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
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT