Artistic Collaboration & Neuro-Linguistic Programming

On 22 September this year my colleagues Hannah Bujic, Nicole Rochman and myself ran an experimental session for composers and performers exploring the notion of collaboration, and how we might all do it better. This session took place at The Southbank Centre and featured young performers on the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Future First scheme, composers on their Debut Sounds scheme, plus a handful of composers from Sound and Music’s New Voices cohort.

We booked the session with no real clue about what we were going to do but with a strong feeling that the idea of collaboration seemed a good area of focus. Collaborations are like Chinese take-aways: we’ve all had them, some are wonderful, some are awful, some leave you hungry for more very quickly, some you deeply regret very soon after starting them.



This is a picture of Robert Dilts. Robert’s been one of the main developers of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) since its creation in 1975.

I’m not sure if it’s helpful to show you this picture. I only looked it up just now to find out what he looks like. He looks happy and, as he has spent decades working to increase human potential, I’m assuming that his smile is benign and sincere. In our session we explored collaboration through one of Robert’s tools called Logical Levels. Robert describes Logical Levels thus:

“The notion of logical levels refers to the fact that some processes and phenomena are created by the relationships between other processes and phenomena. Any system of activity is a subsystem embedded inside of another system, which is embedded inside of another system, and so on. This kind of relationship between systems produces different levels of processes, relative to the system in which one is operating. Our brain structure, language, and social systems form natural hierarchies or levels of processes.”

People naturally use Logical Levels to examine their own experience. For instance “On one level the PhD in Electroacoustic Composition was a waste of time as I never composed again after completing it, but one another level it was great for developing listening skills.”


In our session we worked through what needs to happen at each level for collaboration to work well. The top of the triangle ‘Mission’ generally refers to a spiritual level that we didn’t feel was relevant to our purpose, so our triangle was an isosceles trapezium. We started from the bottom and worked up, gathering responses from the group about what would make the biggest difference towards a positive outcome in the collaborative process.

Some explanation of the Levels

Environment: This is all about context. It not only refers to where something happens, but when it happens and in what social circumstances it happens. Getting this right impacts on all the levels above it. For example, if you provide lukewarm dishwater coffee for participants at your workshop, they feel undervalued and this impacts on them at the Identity level.

Behaviour: What we do. Do we turn up on time? Do we listen? Are we rude? Are we prepared? Do we have a hangover? What is happening? What is being done?

Capabilities: This is about the skill levels required. Do the composers have the skills they need to articulate what they want (either through notation of verbal instruction)? Do the producers have the skills to deliver the project? Do the performers have the skills to realise the work successfully?

Beliefs/Values: Why are we collaborating? Do we believe that this is important? Do we believe it is of value? What value does the audience place on the performance or event? This level provides us with the rationale that drives our actions.

Identity – Who we are and, importantly, how is our sense of identity compromised or supported by the process? In terms of audiences, how will the work resonate here? Will it support the audience’s identity as new music people sharing a cultural experience with other cognoscenti and friends (often the case in the small world of new music) or will the audience feel confused, frustrated or allowed to feel stupid because they don’t ‘get it’ (sometimes the case in poorly communicated public art)?

Some practical examples:

A Composer, let’s call her Jane, is working with a group of players. She instructs one of the players to make a sound that the player considers ‘unbeautiful’, the player reacts badly.

Analysis – Behaviour impacting on Identity. The player has spent decades learning to create a ‘beautiful’ sound. The player’s identity is formed around making beautiful sounds. That identity is challenged.

An arts administrator, let’s call him Richard Whitelaw, fails to check that the cheap hotel room that a performer is staying it is up to standard. The performer kicks off.

Analysis – Environment impacting on Identity. Performer doesn’t feel valued by being placed in a poor environment. Richard has to sort it out. (yes, true story)

A Composer, let’s call him Mark, is working with an orchestra. The players chat during the rehearsal and are unfocussed; they openly berate Mark over alleged inadequacies in his notation. They treat Mark like they are doing him a favour, rather than showing real enthusiasm for his work.

Analysis – Behaviour impacting on Identity. Mark sense of identity is formed around the idea of being a competent composer, indeed he may have been composing for decades with some success. This identity level challenge is crushing and Mark leaves feeling despondent and totally demotivated.

Identity is the common theme here. A few things to note:

• If something is kicking off at an identity level you can bet that something else is going on at a lower level to trigger it. This knowledge helps one to plan a targeted intervention lower in the pyramid. The Logical Levels are a useful diagnostic tool.
• To avoid identity level flare up get the factors at the lower levels right, pay attention to the different levels.
• Critical feedback is best delivered at a lower level. If I want my son to tidy his room there is a big difference between “It is getting rather messy in there and your toys might get lost please can you tidy up?” (Environment) and “You are very lazy and messy, go and tidy your room!” (Identity)
• Positive feedback is best delivered at a higher level. There is a big difference between “I notice that you always turn up on time for rehearsals, this helps the whole session to run smoothly” (Behaviour) and “I can tell from the fact that you are always punctual that you are totally committed to this project and that you are very professional” (Identity).
• People can be much easier convinced to make change at a lower level. Asking for Identity level change is likely to be resisted strongly. I’ve experienced this within the framework of organisational change: when I felt the level of change challenged my identity (I’ll admit that my identity has been based on some pretty shaky stuff in the past) this felt awful. When I worked out that these changes could be reframed as Environment, Behaviour and Capability changes and that my Identity could remain unchallenged by them, things got a lot easier to cope with. So, on a personal dynamic level Logical Levels can be used to raise self-awareness and gain perspective.

I’ve used the Logical Levels successful when dealing with complex and critical post-project feedback. Analysing the feedback and asking myself what each party was assuming about the project at each level allows for deep level insight into differing perspectives at the end of play. A better approach would be in reverse: when embarking on a complex collaborative project why not sit down with a project partner and work through what assumptions are being made at each level? Spending the time to resolve them pre-production will save grief and time later on.

That’s probably enough NLP for now, though various other of its tools can be used effectively in these contexts and I have tried some of them with success. Thanks for reading. If you have any feedback please make sure it comes in low if it’s critical and high if it’s positive. That would be very kind.

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