Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

The Internet was my music teacher

By Usman Riaz, Special to CNN
August 5, 2012 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Usman Riaz: Acquiring skill in music has long required learning from teachers
  • He says the role of the teacher can now be fulfilled through online resources
  • Riaz: I learned to master percussive guitar through watching others on video
  • At TEDGlobal conference, Riaz played guitar with one of his heroes, Preston Reed

Editor's note: Usman Riaz, a TEDGlobal Fellow, is a composer and musician. He performed at the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh in June. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- The Internet is the largest collection of humanity's knowledge. Through my work in music, I want to show people that the Internet can not only break down barriers but also redefine the limits of what is possible.

The polymaths and Renaissance men of yesteryear had to devote their lives to the pursuit of the same knowledge that we can access with one click.

I am fortunate to come from a family inclined toward the arts -- thanks to which, they are all very difficult to impress. My great-grandfather was an Eastern music scholar and multi-instrumentalist. He played instruments like the sarangi, the harmonium and the violin. He traveled throughout Pakistan and Britain to develop and refine his musical style.

Watch Usman Riaz perform at TEDGlobal with Preston Reed

Guitar whiz, 21, meets his hero

My grandmother, choosing to follow in her father's footsteps, became an Eastern classical musician and a stage performer. Her brother, my great-uncle, is one of Pakistan's last remaining orators -- professional storytellers who read old stories written by famous writers of the Subcontinent. His wife is one of the country's leading Kathak dancers. Their son, my cousin, is one of the country's greatest percussion and tabla players. My parents were also stage performers, and recognized that I had musical aptitude at an early age. I was classically trained in piano since age 6 -- which is how I fell in love with Western classical composers like Mozart and Chopin.

As I got older, I wanted to branch out and experiment with other instruments. But I felt very limited in Pakistan. Music teachers there are in great demand and tend to focus only on Western classical or Eastern classical music.

It had taken my great-grandfather his whole life to master and play his chosen instruments. Now, I had no choice but to let the Internet be my teacher.

TED.com: Kaki King rocks out to "Pink Noise"

I watched hundreds and hundreds of videos online. I would close my eyes and listen to the audio again and again, trying to decipher each note. Or I would pause the clips at just the right moment to examine the musicians' finger positions.

As time went by, it got easier for me to pick up on things from the Internet. I grew more confident, which allowed me to branch out and develop. I started playing percussion instruments, the mandolin, the harmonica and more.

Thanks to my classical training, my musical ear also improved, which enabled me to write and arrange orchestral pieces. Here's an example, 'The Waves', which I wrote when I was 17.

TED.com: Raul Midon plays "Peace on Earth"

On the Internet, I can manufacture my own philharmonic orchestra, with string sections and woodwinds playing my music from all over the world, as I did with my orchestral album "Circus in the Sky," which is a full representation of my approach to music and storytelling.

It is a concept album, each piece is a progression through the innocence and playfulness of youth, the joys and sorrows of life as one gets older, spiritual awakening and finally death.

I applied to Boston's Berklee College of Music after high school, but decided not to go to the audition for admission. I wanted to record my music professionally in a studio instead, to clear my head of all the musical ideas that were already building up in my system.

TED.com: Natalie MacMaster fiddles in real time

I try to not limit myself to music; I get involved in every creative process, such as directing and writing my own musical short films to complement my compositions and I do all the artwork that accompanies my music, such as the sleeve paintings for the "Circus in the Sky" CDs.

It was an honor to be chosen as a 2012 TED Fellow. To perform onstage with Preston Reed, one of my all-time favorite musicians, was something I will never forget for the rest of my life. And I was able to discuss learning with TED curator Chris Anderson, who has described how the Internet is encouraging people around the world to develop skills, such as the ability to learn to play musical instruments, that might have previously been out of reach. Apart from my classical training in piano, I have learned everything I know about music by watching other people -- many of them the best in their fields -- play online. To me, that has been the best way to learn.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Usman Riaz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1424 GMT (2224 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1354 GMT (2154 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT