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Interview: Nicholas McCarthy, Concert pianist

06 November 2015

‘It’s a fact: I am a one-handed pianist, and I hope it inspires people’

Paul Marc Mitchell

I came to be a musician through a lot of determination and not allowing others to discourage me. I was first inspired to play the piano when I was 14, when I saw a friend perform Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata. From that moment, I was hooked on piano music, and my burning ambition was to become a pianist.


I auditioned for the Royal College of Music — it was very competitive: people audition from all over the world to go there — for a four-year degree, and graduated in 2012.


I play left-hand-alone repertoire, which began in the 19th century and developed as a result of injuries suffered by pianists in the First World War. One in particular, Paul Wittgenstein, lost his right arm in 1914, and, after the war, he commissioned leading composers of the day to compose for left hand alone.


I was born with only one hand. My parents knew nothing of it until the day I was born.


It’s a fact: I am a one-handed pianist, and I hope it inspires people with disabilities — or even without — to reach out and follow their ambitions or dreams. I’m happiest just after playing a concert.


I get a lot of messages after I’ve been on TV or the radio, and people have said that I’ve inspired them to take up their instrument after an accident or injury to a hand. Sadly, there are no big masterpieces for right hand alone. Think about it — most people are right-handed, and so they’re more likely to injure their right hand, statistically. If people over-practise, or lose a limb in war, it tends to be their right hand; but think about the piano. The left hand works better because the thumb is at the top, playing the melody line, and that’s perfect, because it’s the strongest digit. With the right hand, it would be the little, weakest finger.


Wittgenstein inspired me. He loved the piano, and, when he made his concert début to good reviews, he was establishing his career, only to be called to war and lose his arm with a few months. A lot of people would have given up then, but not Paul. He found a way to carry on his love of piano with one hand. He never gave up; nor would I.


As the only one-handed pianist of this century, it is essential that I commission new pieces of left-hand repertoire. My latest is Nigel Hess’s “Nocturne”, which has been very popular with Classic FM audiences.


I love playing in concert halls, but I have to say that playing in a church or cathedral brings me even closer to my faith, as I feel there is a greater significance in the music, somehow. Gloucester Cathedral is the most beautiful cathedral, and I feel honoured to have played there for a coffee-morning concert, and so happy that it will benefit Carer’s Gloucester, the charity I am patron of.


My London concerto début in St John’s, Smith Square, on 11 November is part of a very special Concert of Remembrance. As well as Ivor Novello songs, it will feature me performing the Ravel Piano Concerto with a 55-piece orchestra. It’s a huge work, to be played in tribute to a generation that sacrificed so much for us all. As it was commissioned by Wittgenstein, I’ll also remember him as I play.


Making my album with Warner Classics this summer has been such an honour, and it was one of the most exciting experiences of my life — to showcase my favourite pieces, and to introduce my repertoire to new audiences. There are original pieces by Scriabin, and well-loved pieces by Liszt, and even Gershwin, arranged for left hand alone. One of my favourite arrangements is Gershwin’s “Summertime”, which I really wanted to include because I’ve performed it many times, and audiences love it, too. There’s scope, perhaps, for a small backing orchestra on my next album, but I’d need the help of an orchestrator to help me compose arrangements for that. There are lots of exciting things happening for me.


I’m working on lots of new arrangements, and also looking forward to performing more concertos. There are more than 33 for left hand alone, and still thousands of pieces of left-hand repertoire to cover.


I’m an only child, and my parents brought me up to see myself as no different from others. They are always so encouraging, and I’d say they have been the greatest in-fluence on my life. Faith was never forced on me — I was always asked: “Would you like to go to this service? Or that service?” — which I liked. It gave me that special bond, and made my faith my own choice. I live two hours away from mum and dad now, and see them every week, or Facetime them when I’m on tour.


My maternal grandmother died when I was very young, but I still think of her often, and my paternal grandfather, who was Irish and a real character. My paternal grandmother is at every concert. I feel a very close bond with all my family. I’ve just given a concert at the Epsom Playhouse, which is a homecoming for me, after five years. That’s where I grew up, and many people there have watched me develop as a musician, and supported me.


I live in north Essex now, in Colchester, with my partner. I needed a detached house, because of the piano; so I couldn’t afford a house in Surrey. But, after two years there, we think it’s the best decision we ever made. It’s countryside where I am, but I can get into London in 50 minutes. And lots of nice restaurants are popping up here; so I’m very lucky.


I’m on the road most of the time, or in an airport. When I’m at home, I’m busy learning new repertoire. Lots of other things —wonderful and quite bizarre things — take up a lot of time: interviews, TV, photo shoots. I’m doing one tonight for the cover for a big glossy magazine in Azerbaijan. My name’s getting known across the world.


It surprises me, sometimes: I’ve always been a very determined person, but I never realised I’d take it this far. I’m signed to a major record label. I feel very blessed; but a lot of hard work has gone into securing these things, and I have to work hard to keep that standard high. That’s a pressure I like and loathe at the same time, but I was fully aware of this when I entered the industry, and it’s what I wanted.


What people forget is that it’s called the “music business” for a reason. Just because I’m on stage and losing myself in the music doesn’t mean that there’s not an awful lot going on behind the scenes. I’m the swan on the top of the lake, while the team is paddling away frantically underneath. I get to interpret the music, and other people do the business side, but it’s an industry.


Cruelty to animals makes me angry, and it’s a constant issue. You see things on Facebook and videos which are just terrible, and there’s just no need for it. It’s very upsetting. I’m involved with lots of charities, but I want to get involved with an animal charity when I’ve got time to go on visits and things. I’ve got a dog — who’s kind of my baby.


I pray for my family, for all those that suffer.


I’d choose to be locked in a church with the actor and writer Dawn French. She really is one of my most admired personalities, and she shares her gift of humour so much with others. I think humour and music makes everyone feel less alone.


Nicholas McCarthy was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

His CD, “Solo, the first album of one-handed piano music, issued by Warner Classics, is available on Amazon, iTunes, and in HMV stores.

For details of the Concert of Remembrance at St John’s, Smith Square, on 11 November, visit www.sjss.org.uk.

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