Tadworth’s one-handed Paraorchestra star
Piano star of British Paraorchestra, Nicholas McCarthy
I think if you’ve got humour – whether you’re fat, thin, tall, whatever – I think you can often skirt around and get through any jibes people throw at you. I’ve always been very quick as well.”
‘Quick’ is certainly the word that springs to mind when Nicholas McCarthy plays me a section of Gershwin’s The Man I Love at his family’s home in Tadworth. Nicholas, who was born with the lower part of his right arm missing, recently became the first ever left-hand pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music, and his dexterity is a sight to behold. In fact if you closed your eyes and listened to the speed and range of notes being played, you would have no idea that the person before you was using just one hand.
Prior to meeting him, I had no idea there was a huge repertoire of piano pieces written for the left hand alone. These include the likes of Piano Concerto for the Left Hand by Maurice Ravel and Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 4 (both commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm during the First World War).
Nicholas explains, though, that there are, in fact, very few left-hand only pianists. “A lot of pianists who play left-hand works have got two hands. They might have injured their thumb for instance and can’t play as well so they specialise in left-hand repertoire to carry on performing. And then hopefully their hand repairs itself. There are a few sole left-hand pianists out there but I’m the youngest worldwide at the moment.”
It wasn’t until he was 14 that Nicholas discovered he had a gift for the piano. “I didn’t have a musical upbringing at all. It was by chance really,” he says. “My friend was a very accomplished pianist and she was playing a Beethoven sonata – I just fell in love with it there and then and thought that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a chef before that – so it was a bit of a career change.”
The piano came easily to him and he found he could play Grade 5 and 6-standard pieces within six months. He admits he had never shone particularly in his academic studies or in any other arena for that matter: “This was the first time where I felt that it was coming naturally – it was kind of ‘my thing’. And that’s why I think I was very driven. At that early, beginner’s stage I was already practising two or three hours a day.”
After receiving private piano lessons for a couple of years Nicholas decided to pursue his dream of a career in music and apply for a place at a local Saturday music school. But he was turned down for an audition by the headteacher – Nicholas believes she simply didn’t get ‘the concept’ of a left-hand player.
“I was distraught,” he says, “But I’m the type of personality that if you tell me ‘no’ I’ll just work even harder to get to where I want to be. So that’s when I decided to audition for the Junior Guildhall School of Music and Drama up in London … I didn’t tell them about my hand – I thought, I’ll get the audition first!”
It was at the Junior Guildhall that Nicholas’ musical career took a significant change of direction. Studying with world-renowned pianist Lucy Parham, he was encouraged to concentrate solely on pieces for the left hand. “When I first started to play the piano, I used to play with my ‘little arm’ and my left hand. So I’d play normal pieces – Mozart, Beethoven – normal two-handed pieces… However, obviously doing that there are limitations – I wouldn’t be able to play a Tchaikovsky concerto.”
He admits that this new approach was very challenging at times: “The left-hand repertoire is often very difficult. It’s often been written as a show piece of a very high standard.” But he persevered, emerging two years later with the annual piano prize and earning a place at the prestigious Royal College of Music. He graduated from the College earlier this year and has accepted a place on its Masters course.
Now 23, he in fact launched his professional music career a couple of years ago and numerous performances and appearances on programmes such as the BBC’s The One Show have raised his profile (“I love all the TV stuff – I think that’s one of the perks of the job really!”). Most recently he has been involved in a project for Channel 4 documenting the formation of the ‘Paraorchestra’. Due to be broadcast in August or September, the programme charts internationally-renowned conductor Charles Hazlewood’s quest to set up a world-class orchestra made up entirely of disabled musicians.
“What’s very different about the Paraorchestra [for me] is that I’m not a soloist in it. We are a collaboration… Before I’ve always played with orchestras in a concerto setting,” says Nicholas.
Featuring the likes of sitar player Baluji Shrivastav, harpist Steph West and violinist Takashi Kikuchi, the Paraorchestra aims to showcase disabled musicians globally. “If more paraorchestras emerge, more and more musicians will develop, will earn a living from their talent, and will of course end up in the great musical institutions of the world. Integration is the long game,” says Hazlewood.
There is rumour that the Paraorchestra may play at the Closing Ceremony of the Paralympic Games alongside Coldplay but, as with the Olympics just gone, the official line-up remains a closely guarded secret until the games are well under way.
Next up for Nicholas though is a major performance at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls on 13 September. “This will be my fifth year playing at Fairfield but it’s my first ever headline evening performance, which I’m really excited about,” he says. “I try and give a snapshot of everything that’s available in the left-hand repertoire and so far I know the audiences really do appreciate that.”
After speaking to Nicholas, you come away with the impression of a highly-driven young man. As well as dedicating six hours to practice every day, for example, he has set up his own music teaching agency – Allegro Tuition. “I’m passionate about providing quality teachers,” he says. “I wanted to provide a service where a parent could approach someone for a piano, violin or cello lesson and know that all of the teachers on our books are CRB-checked, they’ve been interviewed, they can play to a high standard and they’ve got good qualifications.”
I finish by asking him what his goal is in life. “I don’t think I’d like to be one of these huge stars who’s constantly mobbed,” he says. “It would be nice to be semi well-known… I just hope that my career will grow to the extent where, say, BBC Proms wanted a pianist to play Ravel’s left-hand piano concerto, I would love them to automatically know me and think of me. I would like to be the definitive person to go to for any performance of a left-handed piece.”
To find out more about Nicholas McCarthy or to buy his album, Debut, see nicholasmccarthy.co.uk.
Further info: Allegro Tuition – allegrotuition.com; Fairfield Halls – fairfield.co.uk or 020 8688 9291 (box office)
The British Paraorchestra is due to perform at the Paralympic team welcome ceremony at the Olympic Stadium (Aug 28), the Unlimited Festival on the South Bank (Aug 31) and (subject to confirmation) at the Closing Ceremony (Sept 9). For further info visit: paraorchestra.com