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Essay: Grab your instrument and muster your courage for open-mic night

Doug Otto performs at open-microphone night at the

Doug Otto performs at open-microphone night at the Bartini Bar & Lounge in Babylon on May 24, 2014 Credit: Joe Cuminale

Open-mic night, what a concept! It’s a platform for nonprofessional musicians or comedians to show off our chops without the need to schmooze club owners into hiring us for actual gigs. It’s a superfun way to spend an evening, and a great opportunity to meet the local talent. I’ve met more than 100 musicians while playing in clubs from Seaford to Ronkonkoma in the past six years.

I’ve done 236 open-microphone nights at 23 venues. At first, I was scared to death, but a friend, Dave Drew, who hosts open-mic nights at the Bartini Bar & Lounge in Babylon, assured me that I would do fine. So, one night in May 2013, I mustered my courage, took a deep breath, and like a skier attempting his first run on the expert slopes, leaned forward, strummed the first chords on my guitar and started to sing “Tangled Up in Blue,” by Bob Dylan. Gravity took over and off I went. No turning back! It took me three or four performances to develop what Dave calls “stage legs.” Although my day job is working as a school photographer with my wife, Kathy, my happy place is behind the microphone.

Over the years, I’ve played 116 different songs, although only 30 or so are in my regular rotation. One great aspect of performing for free is not having to play anything specific for the audience. It’s a wonderfully self-indulgent experience to be able to break out “Hotel California,” “Wagon Wheel” and, of course, "Free Bird"!

For singers who are tempted to try, here are tips to make your experience exceptional:

  • Lyrics are paramount. Sing as if you’re home alone and the windows are closed! You are the character in the song. Make it count.
  • Listen to your fellow musicians! My pet peeve at open-mic are people talking incessantly while I perform. No worries if you don’t want to listen, but having two guys scream a conversation a few feet from the stage is disconcerting.
  • Support the venue. Buy drinks. Tip the bartenders. Make the event a success for the club. It gives you a platform to play, but the owner is running a business. Be appreciative; spend a few bucks.
  • Compliment other musicians. We all want to be appreciated. It makes my day when a peer comments on my play. In fact, invite others to sit in with you.
  • Rehearse your set. Don’t get up there and meander. This is a performance, you’re not in your den having a beer and noodling around. Play the songs that afternoon; get comfortable with the material.
  • Choose up-tempo numbers. It’s OK to break out the lover’s lament on occasion, but you’re in a bar. People want to hear catchy songs they like.
  • Come early and stay late. Don’t play and leave. It’s disrespectful to fellow musicians and the club. I like to arrive a good half-hour before sign-ups start. Going third or fourth lets me take the temperature of the room. Don’t show up at 10:30 and expect to go on stage a few minutes later.

Most important, have fun and enjoy the experience. You’re a musician. You love music. Embrace the moment!

Reader Doug Otto lives in Massapequa.