December 6, 2013 7:11 pm

First Person: Nicholas McCarthy

‘I have only one hand, yet I’m a concert pianist’
Nicholas McCarthy was the first one-handed pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music©Liam Ricketts

Nicholas McCarthy was the first one-handed pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music

I was my parents’ first and only child and, funnily enough, it never showed up on any of my mother’s antenatal scans that I didn’t have a right hand. Now I joke to my parents that I was hiding it from them. I think they were shocked when I was born but you get what you’re dealt.

I grew up in a little cul-de-sac in Tadworth, Surrey, with lots of kids the same age and I was the first one in my street to ride my bike without stabilisers – I was very determined. My parents brought me up with the thought that I was no different from anyone else and I wasn’t ever bullied at school. I accepted it and so did everyone else – and, as I was born without the limb, I didn’t have that trauma of actually losing it.

A friend of mine at school started to call my right arm the “little arm” and the name stuck – it was the best way of describing it really. I used to wear a prosthetic hand but it stayed on the teacher’s shelf during lessons. It just got in my way, it was so cumbersome. Fake hands are awful.

We like our food in our family, and from the age of about 10 I thought that I’d be a chef. I watched all the BBC food shows and I was quite a keen baker too. But when I was 14 I saw a friend of mine who was at music school play Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata. I decided there and then that I would be a pianist. It was just one of those moments.

We didn’t have a piano at home and my parents are the most unmusical people on earth, so I went into it blindly. We used to listen to a classical CD in the car occasionally but that was about it.

I learnt to play the piano with my little arm and my left hand and I worked through my grades that way. Within two years I’d applied to the Guildhall School of Music and I got a place. I’ve had plenty of knock-backs though – one day I rang a specialist piano school to arrange an audition but they were very dismissive and hung up on me. That was when I was still 14 and I got quite down about it, but I do have the ability just to keep going. Now I’m the only professional one-handed pianist in the world.

At the Guildhall the teachers encouraged me to specialise in left-hand-only repertoire and I had to wave goodbye to Mozart and Mendelssohn and all these composers I’d grown to know and love. It helped to learn Scriabin’s “Prelude and Nocturne Op. 9” for the left hand; he wrote those pieces beautifully. You feel as if you encompass the whole piano.

I always had my sights on the Royal College of Music, and I auditioned everywhere but luckily I got into the RCM. Normally in your first year you have to play a Scarlatti sonata, a late Beethoven sonata and so on, but I couldn’t do that so I devised my own programme. When I graduated last year, I was the college’s first pianist to do so with one hand.

I do find recitals very tiring, and using the left hand that way puts a strain on your body. I go to the gym in the morning, five times a week, and I do a lot of running for stamina. When I get home from the gym, I go straight to the piano – I have a Yamaha in a separate studio where I also keep my music. I wouldn’t want it in the middle of my lounge – sometimes I don’t want to see a piano staring at me. I do about four hours’ practice a day. My general rule is that if you can’t do it in four, you’re not going to do it in eight – so I stop.

Maybe the arm is subconsciously why I’ve been so driven, but some really great things have come out of it. In a way it’s nice to feel that you’re a trailblazer for other young disabled artists. I feel quite proud.

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