Energy buzzes at Youth Open Mic
Youth Open Mic
Second Wednesday of the month
Next one: Jan. 8, 7-10 p.m.
A man at the front claps enthusiastically and says “right on” when it’s a song he knows.
The teenage emcee looks down shyly before announcing her next song.
Later on, a boy singing will call her up to do harmony with him: harmony she invents on the spot.
In easy chairs and at tables, the audience at Trend Coffee & Tea House wait to go on themselves, take videos of friends, and clap for family.
It feels like a comfortable house party where people get up to do their “party pieces,” trying things, doing their best, but confident of a warm welcome.
It’s a Youth Open Mic night at Trend.
The Youth Open Mic nights have been going on every second Wednesday of the month since September. It was 17-year-old Anna Gustavsen, the emcee, who brought the idea to Dimitry Banjanski, the owner of Trend.
Gustavsen, a senior at Montclair High School, had come to Open Mics over the summer, and noticed they were mostly older people. There are so many talented people in Montclair High School, she said, that she wanted a place to foster that talent.
“It’s a space where nobody really expects anything, so it’s judgment-free,” she said. She’s only been singing herself for about a year, so that’s important to her.
Like several of the teens at the open mic, Gustavsen is a member of Montclair High’s School of Visual and Performing Arts. She is playing the lead in the upcoming winter play, “She Kills Monsters,” by Qui Nguyen, but has only been songwriting for a short time.
In December the Open Mic had a small crowd, about a dozen people, because so many students had college applications and finals. But the crowd was warm and familiar.
Being at an open mic helps with stress, Gustavsen said: “I love music, so being around it for a couple of hours, I’m focused on this and nothing else.”
There are always a few adults at the Youth Open Mic, and that’s OK, Gustavson said. There are also people from surrounding towns. December was the first time someone came from Montclair State University, she said. Gustavson publicizes the nights through Instagram and Facebook.
Destiny David, 16, is a close friend of Gustavsen’s and has been appearing at the Youth Open Mic since they started — though she had never performed at an open mic before. She too is in SVPA, but unlike Gustavsen, has not participated in the dramas, since she also participates in dance concerts.
She loves that she can see her audience.
“In these settings, you can really tell what the audience is thinking, which I really like. In big crowds, all the faces are just one face to me. So I can't really get the kind of emotion that everyone is feeling about the song that I'm singing,” she said. The expressive feedback on the audience's faces makes her feel secure.
And it’s also the most challenging thing: “If it’s a negative thing they’re thinking, it takes a negative toll on my psyche,” she said, although she admitted it’s possible the audience is thinking something other than what she perceives.
Not long ago, David performed with Passing Notes on The Colbert Show, which she described as “euphoric in its own way.” But she loves hearing what other people have to offer at an Open Mic, which could be poetry, spoken word, and visual art as well as singing.
She may host the Youth Open Mic in January.
Joe Colwell, a 14-year-old freshman, says he’s in the “posse” who’s in SVPA.
“I just like playing in front of people,” he said.
Like David, he sings in the a capella group Passing Notes. He also performed with Brian Kirk & The Jirks in their Bruce Springsteen belated birthday show on Dec. 5. He knew all the teenagers performing, and had met most of the adults. He’s played guitar for four years.
“I think that sometimes it gets you exposure in the area to other musicians and other people,” he said. “I met my friend Zee here for the first time, and I’ve played music with her. You meet cool people.”
A PLACE TO PLAY OUT
For Banjanski, Open Mics were a natural for a town that has a film festival, the Wellmont Theater and many cultural activities.
He’s a musician himself, a guitar player.
They have been going on at Trend since the cafe opened in 2013. There are all-style open mics, jazz open mics, and a Latin open mic which, he said, has not really taken off.
Originally from North Macedonia, Banjanski moved to the states in 2001.
In addition to the Open Mic nights on Wednesdays, Trend hosts live music on Fridays and Saturdays.
In December it was not busy, so the performers could have a bit longer; on one night there were 43 performers, Banjanski said.
“It’s good when we have different people for different purposes,” he said. “This generation can hear the other people, can drive them to do a little more. There’s a good feeling, a good vibration.” The jazz open mic tends to draw an older crowd.
And there are not so many places to play music as there used to be: he’s heard that in the 1970s there was live music everywhere. An open mic gives more people a chance to perform.
“It’s a place to make mistakes, try something new. There’s always pressure, playing in front of other people, but the Open Mic gives you some more freedom,” he said. “As a musician myself, I think it’s a really great thing to play out.”
Lauren Hooper of Montclair was a “ringer” at the Youth Open Mic: a professional theatrical performer and singer who came to try out some of her audition songs, a Tina Turner song, a bit from “Ragtime,” a Beyoncé song. It’s helpful for her to put the songs on their feet, and see the reactions.
Unlike the singer-songwriters, she was accompanied not by her own guitar, but by a recording, with Montclair drummer Bruce Tyler doing the sound engineering.
Hooper loves performing with the teens’ passion and enthusiasm. Everybody is singing at the Youth Open Mics, she said, a combination of popular songs and songs the teens have written. The room buzzes.
“The energy is exciting,” she said. “For me it’s really easy to get lost in the technique of practice, the day-to-day hustle for auditions and jobs. To be around their energy, it’s a reminder of why I do what I do.”