The One Handed Pianist
An Interview with Nicholas McCarthy
Nicholas McCarthy was born in 1989 without his right hand and only began to play the piano at the late age of 14 after seeing a friend play Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata. Studying at the prestigious Royal College of Music in London, his graduation in July 2012 made history and drew press headlines world wide, being the only left-hand alone pianist tograduate from the Royal College of Music in its 130 year history. Nicholas has performed extensively throughout the UK in major venues including The Royal Albert Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, St Martin-in-the-Fields and the Wales Millennium Centre among others. Internationally Nicholas has performed at The Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C, The Capetown Convention Centre & The Linder Auditorium in South Africa, The Vilhena Palace and the Offices of the Prime Minister in Malta and the Abay Opera House Kazakhstan. Nicholas is widely featured throughout national and international press and regularly gives live performances and interviews on television and radio including shows for BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4, BBC television Channel 4 and ITV. Nicholas has been the subject of both a BBC documentary and feautured in one by Channel 4. Nicholas ‘s television appearances have been responsible for drawing a cross section of new audiences to his imaginative recitals, many of whom had never been to a piano recital.
When you were born without your right hand did you go through your early life feeling different and disadvantaged? Or did your parents encourage you that anything’s possible, hence why you ended up playing the piano?
Well I think when you’re a child you don’t think that much.
No, of course.
I was born with one hand. I therefore knew no different. I think it comes from my parents instilling in me that I was no different.
I think as a child I really didn’t think anything of it. I had some name calling as we all have. But because of that confidence that I had instilled into me I was able to retort in a witty way. I used to manage to get them to shut up quite quickly – humour is definitely an important mechanism. If you’re able to laugh at yourself and show that it doesn’t affect you too much then you’ll be in a much stronger position.
Usually bullies tend to bully the underdogs. They bully the weaker person. And I would never allow myself to appear to be the weak person. I made sure I was outspoken and opinionated. I think that confidence that my mum and dad instilled in me really helped in that sense.
So really I just had a normal childhood. There was no music involved whatsoever. I wasn’t playing the piano until I was a teen. So I had a lovely childhood, a very normal childhood. I am actually pleased that music wasn’t a part of my early life.
Because I think it’s nice that you have a free childhood where you didn’t have to practice. You could just…
Enjoy being a kid?
Exactly and I really did. There were no worries at all – I did what every other kid did and it was a great time.
Great. So why did you end up playing the piano? Was there a particular moment that made you want to?
Yeah there was a moment. I was only 14 and heard a friend of mine play some Beethoven. I just loved what she was doing and decided at 14 that that was what I wanted to do. And you know what it’s like when you’re a teen you kind of think, “Oh yeah that’s easy. I’ll be a lawyer”, not realising that lawyers study for eight to ten years. You have a naivety as a kid that you think you can be and do anything.
So I just decided ‘I’m going to be a concert pianist’ not knowing at all how the industry works; not knowing at all anything really about music. What I absolutely knew at that time was that it was what I wanted to do.
And I loved everything about it, even the look of the piano on stage and the performer walking out to it. That whole thing of being a concert pianist, I really loved.
That’s how I started. I was self-taught at first. Within a couple of years my mom and dad had take private lessons. So I started lessons, and she then realised I was getting quite good and encouraged me to audition for music school.
That’s where I had my first knock back, which I’m sure you have read in other articles. It was when I rang up to arrange the audition. The head mistress of the music school basically shut me down and said, “I bet you don’t know how to play the piano. You can’t even play scales.” All because I had one arm.
I said to her, “I really don’t want to play scales. I want to play music.” And she hung up the phone. That was such a big knock back for me.
Have you spoken to her since?
No. Now she doesn’t run the music school. And I never blamed her, but now she can listen to me everywhere, and I have a full time career as a concert pianist.
Of course, I was depressed for a couple of weeks but I thought to myself ‘the world hasn’t even seen me play. As far as she knows I could be the most amazing pianist, the best in the world, and she didn’t give me time.’ She therefore hadn’t rejected me on talent so I decided to dust myself off and go again.
So that was basically when I decided to audition for the Junior Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, which is subsequently a better school. I decided not to tell them about my disability. I signed off on the day and had to tell them about my lack of a hand, which is a slightly awkward conversation as you can imagine.
It was actually my first time to play the grand piano. There was this big grand piano on stage. It was like this X-Factor style of audition. I came in from the back of the room. There’s me on stage explaining my situation and then I had to go ahead and play. Then, to my surprise, I was taken forward.
If you go back to when you first decided that you wanted to play the piano, was there a moment that you felt, ‘I want to play the piano but I’ve got one hand – Is this a realistic dream?’ Or did that never enter your mind? Did you think, ‘I want to play the piano. I’m going to play the piano’?
