Nicholas McCarthy in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

My Classical Conversations Series continues today and features British left-handed concert pianist Nicholas McCarthy, who is my thirty-seventh guest. He met with me earlier this month at Steinway Hall in London.

Nicholas was born in 1989 without his right hand and only began to play the piano at the late age of 14 after seeing a friend play Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata.

Studying at the prestigious Royal College of Music in London, his graduation in July 2012 made history and drew press headlines world-wide, being the only left-hand alone pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music in its 130 year history.

Nicholas has performed extensively throughout the UK in major venues including The Royal Albert Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, St Martin-in-the-Fields and the Wales Millennium Centre among others. Internationally Nicholas has performed at The Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C, The Capetown Convention Centre & The Linder Auditorium in South Africa, The Vilhena Palace and the Offices of the Prime Minister in Malta and the Abay Opera House Kazakhstan.

Nicholas is widely featured throughout national and international press and regularly gives live performances and interviews on television and radio including shows for BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4, BBC television Channel 4 and ITV. Nicholas has been the subject of both a BBC documentary and featured in one by Channel 4. Nicholas ‘s television appearances have been responsible for drawing a cross-section of new audiences to his imaginative recitals, many of whom had never been to a piano recital.

Nicholas’ specialist repertoire is rich and varied encompassing numerous great pieces for left hand alone including original exciting pieces by Scriabin, Liszt and Brahms with striking arrangements of Schubert and Bach (Wittgenstein’s arrangements) Gershwin and some Chopin/Godowsky studies amongst others including Nicholas’ own transcriptions for left hand of more familiar ‘well known’ two handed piano works such as Chopin’s G Minor Ballade and Roses of Picardy by Haydn Wood. Nicholas’s programming caters for a broad range of classical and mainstream tastes. Besides this solo repertoire Nicholas also has numerous concertos in his repertoire. Famed not only for his virtuosic displays at the piano but also for his sensitive and warm interpretations.

One of Nicholas’s proudest moments was performing with the British Paraorchestra at the Closing Ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic games where they played alongside Coldplay and gave a rendition of the Paralympic anthem in front of an audience of 86,000 people and half a billion worldwide viewers.

Nicholas recently performed at the International Cheltenham Festival and gave an extensive range of Schools workshops in conjunction with this. July/August will see Nicholas present two of the world-famous BBC Proms, to be televised on BBC4.

Nicholas is Patron of Carers Gloucestershire, The Towersey Foundation and has recently been appointed ambassador of The One Handed Musicians Trust (OHMI) and works alongside a number of other charities including The Tadworth Children’s Trust all of which are very close to Nicholas’s heart.

Speaking engagements have seen Nicholas speak across the country in a range of Schools and businesses including the annual ITV ‘Big Think’ Conference and most notably his TED Talk at The Royal Albert Hall.

So, you must have got going quite quickly? Which teachers do you think were most influential for your development?

Nicholas: Well, I self-taught for the first couple of years.

Melanie: Oh, right!

Nicholas: Yea, and then my parents enlisted a local private teacher, because I think my mum and dad just thought it was going to be a bit of a fad, you know?

Melanie: [Laughter]

Nicholas: But they were encouraging as well. And I think for me probably the turning point was when I auditioned for the Junior Guildhall. That was when I used to play with my little arm, what I call affectionately my little arm, and my left hand. So, I actually auditioned with Mozart’s Fantasy in D minor and things like that, where I would play with little arm and my left hand. And I was accepted. The only condition were I was encouraged to specialize in left hand alone repertoire, which at the time actually I didn’t like. You know, I’d worked really hard, because I love Mozart. I love Beethoven. I’d worked really hard to get to this stage, and to be accepted into this music school.

