So You Want to Be a Performing Singer-Songwriter: Part 1 Essay
Okay, so you can sing, and you’ve written a few songs. You think they’re pretty good–your friends and family agree. You love singing and playing, but have only played for friends or family or your immediate community. You’re thinking you might like to take your babies out into the world and let other people hear them. An Open Mic is a great place to start.
Take a look in your local papers for Open Mics, usually listed in the local music calendar section. If you don’t find many listed, consider calling around to local coffeehouses and other acoustic venues, as well, which may not advertise but might offer Open Mics. Choose two or three and go check them out–without performing. Just be an audience member the first time so you can concentrate on feeling out the space and people, without being distracted by fear and nerves.
Did one of the Open Mics feel right to you? Friendly, supportive, anyone actually listening in the audience? Were there beginners performing, many first-timers? Some Open Mics are anything-goes anyone-can-sign-up and others you’ll find are frequented by more seasoned musicians. Whatever feels right to you is what’s important.
Most of the time at Open Mics the audience will consist of other people signed up to perform, and their friends. If it’s not a competitive crowd, it can be a lot of fun to network and support each other. And the people who actually run the open mics are often the nicest, most supportive people you’ll ever meet. They’re often doing it for free and really love music and helping independent artists. On the other hand, they could be frustrated performers with little patience or really an interest in anyone else but themselves, and in that case, find another Open Mic.
Keep in mind that the first time you perform your own material in front of strangers you’ll probably be incredibly nervous and you’ll probably be harder on yourself than anyone else in the room. Remember that! Just be sure that when you do perform, you try to have as much fun as possible–the audience will have fun with you!
So you’ve checked out the Open Mics that interest you and decided on at least one you’d like to try. You go home and think about it, feel nervous about it, decide yes you will, no you won’t, yes I can, no I can’t–she loves me! Okay, you’ll do it.
Next step: Choose what you think are your two very best songs. Often you’re allowed time for two songs, but sometimes only one. Have at least two prepared; three in case you get really nervous and know you won’t be able to hit the high notes on that one song that’s really just a little out of your range but it’s your favorite and you want to play it. And practice, practice, practice, ’til you’re performing them like a pro in your dreams.
When the night arrives, before you pack up, try this little tip I learned from a voice acting coach I studied with: eating a green granny smith apple helps clear the phlemn from your throat. I don’t know exactly how it works, but it does.(Any scientists out there?)
Before you walk out the door for your first Open Mic experience, here are a few things you might want to check out your list:
- Your GUITAR (well, duh, but I know people who have grabbed their case, only to arrive and find it empty, having forgotten to check and make sure the guitar was actually IN it–some guitar cases are heavy by themselves, so it’s an easier mistake than you think).
- Your TUNER. If you have perfect pitch, nevermind, but if you’re like most of us and you don’t, have no shame about using these handy digital lifesavers. Do practice tuning by ear though, so you’re not completely dependent on them if the batteries die or other unforseen problems arise.
- Your CHEAT SHEET of your lyrics and chords if you think you just can’t perform without them in front of you, or if you know when you get nervous, everything you’ve ever known and learned falls right out of your head. Just bring them, you never know.
- Your CAPO and PICKS, if you use either.
- A pack of EXTRA STRINGS, just in case that horrifying thing happens the first time you play: a broken string! Practice changing your strings so it’s not a catastrophe if it does happen, and it will at some point. Don’t panic. It takes time to learn how to change strings smoothly and properly. I like this video that takes you step-by-step through the tuning process with some extra pointers. (https://youtu.be/QmzNnzu1zLI). When I started out, the only way you could learn was to take a lesson, or hang out with better musicians and sneak a glance or humbly ask for a pointer–only to discover that everyone does it differently. Now you can access a myriad of videos and decide which way works best for you. Take every opportunity to build up your confidence any way you can. Feeling confident about changing your strings will help. I can almost guarantee you WILL need to change your strings in front of an audience at some point in time if you follow the performing songwriter path.
- A full water bottle or tea in a travel mug is a great addition, as are lozenges to suck on when your throat gets dry from the first time jitters.
- Your PHONE. Yes, another duh, but when you’re nervous, probably racing out the door, it happens. Be sure and have someone take a picture of you playing your first song in public. Cheesy, I know, but trust me, later, looking back, you’ll be glad you did. Because there’s a crazy, wonderful, frustrating, challenging, joyful, exhausting, exhilarating journey in front of you, so be sure and document it. And get plenty of rest NOW while you can!
And … then there’s your outfit. Wear clothes you’re completely comfortable in, that reflect your personality. Don’t add to your stress level by wearing those fabulous 2 inch spiked-heel pumps you’ve never walked in before tonight, or those uber tight jeans. Yes, gents, you may have a lovely package, but you want the audience to listen to your SONG not stare at your crotch. Well, then again, whatever it takes to get someone to pay attention, aye? My point: be comfortable in your clothes and appearance so you can concentrate on your performance–and the audience can too.
