Nicholas McCarthy: The concert pianist who decided to take on the world – single-handed

Royal College of Music graduate is astounding sell-out audiences after overcoming prejudice

Cahal Milmo
Thursday 16 August 2012 12:26 BST
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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Nicholas McCarthy will tonight play the piano in the offices of the Prime Minister of Malta. Next month, the young musician will be the main draw at a large London concert hall. He also happens to have only one hand.

This summer, the 23-year-old became the first one-handed pianist known to have graduated from the Royal College of Music in London. His success came after nearly a decade of refusing to accept the judgements of those who told him he would never master the instrument.

Instead, Mr McCarthy, who was born with no right hand, now finds himself on the brink of a career as an international performer after astounding professionals and wowing audiences with his ability to play so seamlessly.

He plays from a substantial but little-known repertoire of pieces written for playing the piano with a single hand, some of them composed for or arranged by Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in the First World War.

Mr McCarthy said: "The music is all written for the left hand alone, I'm not changing anything. You've got to be very quick and good with the pedalling to sustain the bass notes while playing the top notes."

Mr McCarthy, from Tadworth, Surrey, started piano lessons when he was 14, after being bought an electronic keyboard from Argos by his non-musical parents. After his first piano teacher told him he had outstripped her ability to teach him, he approached a music school, mentioning his disability. The school refused to give him an audition.

He told BBC News yesterday: "It was soul-crushing because that's all I wanted to do. But it made me more determined."

Others in the music world were not so closed off to Mr McCarthy's potential. He played as a junior at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music before entering the RCM.

After accepting the decision of one his teachers that he should concentrate on works written to be played with a single hand, he has become something of a crowd-puller.

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Professor Vanessa Latarche, the head of keyboard music at the royal college, said: "He has been a great inspiration to many of his fellow students in showing what it is possible to achieve with a disability."

The pianist is not concerned that people might come to see him play out of curiosity. He said: "For many, the first reaction is astonishment. I've had some people who thought I'd played with a backing track, but it is just me and my left hand."

Mr McCarthy is also a member of Britain's first orchestra for disabled musicians – the 18-strong Paraorchestra, which played last month at a ceremony to welcome the Team GB athletes to the Paralympics.

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