You may have already stumbled upon Kristen Mosca on Youtube. Out of a handful of pianists drawing attention for their video posts, she seems to be the only one squarely focused on ragtime rather than showing off a variety of flashy skill. As of this writing, she has just passed 6 million views and 35 thousand subscribers. The Syncopated Times should be so lucky!
But it wasn’t luck that got Kristen Mosca where she is and nothing came overnight. Her story could have only happened today, or at least we can know her story only because of the role social media has played in it. She grew to love playing ragtime outside of the network of musicians, clubs and festivals that have defined the community for decades. Though she says she has been invited to festivals as a guest, she has so far never attended a ragtime event. Her engagement with the genre has almost entirely been through the console piano she has played since she was a child.
That piano, and one important one besides.
Her origin story, part of the mystique that has enamored her fans, begins with the ragtime piano at Coke Corner in Disneyland and a chance meeting with the resident pianist Johnny Hodges, a veteran of many West Coast ragtime festivals:
“I met Johnny Hodges at Disneyland as a 15 year old who had just started learning her first rag. We were watching him play, and my mom insisted that I go up to him and ask to play something. Being a nervous and shy kid, of course I refused, but she went up to him, told him my life story and then he insisted that I play Maple Leaf Rag, that I only had about half memorized at the time. Naturally, the kid in me got nervous, forgot what I was doing, and quit – but Johnny picked up the piece where I left off and finished it out for me. This was an inspiring interaction – he seemed so happy to be doing what he loved – you could see it on his face! I never forgot that face.”
On repeated family trips to what became a pilgrimage site for her she would wow the crowds on that old upright, the pretty teenage girl tearing into it with the old men in period garb. As an adult she continues to go back and has developed friendships with all the occupants of the bench there. She has also tracked down Hodges, who moved on from Disney a long time ago, and now “I meet up with Johnny every once in a while to catch up, play piano, and laugh. He truly is an inspiration!”
Her mother filmed that first meeting, but that was back in 2004, before videos of such things became viral staples. Home again in Vegas she focused on music in school, playing clarinet and bassoon in band before majoring in flute in college. After graduation she worked in pit orchestras, and always at home, there was ragtime piano.
Following a career path common to music majors she now manages two coffee shops on the Vegas strip, a career she takes very seriously. Despite the light-hearted and self-deprecating humor on display in her “behind the scenes” videos she really has it together. At 23, as the housing market bottomed out, she bought a home on the advice of her real estate agent mother. Smart move kid.
The closeness of her family also plays a role in the success of her videos. Her brother appears in many of them playing the fool to her straight man. It is not uncommon for her dog to get involved in an otherwise perfect performance.
But perfection isn’t the goal. She has made many videos of classics, “Magnetic Rag”, and “Frog Legs Rag” among them. These draw in the more serious ragtime fans. Her specialty though is making ragtime arrangements of songs from Disney movies, and her magic is showing how hard she’s worked on them while having fun doing it. She’s made internet hits out of performances from Toy Story, Frozen, Pocahontas, and other popular films.
Given the Disney origin story it all seems obvious in retrospect, but I asked her how she happened upon the formula of ragging Disney music- in her words:
“I grew up a huge Disney fanatic, but I always hated the standard sheet music books from the movies – they were too simple and pretty bland in my opinion. So, I decided to create arrangements exactly to my liking! Ever since I had met Johnny Hodges at Coke Corner in Disneyland, ragtime was my absolute favorite style – so it just sort of happened that way!”
That “make it so” approach to problem-solving is at the root of the creative drive in many musicians, I also notice that the successful ones spend the number of hours practicing most Americans spend watching TV. In Mosca’s case, those hours are found before or after her busy work schedule.
Developing a second career online requires a similar dedication. Though her Youtube channel has 35k subscribers now, just two years ago it had nine, and in 2013, a year into her actively building the page, she was celebrating the two thousand subscriber milestone. Along with working on music videos success requires interacting with her fans, responding to their comments and building followings on Facebook and other platforms. She has some videos strictly dedicated to Q & A or her attempts to teach her brother piano. The sense of familiarity that is built sustains her following over the sometimes long absences between new projects while real life interrupts.
I asked how the Youtube celebrity aspect of her life began, you could call it an accident, or her recognizing opportunity:
“Honestly, up until 2012, my channel was just used for personal use for myself with family and friends. In 2012, I posted a video of myself playing Maple Leaf Rag at Disneyland to show my family. I hadn’t been playing piano much for a few years due to majoring in flute in college, so I wanted to show them that I was getting back into it – just for kicks. I went back and logged into my channel a few months later, and all of a sudden that same video had thousands of views! It took me by surprise! That was the point where I thought that maybe I was onto something, and started posting other videos of my own arrangements, etc.”
Now that she has a strong fan base she has dreams of someday being able to focus solely on music. She recently began selling her arrangements online through a company called Musicnotes and has been surprised by the strong response. She is also re-recording some of her “greatest hits” professionally, sans dog, for an album.
I asked how that was going:
“It’s much harder! Every little detail and mistake comes through those microphones, so it requires a lot more practice and preparation before actually sitting down to record. Once it’s online, there’s no going back, so I tend to be super nit-picky when it comes to the audio files. YouTube videos are a little more relaxed, a couple mistakes here and there aren’t too big of a deal, as the videos are not meant to be professional quality. It’s more of a reference point for those who would like to download and learn my arrangements to hear what I had in mind while writing them.”
Though many on first finding her videos mistake her for a gifted teenager, Kristen Mosca just turned 30 on New Year’s Eve. I expect the next decade will find her successful beyond the console piano she inherited from the family. But if she never branches out, it isn’t that important. In another age, she may have just hammered away at the keys after work, happily invisible in her love of ragtime. In this one, her willingness to share her joy in playing, surrounded by statuettes of Disney icons, has reached millions, many of whom probably couldn’t identify a rag before “meeting” her.
Learn more of her story and find her arrangements at www.kristenmosca.com.