But then all of a sudden it was like, “Great! But, you can’t play Mozart anymore. You can’t play Beethoven anymore. No Mendelssohn for you anymore.” You know, all of these composers which I’d grown to love for the past years when I’d got to that stage, I had to wave goodbye to, which was tricky. Being a quite headstrong teen, I was a bit, you know – I had Lucy Parham, who taught me at the Junior Guildhall. So, she had a bit of a difficult time with me I think. So, when I see her, I should probably apologize for that back then. It was just because I think that’s a difficult time as an artist anyway at that time, plus teenage years. But she was very, she learned to live with me as well, and I think she could understand the kind of artistic dilemma that I was probably in at that point.

Melanie: So, she was your first teacher? What other teachers did you have?

Nicholas: She was my first proper teacher if you like, where I really, really focused on the piano in a different way, because I had to. When you’re at any of these Junior colleges, like Junior Royal College or Junior Guildhall, you have to work really hard. So Lucy was probably my first proper teacher. I then went on and auditioned for the Royal College of Music and was offered a place there and I studied – I went through a lot of teachers actually at the Royal College, but to no fault of theirs or my own. I think with me and obviously left-hand repertoire, not everyone knows everything about it. So, it was quite nice for me to take a snapshot of everyone’s knowledge, if you like. So, I studied for a while with Andrew Ball, and then went on to Ian Jones, and then I studied with Nigel Clayton. Probably for me, Nigel Clayton was the one I felt most influenced by through my career. And even now I have his voice in my head telling me things like, “No!” and things like that. And I often see his markings. I think he got me completely. He understood everything about my playing.

The other side of my career. You see, with me, it’s not all about piano playing all the time. I’m not one of these people that do 90 recitals a year and things. I’ve got a lot of other media stuff that I do, and he really understood that. He knew the time restraints that I had to deal with and offered advice for those things. I think for me, at that time, it was so beneficial to be learning from him.

Melanie: So, how did you develop your technique? Because it’s quite a different type of development, I would imagine.

Nicholas: Yea. Again, when I first started with Lucy, she did a lot of groundwork with me, because I had a lot of holes in my technique at that time because I’d started at the age of 14. I hadn’t been doing Hanon and Czerny from the age of 3 or things like that. So, I really, really had to try and hone that technique as best as I can and to sew those holes together. I think a lot of that foundation work Lucy accomplished with me. And then obviously once I was at the Royal College and having to do technical exams and things like that, things come to take a turn.

And in that sense, in a technical sense, you really see your technique skyrocket. I think for me what really developed my technique was probably my second year. I saw a real rise in my second year of the Royal College, when I was learning the Chopin/Godowsky Studies, which were probably too difficult for me at the time. I mean, I’m playing them now, but at the time they were too tricky. But they really raised the bar in my technique. And it was almost when I then performed something which probably was then in my range, I found that it was much easier. I could do things and double thirds and things like that, weren’t as difficult as they were before. I really think they helped me a great deal, a great deal. And now, you know I perform them a lot. I perform them as encores sometimes. I don’t find them tricky like I used to. The writing of them is so masterful, but I think they’re actually very, very well suited for me in that sense.

Melanie: So, what are the challenges then of being a one-armed pianist do you think, what do you find?

Nicholas: I think the challenge is probably stamina, for one. And I think people often forget that you’ve got one hand trying to create that two-handed sound. You know, often if you were to count the notes, it’d probably be still as many notes sometimes as there would be in a two-handed piece. I think that’s difficult and obviously still being expected to deliver a 90-minute recital, the same as someone with two hands. So, you know, I think probably stamina is a tricky thing. Especially if I’ve got lots of concerts all at once or on a tour, rest periods are imperative.

Melanie: Absolutely [Laughter]

Nicholas: Of course. I think piano is quite an exhausting instrument for anybody. But I do think probably me, as a left hand pianist, I do probably feel it a bit more. After the concert it does feel like I’ve been to the gym for about four hours.

Melanie: [Laughter] How much of your repertoire is original and how much is arrangements? And how do you decide? In concerts, do you have a certain amount of arrangements, a certain amount of original? What would you say you do?

