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I've recently taken to attending open mic nights to try and get some much needed experience playing in front of an audience. I've currently got two performances under by belt and I realize I have a long way to go before I feel comfortable playing my own songs in front of other people. I play guitar and sing.

I was always raised to believe that you should have your performance nailed down before you get on stage. If you're getting up on stage in front of strangers and performing, you should know your piece forwards, backwards, and inside out to make sure that you give a good performance. It will take a ton of time, but it's worth it to avoid making sloppy mistakes in front of others.

I still firmly believe this is a good way to handle performances. However, I'm wondering if this kind of outlook is useful for weekly Open Mic at a local coffee house. On one hand, the amount of time it takes for me to compose, write, research, play, and cement two interesting songs to my personal satisfaction is close to a month and that means I'm missing about four potentially educational performances. On the other hand, performing without the proper practice might lead to generally sloppy output and a lower bar for quality. On yet another hand, I'm so nervous playing around others that my playing suffers as a result anyway, regardless of the hours of practice.

Should I play far fewer nights and try for cemented pieces, or play more frequently with less practice but get more experience in front of others?

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    I would say "get the experience." That's the best way to learn to survive "disasters" which the audience might not even notice, unless you make it obvious to them that something is wrong. You can always do cover versions if you don't have enough of your own material. "Real pros" are quite capable of sight reading in front of a paying audience, when they need to - you can't learn how to get away with that by locking yourself away and perfecting a performance of something in private. – user19146 Jul 23 '17 at 5:49
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    Can't you play some covers also or instead? And maybe look at forming a band to help with the nerves (it's easier to share the stress). – Todd Wilcox Jul 23 '17 at 6:02
  • @ToddWilcox - and - there's always someone else to take the blame... – Tim Jul 23 '17 at 17:36
  • You should perfect any song you play before you play it period, you don't insult your audience by playing music you don't know well. – Neil Meyer Jul 24 '17 at 11:33
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    @NeilMeyer - your statement is dependant on the definition of 'perfect'. I don't derive much pleasure listening to a band or any musicians who play something they've perfected by lots of rehearsal in order to regurgitate songs 'perfectly' but learned by rote, thus they're the same every time they get played. Music ought to be living and morphing, and is when played by true musos, rather than trying to 'perfect' pieces. – Tim Jul 26 '17 at 13:32
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Giving this some thought! Open mics are great for cutting your teeth as a beginning performer, and I think most of the audience is fairly forgiving - it's a free night for them, so their expectations shouldn't be too high. Not that that gives you licence to play/sing poorly. Of course you want to do your best.

But, perfect? What's perfect? Especially considering the songs you're doing are your own. You own them, and can do them any way you like. Provided you don't get lost in the middle of them, or if you do, you keep going, who's to know except you? You need to be able to leave out a verse, put in another middle eight, stick a key change in if you like, so perfect isn't the word.

Know the song inside out - after all, it's your baby. Open mic is a good time to play it differently, and gauge audience reaction.

It's also good for finding others of similar mind. Just get up and do your best, and maybe chat to others about putting 3 or 4 of you together to play those songs. BUT - do try not to reahearse them to death, so they're note perfect, like so many do. That's not music, there needs to be room to change things around in mid flight, which involves what I never see enough of. Listening to each other.

As suggested in the comments, playing covers is a good idea - you will even find that others will get up and play along. Scary at first, but great fun.Or, you might decide to do a cover, but change it about in a very different way - slow it right down, speed it up, segue two songs, the list is endless. I've just done a gig where 5 or 6 of us had played 'All Blues' before. Someone said 'now let's try in 5/4' so we just got on with it. No good saying 'but we need to practise it first', what I'm saying is be prepared to play unprepared.

So, in summation, it's a bit of both. Some stuff you can prepare - although doing it the same every time can render it boring - other stuff, be aware of how the verse/chorus goes, and have a go at winging it. A lot of the time the audience will be blissfuly unaware!

  • How do you gauge audience reaction at an open mic? People applaud virtually anything at those things. Where appreciation ends, pity takes over. – Ed Plunkett Dec 29 '17 at 15:00
  • @EdPlunkett - very good question - perhaps you should post it. Done a fair few open mics, and sometimes a number goes perfectly, slickly, cleverly, and the audience seems oblivious. Others have been really rough, as far as I'm concerned, and the audience loves it. Owt as queer as folk... So, no actual criteria as far as I'm concerned. – Tim Dec 29 '17 at 16:05
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I think the benefit of playing with less-than-perfect material might be outweighed for some performers by a sort of "aversion therapy" effect. Some people will react to their own mistakes and subsequent embarrassment by feeling traumatized and increasing their negative self-talk. But I think if you can avoid or overcome that danger, you will get a lot out of these performances! Always follow a shaky piece with a solid one, and practice recovering from mistakes at home by not letting yourself stop and correct on final run-throughs. I also have students rehearse for public performance by recording themselves a lot. Knowing you are being recorded mimics external distraction to some degree.

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You should try to perfect every song you perform anywhere.

But you should recognize that 100% perfection is an unrealistic aim. It can happen, but even the best performers edit their recordings.

A recording is different. Repeatedly heard, a small mistake becomes irritating. In live performance it is tolerated.

But don't take this as permission to be sloppy!

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An audience is going to make you self-conscious... making you perform worse than your typical practice standard.

At some point you'll learn to forget the audience and enter a "zone of concentration" that delivers your best work in front of people.

Open Mic's are useful to help transition from being incapable of concentration on making the music vs listening for the next mistake.

I'd recommend you target tunes that are easier to master to feel better about the "mistakes" and work on developing performance confidence. Performances that you are not proud of only make the Open Mic experience less helpful in learning to be a confident performer.

As your success with less challenging material starts to pay dividends then target more challenging material or introduce your own creations into the mix. Overtime create a list of songs you can play with a high degree of confidence and keep these tunes in the practice mix and pull your open mic selections from that list. 20 tunes is a good target for a 6 month or 12 month goal depending upon the amount of time you invest and the difficulty of the tunes selected.

After 2-3 years you'll ve in a good position to expect people to pay for your effort... you can test this assumption by busking to see if people like the results. Busking is like practicing in public with a tip jar out front.

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