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    TED Fellow Usman Riaz never stops learning

    James Duncan Davidson/file 2012

    Age: 22

    Hometown: Originally from Pakistan, Riaz came to Boston last year to begin his studies at Berklee College of Music.

    Think of: The chops of a master percussive guitarist, the keen eye of an artsy short-film director, and the natural talent of that friend who just seems to be good at everything. While you were watching YouTube videos of kittens, Riaz was taking notes from the greatest artists and performers on the web and from there, weaving a multi-modal story of his own.


    What caught our eye: The multitalented Riaz, a composer, instrumentalist, and filmmaker, is the youngest TED senior fellow ever selected. After catching the eye of TED curator Chris Anderson when a video for his song “Fire Fly” went viral, he was selected to perform at the TEDGlobal 2012 conference in Edinburgh alongside his longtime hero, percussive guitar progenitor Preston Reed.

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    Lightbulb moment: As far back as he can remember, Riaz has had a passion for music. Trained in classical piano since age 6, he began experimenting with other instruments and mediums as a teenager. “I started watching all these other musicians on the Internet. Seeing them doing interesting things on YouTube inspired me. I realized that we can learn a lot online. I was around 13 or 14 when I started, and eventually I learned a variety of instruments. I even started writing orchestra works and making films.”

    Biggest thrill: “So much has happened for me and I am so grateful. The most thrilling performance for me so far was being on the TED stage with Preston Reed. Creating has always been what I love most and it’s gratifying knowing people out there appreciate what I’m doing.”

    Biggest surprise: “What has surprised me the most is how difficult it is to manage a career on your own. I’m as indie as indie gets — no manager, no one answering my e-mails, no one scheduling performances, its all me. But I’m realizing how much you need a team of people to stay sane.”

    Inspired by: “I love telling stories. My hero is Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki. I’ve been watching his work since I was small. He combines art and music to tell his story. I hope to do the same. Musically, I’m inspired by anyone who can create something new, like Preston Reed. Who knew a guitar could be used that way? People that don’t follow the curve inspire me most.”


    Aspires to: “I hope to keep learning and improving, and hopefully I’ll be able to keep making things I’m proud of. I never wanted to have any set goals. I certainly didn’t know five years ago I’d be here. I don’t know where my journey will go, but I want to keep pursuing it and see what happens.”

    For good luck: Riaz doesn’t have any charms or rituals for luck. He comes to the stage calm, prepared, and grateful to be able to share his work with an audience.

    What people should know: “Not many people know this, but I’m inspired by video games. Especially Japanese role-playing games like ‘Final Fantasy’ in which you level up your character as you are constantly battling new challenges. I apply that philosophy to my practicing. If I keep working at it, when I get up on stage things will come easier. I’m always trying to level myself up. It’s a different way of thinking, but it really works for me.”

    Coming soon: As one of 12 senior TED fellows, Riaz will present at the next four TED conferences starting in 2014.


    Steph Hiltz can be reached at