NICHOLAS McCarthy was told as a teenager that he was wasting everyone’s time by trying to learn the piano with only one hand.
But the 26-year-old has proved the critics wrong, becoming the first one-handed pianist to complete their studies at the Royal College of Music and last month releasing his first album.
McCarthy, who was born without his right hand, achieved his ambition by playing music written specifically for the left hand, including works by the Austrian composer Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in the First World War.
He says a combination of “clever writing by the composer and fast passage work and footwork on the pedal” combine to create the illusion that there are two hands playing.
A 90-minute recital is physically exhausting and McCarthy reveals he must work out physically and well as put in hours on daily practice to perform to the high standard required of the world classical concert circuit.
“The stamina is the difficult thing I find and I do a lot of running to keep that stamina as high as possible so I can cope on stage,” he says.
Remarkably, McCarthy, who’s from Tadworth, Surrey, didn’t start piano until he was 14. “I come from a very unmusical family; my family are just normal hard working people,” he says.
“Classical music never crossed my mind as I hadn’t been exposed to it.
“Then all of a sudden at 14 I heard a friend of mine, who was a very accomplished pianist, playing Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata.
“I found it amazing and decided there and then I wanted to become a concert musician.”
He has never let his disability hinder his ambition and even at a young age showed determination in becoming the first child on his neighbourhood to ride a bike without training wheels.
“People would expect me not to bother or not succeed and I was always determined to prove them wrong. That part of my personality obviously helped me succeed with the piano.”
His advice to other people with disabilities is to believe that “anything is possible”.
“With hard work and determination they can achieve their goals by focusing and keeping that momentum going in their head and not listening to others saying they can’t do it.”
An ambassador for several music education charities, McCarthy will be making his Irish premiere this weekend at the Belfast International Arts Festival and also giving a workshop to young people.
“I like exposing young people to classical music because many, like I did, automatically think they don’t like classical music,” he says.
And his advice on teaching children piano?
“The biggest problem is keeping students interested and intrigued until they are at a standard where they can play more difficult pieces. Rather than force them to play Bach, if you can hone their technique through a piece they recognise and enjoy you are going to get them to go to the piano on their own accord and practice.”
McCarthy’s album, entitled Solo, offers a snapshot of the repertoire that exists for the left hand as well as paint a portrait of him as a future composer, with three of his own arrangements. He is keen to further develop this side of his music.
“I won’t be composing a symphony, rather writing music that people can relate to and music which makes them happy,” he says.
While already in talks about about a new album, McCarthy is content with his gradual rise to fame.