AFTER THE OPEN MICS
I sang my first original tune out in public with my first guitar when I was 17 years old, using a fake ID to get into the bar. That was quite a few years back when I first started down the performing songwriter path. Two CDs and many performances later, I can tell you it’s a great learning experience filled with both difficult and amazing moments, and it’s one of the most challenging journeys you could possibly choose. It’s such a thrill like no other to perform your original material, sing it out strong to a room full of receptive listeners. When I’m performing, I feel like there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than right there doing just that. My mind is connected to my heart and the audience and the rhythm and pulse and soul of life. There’s nothing like it when it all comes together. That’s what’s kept me performing all my life (certainly not the money–we’ll get to that later). There’s really nothing like it.
If that’s how you feel, too, after performing at open mics and writing what you believe are the best songs you can write, it’s time to branch out. I found two or three paths that eventually led to more gigs, and were great ways to step into a bigger spotlight–without having to beg and/or pay people to come see you! (Well, you might have to do that on occasion, too, but better not to start out that way.)
First, networking is key. Meeting other musicians who are more established than you (meaning, not just starting out) and performing somewhat regularly to their own group of fans can lead to an opening spot at their next gig, if they like your material and you. Of course, during this pandemic this means live online gigs through various platforms. But in general, an opening act might be asked to play two or three songs, or a full 20-30 minute set. I suggest learning some interesting cover tunes that fit your musical style if you need to fill out your playlist (add to your original tunes, if you haven’t yet written enough that are up to par). I’m not talking opening up for some major national act, of course, just a more established singer-songwriter, or a trio or group that has a similar sound to your music and a local fanbase of some kind.
Another good way to join the scene is to network with local venues and musicians who play or produce Songwriters-in-the-Round type nights. These gigs usually spotlight three or four singer-songwriters who take turns playing songs. You may get to play as few as three songs, or as many as five or six, depending on the number of performers and how long the night goes. They’ll want to hear your music first, so you’ll need to consider recording three or four of your songs at some point. Doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just a basic home studio recording of you playing live is fine, if the sound quality is good. You want a clear and clean recording that showcases your best performing effort, not something with a million overdubs and a full rock band or orchestra (unless you’re bringing them with you). Again, network with other musicians–I guarantee one or more of them have a simple home recording studio set-up. A decent mike, a not too live space (meaning the sound doesn’t go bouncing off the walls and floors), a decent computer, convert to an mp3 and you’re on your way.
There’s also a burgeoning House Concert circuit (pre and post pandemic) which branches out across the United States. Look into local house concerts and attend some. Sometimes they’re advertised in local newspapers, but more often they’re word-of-mouth or found online. Introduce yourself to the host/s and let them know you’re a performing singer-songwriter, too. Ask how you can help out, as well. House concerts are a big production to host, and most often, there is no pay involved (for the hosts, though sometimes money is collected at the door and split among that night’s performers–be sure and find out how they work it). People who sponsor house concerts are often huge music fans and performers themselves, with passion and heart, who wish to create a supportive community for performing songwriters to play their material, and try out new songs. They may be especially receptive to new artists. Share your passion and let the best of you shine when networking. Always attend as an audience member first to see if it’s a place you feel comfortable.
Listen closely to what each venue or host requires each artist to submit for consideration: A headshot photo? An online video or audio clip? Can you submit your songs and information digitally online via email or provide a link to your website (if you have one–a must these days)? Do they require a video? Start simple if you can. Know what’s required and go with the easiest-to-get gigs first.
MONEY? WHAT MONEY?
And here we come to the blinding truth: singer-songwriters often make no money at all playing gigs, especially at first. Just like bands, venues often approach performers with the idea that you should be grateful for the opportunity to play, and that should be enough. Some even will require that you bring in X number of people in order to perform. It’s up to you which gigs you’re willing to take. Just know that for quite awhile, you may not make a penny, or might actually spend much more than you make. It’s important that you’re not in denial about this. It takes time to develop your material, create a buzz about yourself and your music, and develop a fanbase. There is some money to be made, often through playing house concerts or private parties, or even farmer’s markets, but it’s usually playing for tips, so keep that in mind. You really must love the process, love your material, and love performing more than anything else. It’s what will keep you out there and keep it fun.
And with that, we end here, with you having played your first Open Mics and maybe moved on to repeat performances and new venues. I’ll try and whip up the next post soon, touching on capos and accessories and simple singer-songwriter sound systems (do I get points for all that alliteration). Until then, write, practice, perform! And stay well ~