Nicholas: That’s quite an interesting question actually. I wouldn’t be able to probably give a percentage, because there’s so much repertoire for left hand. There really is. There’s so much. And a lot of the works that I play are original or have been transcribed by Paul Wittgenstein or another left-handed pianist of the day. So they are original in that sense of being written, you know, not in present day. But I think choosing programmes, I’ve always been very careful with. Again, left hand repertoire is quite esoteric, a lot of people don’t know about it. They’ve never heard of it, or they’ve heard of me and they haven’t really – They only know Ravel left-hand concerto or something. So, whenever I programme I always want to try and give as big a snapshot as I can of what’s available. So, I have those quite nice familiar pieces that people know and love, and even if you don’t like classical music you would recognize. As well as some complete unknown composers who probably only I’ve heard of in the world, because I’ve done research for this left-hand repertoire. So, I try to combine that as best I can.

Recently, I’ve started transcribing my own-

Melanie: I was about to say, “Do you do lots of the arrangements yourself?” It must be a tendency to want to re-write things yourself.

Nicholas: I’ve only just started doing it actually.

Melanie: Ahhh

Nicholas: And this is a question I used to get asked all the time. “Do you compose?” And I said, “I’m a really bad composer. I don’t compose.” But transcribing, obviously the work has been done for you, taking that and making it for left-handed, that’s something I really, really enjoy doing and especially for my upcoming tour in November. I’ve transcribed, I’ve taken a few of the famous wartime songs and Roses of Picardy and Novello’s Keep the Home Fires Burning and things like that, which people know and love. They actually work so well for left-handed. Sometimes when I finish I think, “Oh, that’s even as good as the original.” It’s really nice when that happens. Whereas, obviously sometimes with left-handed repertoire you do lose something. Whereas, other times you don’t. You kind of keep that sound. You keep that, and I think that just varies with each transcription.

Melanie: So, which composers do you love to play? Which would you say are your favorites?

Nicholas: That’s really difficult. I always play Scriabin’s Prelude and Nocturne. Probably everyone’s sick to death of me playing it. I mean, it’s a great piece and it was actually my first piece of left-hand repertoire. So, it’s very special to me. It was the first piece which made me sit up and think, “My God, I love this repertoire!” It was almost a catalyst for me to wave goodbye to my composers that I loved, as I said earlier, and say hello to my new repertoire. And I think that’s why it’s so special to me, and I think I have actually played it in every single performance that I’ve given.

Melanie: Oh, really?

Nicholas: Every single recital. I just love it. I love Liszt, but Liszt unfortunately only wrote one quite mediocre left-hand original arrangement. But there’s lots that Wittgenstein transcribed lots of pieces of Liszt and I play a lot and I like them. I always think if I had two hands, Liszt would be probably a composer which I’d be quite, have a good relationship with I should say. I really like the transcriptions of Liszt that I play. I play the Schubert The Earl King transcription for left hand of that and things like that. And the Wagner/Liszt Liebestod which Wittgenstein transcribed, I think those kind of pieces I have quite an affinity with.

Melanie: Is there a lot more left hand repertoire to learn or have you learned most of it, would you say?

Nicholas: I said in an interview about two weeks ago, I said that I estimate that I’ve covered about a third of the repertoire. And to think I’ve been working solidly since I was 17, I’m 25 now. So, I think that gives you a scope to what’s available. I mean, the amount of solo works, concertos – what is the number? I think there’s about 27 concertos for left-hand, which a lot of people don’t know. But the solo repertoire as well is just absolutely vast. And obviously then there’s the solo transcriptions so.

Melanie: Get practicing.

Nicholas: Yes, get practicing. There’s a lot of work, and you should see my piano at the moment. It’s just covered.

Melanie: Do you have a particular practice routine?

Nicholas: I’m really quite bad actually. I always have been and Lucy – If you spoke to Lucy or Nigel or Ian, they would always say. And I think again, I probably blame this a lot actually on the fact that I only started at 14. I think because I never had that idea of practice from a child. You know, if you started at 4, you have that notion of what is practice. But for me, I never had that. I was playing out with my friends and things like that. So at 14, to kind of get that discipline – It’s always been difficult for me and even now I have to force myself. It’s never a kind of routine. And also with the other things I do in life, I often aren’t by a piano. Also there’s the interview side of things that every pianist has to do. But then that’s time away from the piano. I’m probably not the best instructor in my practice and never have been, but I get it done. I get it done eventually.

