mic nights.

Do not use feature slots to try out lots of new material, that’s what the open mic nights are there for.

With thanks to Matt McDonald, Lloyd Robinson, Finola Scott, Alistair Mackey, David Paton, Paul Case, Gavin Cruickshank, Dave Lee Morgan, and David Macpherson.


3 thoughts on “So…you want to do an open mic night

  1. This is great advice for anyone considering an open-mike, particularly about staying relatively sober. I’ve seen even professional performers come on stage half-cut and it did not leave a good impression.


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