Nicholas McCarthy was 14 when he heard his first piano recital. It was a sonata by Beethoven and for McCarthy it was a coup de foudre.
“A friend of mine, a very accomplished pianist, was playing. And in that moment I fell in love with the piano. I loved everything she was doing, I loved everything about the instrument. And in that moment I knew I wanted to be a pianist.”
This, he admits, was “a bit naïve”. Concert pianists don’t spring, untutored, from nowhere. McCarthy had been hoping to become a chef. He’d never had a music lesson. He wasn’t from a musical background. And, perhaps most significantly, he was born without a right hand. But in those first chords of the Waldstein, he heard his fate: “I just kind of focused,” he recalls, “and things slotted into place.”
It’s one way of putting it. The next nine years would be a gruelling test of talent, stamina and resourcefulness, but this summer McCarthy, 23, made history as the first one-handed pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music. In August he headlined with the British Paraorchestra at the Paralympics Closing Ceremony. He has a crammed concert diary (having already played the Queen Elizabeth Hall at London’s Southbank Centre and the O2 arena) and this week appears in Radio 3’s In Tune as part of their “A-Z of the piano” series.
McCarthy features in “L” – for left-handed piano. It’s a little-understood specialism. Certainly when the teenage McCarthy first started to pick out tunes on an electronic keyboard from Argos, he had no idea of the extensive piano repertoire written to be played by the left hand alone. “I found I could play one-note melody lines with my ‘little arm’ – the one where I don’t have my hand – and then play the left-hand part,” he recalls. “I taught myself to read music and I found I was quite good. I was never really hugely academic at school – an average B or C grade kind of student – so it was very different and lovely for me to experience something where things were coming easily and quickly to me and to quite a high standard.”
McCarthy’s mum and dad – Julie and Ray, a salesman – are “not musical in the slightest”, but they were fully behind their son’s new passion. “I think it would have been very easy for my parents to encourage me not to do the piano, to save me embarrassment and maybe failure. But they’ve always said: ‘So, you’ve got one hand. It doesn’t make you any different.’
“I was brought up near Epsom Downs in Surrey. Our house was in a cul-de-sac with a lot of similar-aged children, and I was the first person in the whole street to ride my bike without stabilisers. And when I took up piano, my parents nurtured it from day one. They got me a teacher, changed the dining room into my piano room and put up with six hours’ practice a day.”
Progressing to the junior department of London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama, McCarthy was introduced by his teacher, concert pianist Lucy Parham, to the rarefied world of left-handed playing. “I was exposed to all this wonderful repertoire I didn’t even know existed – a lifetime of work – and for the first time I was on a truly level playing field.”
Left-handed pianism, he explains, was popular as a showpiece for virtuosi in the Romantic era. “They basically did it to say, ‘Right, I’ve done my 90-minute recital and now I need to blow the lid off and have the audience go wild. So I’m going to play with just one hand.’ And the trick was to make a sound like two hands playing.”
It’s a highly specialised technique involving subtle pedal work to fill out the sound, and extraordinary digital control. “You have to be very clever at ‘voicing’ different parts,” points out McCarthy. “A good way of thinking of it is to imagine your hand split into two – your little finger and fourth finger are ‘the left hand’ and the others are your ‘right hand’.”
The left-hand tradition changed course in the early 20th century when Paul Wittgenstein (brother of Ludwig), a pianist who had lost his right arm in the First World War, used his family wealth and connections to commission left-hand pieces from composers such as Ravel, Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten. “I’m always thankful to Paul Wittgenstein as he expanded the repertoire phenomenally,” says McCarthy. “I’m passionate about commissioning new pieces, too. I almost see myself as a bit of an advocate to expand the repertoire. I was playing Fairfield Halls in Croydon recently and two young boys came up to me afterwards. They had arms just like mine and they said, ‘We just didn’t realise… but now we want to learn piano.’ That was a lovely moment.”
McCarthy, despite all appearances, hasn’t got everything cracked. “The one thing I still can’t do, for the life of me, is tie shoelaces. Most other things, I can find a way around!”
It won’t hold him back. When McCarthy plays, the only remarkable thing is his talent. If one day he plays Carnegie Hall in loafers, no one will mind a bit.
The A-Z of Piano continues as part of In Tune – today at 4:30pm on Radio 3