We had the good fortune of connecting with Cory Barger and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Cory, let’s start by talking about what inspires you?
Lately, labor and the worker’s rights movement. I know that sounds a little bit odd, but the longer I work in orchestras the more I see that there’s a huge divide between how we see ourselves as artists and how actually, we are workers in a service industry that isn’t really that different from Starbucks. The audience is sold the experience of a concert, and usually who is on stage doesn’t matter so much to them unless it’s a famous soloist. Just like it doesn’t matter which barista makes their Frappuccino. We’re trained to do a very specific job and in the eyes of management we are interchangeable, and we don’t get the same rights that other professions do, like sick days. We have some of the highest levels of workplace injury and dissatisfaction. 80% of orchestra musicians will have an injury that keeps them from working at some point in their career.

When I started my business, Practice Happier, I was very burnt out. My orchestra was trying to unionize, and a dozen or so people got fired for it. I’m a foreigner, so I couldn’t legally be involved, and I felt pretty powerless about that. We have some of the lowest salaries in the country, management was jerking us around about health insurance– it was unpleasant. I’ve seen a lot of stuff like that over the 15 or so years I’ve been doing this work, and I thought about how often people will say “you’re so lucky to be a musician, I bet you just love it!!” like it’s a requirement that you perform happiness at all times so as to not seem ungrateful. When I was doing my masters’ degree in London, we had the opportunity to play in rehearsals with a major orchestra a few times a year. I was always so excited to go, and then I got there and most people who worked there were not loving it, to put it lightly. I’ve never seen a more jaded group of people in my life. I couldn’t understand it– I wanted that job SO MUCH– but I totally understand it now. So seeing people organize unions, standing up to Amazon and Starbucks for better working conditions, really inspires me to help musicians see (and exercise) their own power as well.

I’ve been reading more about the history of the labor movement in the US and it turns out that orchestra musicians were really at the heart of things back in the early 1900s. Unfortunately a lot of the same issues are still out there and are leading to a ton of burnout among us. My work with Practice Happier started as me trying to heal myself, by focusing on the area of my life where I had the most choice and the most opportunities to be creative: during practice. We overlook how important practice is in our lives, it’s a chore to get through for lots of us– but if we make the daily work more sustainable, then we have more time and energy to make the industry more sustainable. I think also if we can flip the narrative to focus on individuals, we could make a big difference– for example, a lot of people care about the factory conditions where their clothes are made, and will pay more for free-range eggs. But if art isn’t cheap, we don’t want it.

What should our readers know about your business?
My business, Practice Happier, is helping musicians to maintain their individuality and sanity in the face of an industry that sees us as replaceable. I can teach you to practice more efficiently in a few days, that’s the easy part– what is more difficult is figuring out how to undo the years of conditioning we’ve gotten throughout our training that tell us we aren’t good enough, that we have to compete for crumbs, that we’re only as good as our last performance. Most of the time, people focus on making adjustments that affect what comes out of the instrument, but I want to focus on what we put in. How we think about ourselves matters. How we see ourselves affects our performance.

My business is very young– I launched less than a year ago– but I’m really proud that it exists as a thing out there in the world. I’m so excited to change peoples’ relationship to practice in a way that makes it sustainable for a lifetime of music-making. I’m excited to meet more people and help them play more freely as themselves, instead of a mold of what someone else says they should be.

I’ve learned SO much about online business– from running my instagram account to building a funnel and setting up a course– and I still feel like I’ve only just touched the surface. Some things have been fairly easy because I’ve had great guidance from my coach, Nicole Riccardo– she lays out what to do and how to do it for so many situations. If I can focus on one step at a time, it isn’t too overwhelming– but it’s been a LOT of work.

What is most difficult for me, so far, is the sales aspect. I constantly feel like people aren’t really interested in taking my course, and that promoting it is an imposition (even though it’s on MY OWN instagram). I used to worry about these sorts of themes when I was looking for work as a performer, and I don’t now– I doubt I actually resolved it, it just migrated to another part of my career lol. I always have to remind myself that I know what I’m talking about, that I can in fact teach it to people, and that it’s needed. I have notifications set to tell me that every day. It’s classic impostor syndrome– and when I can notice that that is where my mind is going, I can usually get out of it. (I believe impostor syndrome is a rational response to putting yourself out there in a world where all the messaging you’ve gotten says you’re not worth listening to. It’s a tool of the patriarchy and white supremacy.)

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
[I live in Mexico now, but I’m assuming you want to hear about LA!]

First up is breakfast at Grand Central Market, maybe donuts from the Donut Man, or Eggslut. Then take Angel’s Flight up to the top of the hill. We’d go see some art at the Broad, and take some photos for insta around Disney Hall. Then we’d go to Ditroit Taqueria for lunch– the cauliflower pibil tacos are SO good. Then maybe some shopping at the Row, and coffee at Go Get ‘Em Tiger. Then we’d go to Little Tokyo, and wander around looking at DTLA architecture until we got thirsty– rooftop bar time, so we can watch the sunset! Maybe the Perch, or Pilot. Then dinner at Majordomo.

The next day would be around Los Feliz and Griffith park. Breakfast: Bloom & Plume. Then up to the Griffith observatory to admire the view and the architecture. Maybe we’d hike, but probably not. Lunch: Forage. Then a wander through Silverlake popping in and out of shops. We’d hit up Vinovore and taste some wine. Then we’d go to Guelaguetza for dinner and mezcal.

The next day we’d go to the west side. Breakfast at Gjusta, and then shopping on Abbot Kinney. More coffee at Gnarwhal. If it’s not too chilly or busy maybe we’d go to the beach, or just walk along the boardwalk. Lunch at Chulita. Maybe some art at Bergamot gallery, or weirdness at the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Then we’d explore Culver City a bit and head over to Westwood for some Diddy Reese cookie sandwiches because I’d have to show them around UCLA, go Bruins. Then we’d drive Sunset, maybe stopping in Brentwood to shop, and have dinner on the beach at Gladstone’s. Then we’d go on to Paradise Cove and maybe spend the night at Hotel June.

The next day we’d go to Malibu Farm Cafe for breakfast and to El Matador beach. Later in the afternoon we’d drive up to Los Olivos and go wine tasting! We’d stay two nights and go to Foxon for sure.

Heading back to LA we would go to the Getty and then go further south to Manhattan Beach for some chill beach time. We’d have maple bacon ice cream from the Creamery, and go to dinner at Nick’s.

Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
So many people!! I want to shout out Sonya Ramsey, who really helped me shift my perspective at the beginning of the pandemic and helped me see more possibilities in online work. Also to Nicole Riccardo, my awesome business coach, who helps me get through fear and doubts. I’ll always be grateful for my bassoon teacher Martin Gatt, who believes in me and was the first teacher to suggest that how I felt mattered a lot more than how good I sounded. And of course my parents, who are always so supportive and who let me live with them for two years of the pandemic while my orchestra work stopped.

Website: www.practicehappier.com

Instagram: @practicehappier

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