Nicholas McCarthy: In Concert with History
He’s building a legacy of inspiration in challenging others to look at things in a completely different way.
Try doing something with one hand. It can be anything in your daily routine. Painfully inept at it, aren’t you? Now sit down in front of a piano with one hand behind your back and play Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata. Exactly. Now imagine being born with one hand, hearing this scrumptious piece played on a piano for the first time, and immediately deciding then and there to learn not only how to play it on the piano but do it in concert for thousands of adoring music aficionados. That’s a pretty unlikely goal, yes? That’s because you’re not Nicholas McCarthy, who did precisely that. The level of confidence that must have taken is gargantuan, but not surprising coming from him.
At the tender age of twelve, McCarthy heard his best friend playing this beautiful piece of classical music on the piano and shortly thereafter declared to his parents a lofty future plan to become a concert pianist. They looked at their son, born without a right hand, and were surprised but encouraging. They were never doubtful of what their son could achieve and always supportive, waiving the possibility that his lack of appendage could stop him. Their message was always to find ways around problems one encounters, and McCarthy took that message to heart.
He was and is a very determined individual. In fact, he reminds me of the bald child in The Matrix who tells Neo not to try bending the spoon, but to know there is no spoon. McCarthy can see past the spoon or problem to his ultimate goal.
Let Me In
McCarthy immediately began taking piano lessons, mastering the classics on his own. Once confident he came under the guidance of a music teacher who not only took him closer to his dreams but recommended he apply to a school that focused on music. Buoyed by this nudge, he called the head mistress to arrange an audition and upon learning he only had one hand, she scoffed at him and hung up.
This was the catalyst for unleashing McCarthy’s super-human determination powers.
I’ll Prove It
He was only a teenager and already believed in himself more than most of us do at fifty. After feeling down a few days, McCarthy searched the Internet for other music schools and found The Guild Hall School of Music & Drama. He secured an audition but did not reveal only having one hand until he was standing in front of the selectors, at which time he explained what was now obvious. Awkwardness notwithstanding, he wowed them and secured a place at the school. Of course he did.
A Repertoire He Was Born To Play
During his time at the school McCarthy was competing with children who’d been playing since early childhood, some from the age of three. He had gotten a late start on his own accord at twelve and only began studying music properly at age fourteen. This intimidating atmosphere would have stopped most people, but McCarthy’s love of music and problem-solving philosophy only solidified his resolve. He completed his time at Guild Hall by winning the annual piano prize; focusing on a repertoire written specifically for the left hand.
The Left-handed Repertoire
What is a left-handed repertoire and why does such a thing exist? During WWI many people came back from the front lines missing hands, much like Iraqi War vets came back missing legs from IEDs. One of these WWI veterans was Paul Wittgenstein, an Austrian-American concert pianist who lost his right arm to amputation. Wanting to return to his previous career, he invented unique techniques combining pedal and hand-movement that enabled chords everyone thought were impossible for a one-handed pianist.
Wittgenstein also commissioned one-handed compositions by some of the most famous composers of the era, including Sergei Prokofiev, Karl Weigl, and Richard Strauss. The most famous of these was Piano Concerto for the Left Hand by Maurice Ravel. These are the pieces that launched McCarthy’s concert repertoire; the one he was born to play.
“If it weren’t for Paul Wittgenstein, I wouldn’t have a career,” says Nicholas McCarthy, TED Talk, October 2, 2013.
The Royal Treatment
It was one of these pieces McCarthy learned to audition for the pinnacle of musical study in Britain: The Royal College of Music. The piece was entitled Nocturne for the Left Hand, and it sounded like a two-handed piece. That’s the result McCarthy wants from his music; for the listener not to notice anything but rapturous excellence.
In fact, when concert-goers greet him backstage and tell him they closed their eyes and never would have guessed it was played by a left-handed pianist, it’s music to his ears. McCarthy left The Royal College of Music as the first one-handed graduate in its 130-year history. HRH the Prince of Wales, President of the school, made him an honorary member in 2018.
The Chords of a Beautiful Career
Many years of whirlwind concerts followed as McCarthy showed the world what dogged determination and a dream can do. McCarthy also produced two recorded collections, Solo released in 2015 which rose to #4 on the U.K. classical music charts, followed by Echoes in 2017. Both can be ordered on Spotify, Amazon Music, and iTunes. But he didn’t stop there.
Passionate about inspiring the next generation, McCarthy began a second career as a motivational speaker doing TED Talks around the world as well as helping multi-national corporations inspire teamwork and productivity in their employees. McCarthy also reached out to schools and universities doing workshops on inspiration, imagination, and inclusion.
And who wouldn’t be motivated by the story of a determined little boy from Surrey who conquered the world with one hand.