You know what it didn’t even enter my mind. Again I think that has a lot to do with age. When you’re at that age, you don’t really think. If I decided now, I would think, ‘No. That’s ridiculous.’
But at that time, I had that cocky confidence that makes you think, “Oh yeah that’s fine. I’ll do that.” So I think that had to do with my age.
Obviously I have a left hand and there’s this amazing huge amount of music that is written for left hand alone. It’s a match made in heaven.
Obviously that’s when I decided to really specialise in left hand alone and bring it back to the mainstream because it used to be very, very popular. Everyone knew of it and it’s still very popular today.
Why was it written in the first place?
It stems from the 19th century. Composers like Bartók, Liszt, Bach and others, didn’t make a vast amount of money from their compositions – they made money from performing. They were always on tour around Europe performing. What they used to do often after a concert was to play an encore as we all do. Their encore was often for one hand. Not any one hand but their left hand alone, which is their weaker hand. They were showing off to the audience – ‘You enjoyed my concert now, wait until you see what I can do with my weaker hand.’ That’s where it kind of stems from. And that’s when composers start writing for one hand to left hand – not right hand.
In the first world war, it grew because so many service men lost limbs. Usually it was their right arm because they were mostly right handed, and so they tended to use their right arm more. A lot of service men came back from war having had their right hand amputated.
There’s this one man called Paul Wittgenstein who was very wealthy and came from an aristocratic family in Vienna. He wanted to be a concert pianist all of his life and just before he went to war he made his debut as a concert pianist. Then he was called to go to war, very quickly he was shot in the right arm and had his right arm amputated.
To cut the long story short, when he come back to Vienna after the war he used his wealth to pay all of the celebrity composers, such as Ravel, to write a left hand Piano Concerto for him. He paid Prokofiev. He paid Benjamin Britten, Richard Strauss, all of these really big names of the 20th century.
So we had this situation where you had amazing work from the 19th century, and now fantastic works from all of the big composers of the 20th century.
Since then lots of two handed pieces have been transcribed for left hand alone. There are other composers too who wrote solo pieces for him. He really expanded the repertoire..
That’s amazing. I read that you didn’t use to just be a one-handed pianist, you moved to left hand only after you joined Guildhall?
That’s right. How I used to play was with my little arm, my right arm. I discovered I could play a key with that little arm. And obviously I have my left hand so I can play any left hand piece. So I actually used to play normal records, two handed records. That’s how I auditioned and got in with Guildhall. The only condition was that I then had to specialise in left hand work as well. At that time I didn’t like the sound of it, but looking back it was the best decision I could have ever made. I gained respect from the classical and mainstream worlds. If I continued how I was playing with my little arm and left hand I would always been a bit of a freak show in the classical world. I wouldn’t have had any substance to it because why would a concert want to pick me to play a piano concerto when they could pick another who has two hands? Do you get what I mean? It made more sense.
“If I continued how I was playing with my little arm and left hand I would always been a bit of a freak show in the classical world.”
You wouldn’t be picked on talent alone, I imagine?
No exactly. That’s why I specialised in left hand. Again it was the best decision I made.
Going back, what did your parents think of the fact that you wanted to play the piano? Were they very supportive of that?
Well, as I said they were completely non-musical. In my family, we’ve never had a musician. The thought of earning money as your full time job from performing is quite a foreign thing. They supported me financially and emotionally. But I found my own guidance because they obviously didn’t know the steps involved.
The usual way of doing things is you start at the age of 3 or 4, you work really hard, you either go to music schools to study music and do your school work after that time. Then they make you go to a Saturday music school before you go on to the Royal College. That was usually the path that was taken but for me I started late and only got to music school at 17.
Were you just a natural?
It came very quickly. I would say I do have a bit of a natural ability with an instrument. Most instruments, like a violinist for example, also feel they have that natural ability with it. Obviously I didn’t discover my natural ability with the piano until quite late.
After Guildhall I did my audition to do my degree at the Royal College of Music. I got into quite a few of the music colleges in the UK but I always wanted to go to the Royal College because it’s in South Kensington. It’s right opposite the Royal Albert Hall. So when you’re practicing you can look out the window and you’ve got a mirror image of the Royal Albert Hall, how majestic and how inspiring to be able to look over and see the concert hall you want play in.
So when you applied for the Royal College of Music was that quite a daunting and difficult process? When you actually got in, can you describe that emotion?
I was daunted for all of them. I think I auditioned for eight music colleges. I got in to six. I held out for my first choice. I was really scared because I knew the amount of pianists that had applied, let alone other musicians. Pianists had applied from all over the world. They auditioned in Japan, Korea – everywhere. Only nine were accepted and luckily I was one of those nine.
