Salty Composers and How to Avoid Them by Nicole Chamberlain

Working with a living composer may not be something everyone got to experience in school, and if so – it may have been with a student composer who was still learning and stumbling along the way just like everyone else going through the learning process. So let’s start fresh shall we? I’ve been fortunate that I have professionally experienced creating music both as a composer and a flutist. I’ve witnessed the process through both lenses, and I would like to share what I’ve learned from working on both sides of the fence. 

The comment I get the most from performers is the surprise that I am so “normal”. Composers can have many personalities, but we get a bad rap for being eccentric hermits. Composers do need, and sometimes love, collaborating with others in order to bring music to life. Without the performers, the music would just sit on a shelf – lifeless. No composer wants that. We need each other. The benefit to working with living composers is the opportunity to bring the complete truth of the music to the performance. You will never be bothering a composer when you reach out, they might be slow to respond or busy. But I assure you, they are not going to be upset about hearing how you are interested in their work. By the way, when you reach out to a composer – open with that.

We all know that one way to work with a composer is by commissioning new music, but did you know we like to hear about our pre-existing music getting performed as well? If you buy music from a retailer or a publisher, the composer probably has no idea. Reach out, let them know you are performing it. Ask questions about the music, invite them to the performance, rehearsal, or send them recordings to listen to in order to get feedback. A composer will let you know how involved they can or want to be. At the very least, letting a composer know you have plans to perform their piece will give them a way to get paid performance royalties by their performance royalty organization, not to mention a much needed emotional boost knowing people care. 

Be genuinely supportive and make every effort to give an informed performance. Make sure you support your composer by purchasing their sheet music legally through the composer, publisher, or reputable retailer. If you have questions about how to perform a piece, start with recordings provided on a composer’s website. Still have questions? Contact that composer, and get the answer from the horse’s mouth. Besides, what if this starts a collaborative process? And if it’s a salty response, then you’ve dodged a bullet by not working on a bigger project with that composer. 

Sometimes a salty response may be the consequence of perceived lack of respect of the composer’s music. For example, did you perform the piece with different instrumentation than set in the score? Did you change the articulation, form, structure, dynamics, omit extended techniques, or change words in the text of the vocal part? Did you know that was actually illegal? That’s considered an arrangement, and you actually need the composer’s, and possibly the publisher’s, permission to do so. Look, I get it. We’ve all been there at some level. You love the composer’s music and want to play it, but you have certain limitations, whatever they may be. You tried to shoehorn the music to fit into your program, but see it from the composer’s point of view. Audience members unfamiliar with the composer’s work will assume that the composer made the choices that you made. It misrepresents the composer. Think of it as someone using your headshot for a campaign you don’t approve or endorse. That’s what it feels like to a composer. If you need some changes contact the composer first. You never know unless you ask.

Another reason for a salty response may be that you recorded or streamed music without the consent of the composer and publisher. Did you know you have to secure a mechanical license for music not in public domain when recording an album? You also need a license if you are going to stream a performance via Youtube, Twitch, your website, etc. Inquire with the composer and their publisher, they should help navigate you to the correct people to get in contact. With the pandemic, most musicians have had to turn to recording or streaming in order to continue to perform. In the few experiences I’ve had recently, many composers are being sympathetic and flexible in order to help our struggling colleagues who want to continue to support our music. But again, ask first. Who knows? Your consideration of a composer’s feelings and financial well-being may endear you in their heart forever, and create trust. And who doesn’t want to collaborate with trustworthy people?

In short, being honest and open about your intentions and what you don’t know will help everyone in the long run. The fact that you love a composer’s music and honestly want to do the right thing, even if you are not aware of all the legal issues, will always go over well with a composer. Just be open about it. If a composer can’t deal with that – yikes. Move on and find composers who would embrace your enthusiasm. Cough Me! Cough

Learn more about composer and flutist at

Composer and flutist Nicole Chamberlain (b. 1977) has a varied career in the arts, acquiring simultaneous bachelor degrees in Music Composition and Digital Media at the University of Georgia. Her original compositions are influenced by storytelling and visual imagery from her former day job as a web animator and designer. Chamberlain’s music “heavily utilizes extended techniques [that] play into the theme or story of each piece to sonically enhance its meaning” (The Flute View). “Being a virtuoso flautist herself has informed her ability to write for the instrument with thrilling facility and endearing charm.” (Gramophone Magazine) .  As a Powell Flutes Artist, Nicole has been enabled in this endeavor to perform her music to a wide audience and wouldn’t trade in her Powell Conservatory 9K Aurumite Flute and a Powell Handmade Custom Grenadilla Piccolo for the world.

Currently, Chamberlain balances her time composing, teaching students, performing, and avoiding graphic design work as much as possible. She lives in Doraville with her husband, guitarist and composer Brian Chamberlain. The Chamberlains have their own independent music publishing company, Spotted Rocket Publishing (, and two dogs who long to be social media influencers. You can typically catch Chamberlain on any of the many social media platforms where she spends an abhorrent amount of time. For more information visit her website at