Melanie: You’ve got a lot of exciting things coming up including a tour, Music in Remembrance. That’s quite soon, isn’t it? So, tell us a little bit about that.

Nicholas: That kicks off 7th of November in Liverpool and again that’s quite nice. I’ve never performed in Liverpool before. It’s a nice little exciting place to perform in. The Music in Remembrance tour came about because I was – funnily enough, I was doing a bit of research in my family tree. I got quite interested with my aunt and she had done a little bit. And I discovered that my great Nan, Annie Taylor – She just absolutely fascinated me, what she did in the war. Basically, she worked in a canteen and she kind of served the injured servicemen that came through. But what really fascinated me was I found a picture of her all dressed up, and it was on Armistice Day. It had the date on the back. And I just felt for her- It was just so interesting, her life. She then went on. She lost her son in the Blitz.

She was injured in the Blitz as well and things like that, and you just imagine- I didn’t imagine that I had a great Nan who did that. But in one of her diaries, she was talking about music that she loved, and she mentioned Ivor Novello, and she mentioned Roses of Picardy, and I’d literally just transcribed these two pieces anyway for when I was playing and the Cheltenham Festival. It all kind of married together, and I thought, “This would be great. This would be great to do in a tour.” And so, I spoke to my manager and it all kind of came together. I’m excited about it because, for people who come to my recitals, they know my playing. They know I always kind of give them a little surprised of a new piece of repertoire which they obviously wouldn’t have heard. But I think they’ll be particularly surprised by this one, because I’ve obviously got to Keep the home fires burning. I’ve even transcribed Elgar’s Nimrod and it’s almost even more poignant to a certain extent, because you’re transported back to the repertoire that I have, so much that has come from injured servicemen, Paul Wittgenstein etc..

All of these concert pianists who lost limbs in the First World War, and I think it makes people remember that. Remember that this music has often come from the atrocities that happen. I’m very excited about it.

Melanie: So, you’ve got – Is it 4 concerts or is it more?

Nicholas: It’s 4 concerts, yes, quite a small tour. I start off in Liverpool on the 7th. I’m then at the Royal Albert Hall in Elgar Room on Remembrance Sunday, which I’m thrilled about. It’s going to be a nice poignant date to do the concert on. I’m then in Cheltenham on Armistice Day, so, another poignant date, November 11th. And then I’m at my hometown Colchester to play there at the end of November. So, it’ll be nice. It’ll be nice to be able to intertwine this new repertoire, which obviously it’s not classical repertoire but it’s got a classical twist to it, but to intertwine that with my old classical repertoire. So, I’ll also be playing the Wittgenstein arrangement of Bach/Gounod’s Ave Maria and the Scriabin Nocturne will be in there. You know, pieces which people are familiar with me playing, but as well as this new repertoire.

Melanie: So, what does playing the piano mean to you?

Nicholas: What does playing the piano mean to me? That’s a really difficult question. Has everyone you’ve interviewed always said it’s a difficult question?

Melanie: They do. They do say it’s a difficult question, but it’s interesting.

Nicholas: I think for me, I’ve always been drawn to it since that time I saw my friend performing the Beethoven sonata. For me, it kind of gives me that comfort. Even when I see it in my house, I see it here, sat next to a piano, it’s a comfort feeling for me. So that’s why when I go on stage, I don’t get nervous. Because for me, walking on stage toward a piano, it’s like going to a comfort blanket when you’re a kid or something like that. So, I think for me, it’s certainly and obviously an integral part of my life, but it’s always a comforting part of my life as well. It’s always there, you know, even if I’m not practicing like I should. It’s always there. And yeah, that’s what I’d probably say, for me.

Melanie: Thanks so much for joining me today.

Nicholas: Thank you. Thank you.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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