Finding a voice, a community and a band at Open Mic

In late October, it always seems as though the days shrink just as the to do lists grow longer. Sleep is about as hard to spot as the evasive sun and no one seems to be anymore relaxed after reading week. Stressed, sleep-deprived students stalk campus grounds in a daze. 

But step into the campus pub, the Ram in the Rye, on a Wednesday night and all that fades away. It’s boisterous and loud, packed with people looking to ignore their workload and partake in medicinal laughter: Wednesday nights are for Open Mic, a place where beginner, intermediate or advanced musicians can play, rap or sing freely. 

Students drag chairs from the back of the pub so they can sit with their group of friends and drinks have started clinking. Cheers to hump day, to completing assignments, for the right to vote, to being young, to the beginning of scorpio season! An organizer of the event, Michael Kang, steps up to the mic to explain that they are having some technical difficulties and the show will start later than expected. A chorus of groans ensues, but he does not take it personally — here, he is among friends.

The majority of the audience is either a part of, or friends of, Musicians at Ryerson, the group that also happens to be the organizers of the event each week. According to the RSU website, Musicians@Ryerson is Ryerson’s “unofficial music faculty, open to musicians and music lovers alike. Whether you’re an instrumentalist, vocalist or even a DJ, Musicians@Ryerson has an event tailored to you. Our goals are to create a network for musicians on campus to meet form bands and discuss anything related.” 

At 8:15 p.m, after some minutes of delays, and some inconspicuous fiddling with the mixer behind the counter, Open Mic begins. 

The first performer of the night is Sarah Tomlinson, a first-year journalism student on the keyboard. She played two originals, and had a surprisingly bold voice for a girl who is so small.  She says she tries to get to Open Mic every week, hoping it will help connect her with others in her community this year. 

“I’m a first-year student and open mic is a space where I can go to meet people that go to Ryerson that also like music,” she said.  “In my program I can talk to people about that part of life that I like but open mic is where I can talk about music.” 

In many ways, that is what Open Mic night has become: a cross-faculty cluster of students connecting over shared interests. Milena Oliva, the performance coordinator for Musicians@Ryerson, says that’s what she hoped open mic to be.  

“I want it to be a space where anyone can be comfortable to say hello or to share whatever they have on their mind,” she said. “You can’t really do that with assignments [in class] but here is an actual space where you can do that.” 

Oliva also explains how the space is different than other open mics or performance opportunities for young musicians around the city. 

“When you come to open mic, you always know that there will be that supportive cushion,” she said. “Even if you are one key or one beat off, it you are too slow or too fast, everyone is still there just to watch you do your best.”

Dustin Veter, a first-time performer at Open Mic, felt that welcoming environment. Although Veter and his friends come to the Ram every Wednesday, it wasn’t until tonight when he learned, you did not have to sign up to perform beforehand. After realizing he could just put his name on the list, he performed a fast paced acoustic song on the guitar as his friends sat with their mouths agape, eyes wide with surprise at his clean notes and melodic voice. He “just sort of went for it ” he told me, with a grin on his face, as his friends patted him on the back. 

“It was cool, I was pretty nervous, I wasn’t prepared so I just went up and did it,” he said. (He plans to have more material prepared for future pub nights.)

Another part Musicians@Ryerson’s mission statement says they want to give musicians a chance to get to meet other musicians and form bands. Special guests to the open mic this evening, Love Wagon, are a product of that vision. Now an up and coming band who has toured as far as Montreal together, first met at a jam session put on by the Musicians@Ryerson. Four years and a number of concerts later,  they’re trying to make it big as musicians. 

“Open mic created a safe space for us to have fun,” says Max Swiderski, who does guitar and vocals for the band. “We could play live and make mistakes and just jam out for shits and gigs.” 

After the interviewed they played two original songs. They were fast paced, with smooth guitar riffs, saxophone solos and clever, harmonic lyrics that often took a play on words. The audience clapped along, cheered and even sang along with some of the lyrics that they already knew.  

All of the performers who were interviewed said the same thing about performing at Open Mic. It’s  a safe space of expression and the audience is fully supportive of that. But Michael Ozertag, bass player for Love Wagon said it best. 

“These people are not paying to see you,” he said. “They are mostly here to just [perform] themselves so if you can get them to pay attention to you then that’s cool.”

At 11:00 p.m., the debit system crashes at the Ram in the Rye, but here are no yawns in sight and no one seems to be too much in a rush to leave.  Once the debit machine is up and running again, students pay their dues and one step outside into the brisk autumn air, the spell breaks and it’s again just another late Wednesday night in October. 

But at least for now, student leave revived, motivated even to face the week, from a night filled with boisterous laughter and good music. Wednesday nights will always be for Open Mic among friends, in the warmth of the campus pub.