Notes on Napkins

musings for songwriters

The Open-Mic Experiment

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A couple of years after we got married, Danny and I packed up our hand-me-down couch, dinette set and mattress, and moved from Edison, NJ to Nashville, TN with a notion to eventually make our living as songwriters. We had at least thought ahead enough to have saved some extra money to open a savings account, and had acquired employment to give ourselves a steady income in case the “songwriting thing” didn’t happen right away. Big dreams can take awhile, as you might imagine.

Most nights we’d head out to “writer’s nights”, often to the infamous Bluebird Cafe, to listen to songwriters sing their original songs and tell the stories behind them: “Well, about a year ago my co-writer and I got together and he was telling me about his wife’s grandma and grandpa and how after 60 years of marriage, they’d been separated in a nursing home on different floors. She’d stopped talking until one day they wheeled him into the room and she asked, ‘where have you been’, and we just started writing a song about it.”

Night after night the writers would start strumming their guitars and singing a few bars until the audience realized they were listening to one of their favorite songs recorded by Kathy Mattea or Garth Brooks or Reba McEntire or Tim McGraw or Bonnie Raitt and so on. There would be an audible sigh and an eruption of appreciative applause. There’s really nothing more breathtaking then hearing a hit song sung in its simplest form by the person who wrote it.

It didn’t take long to realize that singing one’s original songs at open-mics and writer’s nights was a right of passage in Nashville…whether or not you were a performer. There were opportunities to “play out” for every level of writer from those who were fresh-off-the-turnip-truck to those who were polished and perfected. As newbies, we’d go out to listen and support the other newcomers, our incoming class, as it were.

The first time some friends asked us to perform at a writer’s night they were hosting, I was TERRIFIED. It took some serious self-talk to step up on that stage. But when it was all over, after I had heard my shaky voice coming back through the monitor and I kept going, after Danny played the last chord on his keyboard and I heard some clapping, after I had not spontaneously imploded, I had my “aha” moment. Great songwriting requires you to be at your most vulnerable and your most courageous at the same time.

Those writer’s nights were a big part of my songwriting education. They forced me to face my fears and time and again push beyond my comfort zone. They allowed me to test out new material and get better at what I was trying to do. Most importantly, playing out gave me the opportunity to interact with my peers in a supportive and constructive way, as well as to meet co-writers and friends who have lasted a life time (Shout out to Carol & Dale, and Nancy & Fett).

On August 14th, we’re inviting our SongU members to take part in this same kind of educational experience with a virtual open-mic experiment, hosted by long-time member, Mitch Townley. Whether we’re experienced or aspiring, whether we’re singers or vocally “challenged”, ready or not, here we come!

Author: Sara Light

Sara Light has been writing professionally in Nashville since 1996. Her credits include the John Michael Montgomery title track and the hit single "Home To You" which received an ASCAP airplay award in addition to being named SESAC song of the year for having garnered 2 million spins on radio. She also composed songs for the musical "Urban Cowboy, The Musical" which opened on Broadway in March 2003 and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Original Score." Sara has always combined her love of teaching with her love of songwriting and has given countless songwriting seminars throughout the U.S. and Canada. In 2001 she co-founded, along with her husband Danny Arena, the online educational website www.SongU.com. Besides being one of the main administrators (and now bloggers) Sara teaches Song Feedback and Lyric Writing at SongU.com.

3 thoughts on “The Open-Mic Experiment

  1. Inspiring blog! Thanks for sharing your story!

  2. I am sharing the open mic event announcement. Exciting addition to SongU’s actitivies, especially meaningful during this awful pandemic! Thanks for organizing it, Mitch!

  3. How will this virtual open mic performance work? I would like to participate in it (Or if this one is full, a future one), but am not very tech savvy, in terms of putting my songs up on Facebook, YouTube, etc.

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