“Failing” at Open Mic

by Matt Howe, Guest Blogger

I’ve noticed a pattern that I tend to follow when I learn a new song. 

After getting the sheet music, transposing it, and rehearsing it, there comes a point when I take the song to one of the DC Cabaret Network’s open mic nights and I sing it for the first time in front of real, live people.

And I usually suck.

And then I usually feel ineffective, untalented, and frustrated.

Until lately.

I’ve come to realize that part of my process of getting a song up on its feet and “performance ready” is also sucking at singing it once or twice.  There’s nothing like forgetting your lyrics or mangling a note in front of your cabaret peers.  Once I’ve done that, then the worst possible thing that could have happened to me on stage has happened.  And I can then move on and work on the song smarter and better.

I went through this process recently with “Losing My Mind” by Stephen Sondheim.  I performed it in my cabaret, HAPPY ENDINGS, and I suspected right up until opening night that I should have cut it from the show and not performed it.  For some reason, I could not get a “handle” on it.  And I still have the recording I made at January’s Open Mic when I choked on the big note and when I sang the lyrics incorrectly (“spend sleepless nights AND think about you” instead of the correct lyric, which is “spend sleepless nights TO think about you” – very different meanings!)

I’m not 100% sure how I finally got “Losing My Mind” to click. 

One thing that helped is that I wrote new patter to introduce the song.  (Originally, I started singing it in the show without any introduction).  The new patter really helped set up the “story” of the song for me.  Also, Alex Tang (my music director) seamlessly connected “Losing My Mind” with “Isn’t This Better?” which gave me a nice transition between the two songs – and which also helped inform my singing of “Losing My Mind” because now it was followed with a more “serene” song.

Also, at some point before opening night, Alex stopped playing the “big piano” version of “Losing My Mind.”  I remember turning to him after a rehearsal and saying, “Alex, can you give me more piano?  I feel a little naked out here.”  My director Judy Simmons and Alex both said:  “It’s better this way.  It sounds more like your version of the song, rather than someone else’s.”

So to sum this all up, in my experience I’ve got to get up and suck at singing a song before I can be good at singing the same song.  It’s a “journey” to get a song to resonate – trying out different patter, staging, and pairing it with another song – before it works.


3 Responses to ““Failing” at Open Mic”

  1. Sing Books with Emily Says:

    Matt! I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts!! Thanks so much for bein gour April guest blogger and for you honest and fun to read insights. Keep writing, will ya? XO Em

  2. Peter Fox Says:

    Right on brother – I think it takes about 50 times performing a song until something oddly “clicks”… but when it does, the trudge through the monotony and suckiness was worth it – and there is no way around it!

  3. Marianne Says:

    Matt…I totally agree. Some songs come tailor-made and others need a lot of alterations that come through singing them many times and trying on different entry points and arrangements. Thanks for your insights and honesty! xoxo

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