I was so thrilled. I remember when I got the news, it was online. I saw then and there, accepted conditional offer, which I passed – I was just so elated.
I bet you were. When you actually arrived were you worried about how the other eight pianists were going to work with you and look at you? Did you feel that you might be judged?
The good thing is when you enter into something like Royal College Music, everyone is so knowledgeable about classical music. I knew all of my contemporaries were knowledgeable about left hand music. I knew they were quite inspired by it, and excited that I was there, which was really nice.
But it was a very difficult time. I had so many holes in my technique. I had an awful lot of work to do to progress from the level I was at to became a fully pledged concert pianist.
“I was so thrilled. I remember when I got the news, it was online. I saw then and there, accepted conditional offer, which I passed – I was just so elated.”
Did you have your own syllabus? As presumably you couldn’t do what everyone else was doing?
Syllabus, yes. Like any degree you have to do your end of year recital play a Beethoven, and all these major composers. What I said to them was, “Look, if I can come up with a program which I feel is of similar difficulty to what you want, similar length to what you want and similar compositional style, then is that ok?” And they were great and agreed to that.
You touched a point just a second ago about the fact that you had a lot of holes in your technique. Today, are you still improving? Or do you reach the level when you’re playing an instrument that almost you can’t get any better?
Actually you can always get better, you can always improve your personal best. That’s why we’ve trained and why we continue to practice so much. I think the relation between a professional musician and a professional athlete is very similar. You have to train everyday.
There’s always room for improvement. I know concert pianists in their 80s and they say they’re still learning. When you’re a concert pianist, that doesn’t mean I can just get up and play anything confidently. When there’s a technically challenging part, I still need to really focus on that.
“Actually you can always get better, you can always improve your personal best. That’s why we’ve trained and why we continue to practice so much. I think the relation between a professional musician and a professional athlete is very similar. You have to train everyday.
That’s really interesting. You compared a musician to an athlete. I know an athlete can easily just have a bad day. I’m not involved in music in any way but it always seems to me that a musician knocks it out the park time after time after time. They don’t seem to have a bad day like an athlete does.
I think there’s certainly a standard. That standard is always consistent.
Right. And you can have really good days?
Of course, sometimes I’d come off saying, “I was on fire tonight.” Sometimes I’d think I was okay. That was good, everyone enjoyed it, but it didn’t have that electricity. There’s always that perfection standard. Sometimes, something special happens which we see often with pop stars. You look at pop stars, you see them live once and you think they’re not that good. You see them live another time and they were like ‘bloody hell’. I don’t know why it is. I don’t know if it’s adrenalin or something, but sometimes your performance is just special and often you can’t recreate that.
Brilliant. Your career has moved on so incredibly and you played with Coldplay at the Paralympics. How was that?
That was amazing. I’m used to playing to thousands of people but not 86,000 people! Plus the fact that I knew it was being broadcast to half a billion people around the world.
I would just feel sick I think. Did the nerves not eat you up?
Yes, I was nervous but the overriding feeling was just pure excitement. The fact I was playing with a band who I love. I always loved Coldplay. To meet them and rehearse with them. You get this amazing feeling – it was one moment I will never, ever forget. Walking out through the tunnel into the stadium was just incredible. Even now it gives me goosebumps – what a feeling that was! I seem to remember it like it was yesterday.
Little things like coming off stage and taking out my phone to see my name was trending on Twitter. I knew no one knew who I was. But I had had a positive effect on people and they were writing all these great things – it was incredible. It was just two weeks after I graduated from the Royal College so it was an exciting time!
I bet your parents were so proud. What is next for you? I see on your website that you’ve done interviews with lots of media outlets and played on television. Would you like to start going on the road and perform in various public venues to big audiences?
To be honest I do that throughout the year all over the world. A concert pianist is constantly touring. When people say touring, I would imagine they think in pop star terms, whereas a concert pianist isn’t quite like that.
I’ve got a concert on Wednesday. I’ve got a very big concert on the 9th of March, and immediately after that I go on tour to South Korea.
Brilliant. The final question – looking back to when you were 14 and you said that you wanted to play the piano; are you now in a position in your life where you think, “Wow. This is just as good as I hoped it would be, I’m loving every moment of this?” Or do you actually think that you might end up doing something different in a few years time?
I will always be a pianist and I never want to give up. I love it so much. The financial aspect of my job I can’t change – that is what it is. I’m doing some more presenting with BBC in September which will be fun. The presenter side of things is something I really enjoy doing and I’m sure that will develop in time, but I’ll always come back to the piano. I’m so thrilled to be doing what I’m doing.
Thank you so much for the interview.
Not at all! I enjoyed it!