Nicholas McCarthy: 'They said having only one hand will hold me back and not to waste my time'
Ahead of his performance in Belfast this Saturday, the astonishing Nicholas McCarthy tells Stephanie Bell how he overcame the doubters to become an internationally acclaimed concert pianist.
Born with one hand and having never touched a piano until the age of 14, the odds of achieving his dream of becoming a concert pianist seemed stacked against Nicholas McCarthy - and there was no shortage of people prepared to tell him so.
But an extraordinary talent and a determined spirit has seen him become one of classical music's most remarkable success stories and Belfast audiences are in for a treat on Saturday when he plays his first concert here as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival. His career, which had a rocky start thanks to doubters, just keeps getting bigger and bigger.
He has just released his debut album which has soared straight into the top 10 of the classical album charts, number four in the specialist classical album charts, and has just been named Classic FM's Album of the Week.
He has performed extensively throughout the UK in all the major venues including The Royal Albert Hall and internationally has toured South Africa, South Korea, Malta, Kazakhstan and the US.
He is also a celebrated motivational speaker and is passionate about bringing classical music to new, younger audiences. Before his one night only performance in The First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street on Saturday, he will be taking part in the Festival's Embrace outreach programme supported by the Arts Council.
He seems genuinely thrilled by the chance to give an inspirational talk and a demonstration of his piano playing skills to young people in the church as much as he is to perform for the first time in the city.
McCarthy is an obvious role model with an inspirational story and at 26 has the casual good looks of a cool pop star rather than a reserved classical artist, so it's not difficult to see how young people could relate to him.
The enthusiasm in his voice is clear as he talks about what has become a bit of mission for him to introduce young audiences to classical music. He says: "Workshops are something which I am very passionate about. No matter where I am in the world at festivals there is usually an educational side and I am always keen to take part.
"I started piano at the age of 14 which was very late for a classical artist. Usually they are playing from the ages of two or three. I think to myself if someone like me had come into my school and told their story, it might have inspired me to take up the piano earlier.
"I am trying to introduce young people to classical music as a lot of them write it off as boring without having listened to it.
"There are some pop songs I don't particularly like, but I don't write off all pop music and it is the same for classical music - there is some you might like and some you might not. It has a very broad range but people write it all off and I think that is a shame.
"I think it is so important to go in and play to children and let them hear pieces and the stories behind the music."
Nicholas was captivated at 14 when he heard a friend play Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata.
From that moment playing piano was all he wanted to do, but there were obstacles.
As a teenager seeking a place at a school for young pianists, he was refused an audition and told he would never succeed.
He admits: "They told me having one hand would always hold me back and it was better not to waste my and other people's time".
He didn't take no for an answer and his graduation from the prestigious Royal College of Music in London in July 2012 made history and drew press headlines worldwide.
He is the only left-hand alone pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music in its 130 year history. And he puts his determination down to his parents and the qualities they instilled in him as a child.
He says: "My parents always instilled self belief in me; they taught me that anything was possible with hard work and determination. When I discovered the piano I went piano mad and music mad. I think what my parents taught me drove me through and kept me focused."
In the same year he graduated, he enjoyed what remains one of his proudest moments - performing alongside Coldplay at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games in front of an audience of half a billion worldwide.
Just three years on and he has developed an international career as a concert pianist and is a patron and ambassador for several music education charities including Music For Youth.
He has also 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 ONE, Channel 4 and ITV.
Nicholas has presented two BBC Proms shows and featured in a documentary by Channel 4.
His television appearances have also helped him to draw a cross section of new audiences to his concerts, many of whom had never been to a piano recital.
Now with a record deal under his belt, Nicholas enters the next adventure in his young career bringing the music of the piano to an ever-wider audience.
His album, entitled Solo, features 17 pieces. Accessible yet surprising at every turn, the programme ranges from Wittgenstein's arrangement for left hand of Bach/Gounod's Ave Maria to popular early 20th-century works such as 'O mio babbino caro' from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi (arranged by Frédéric Meinders) and 'Summertime' from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (arranged by McCarthy himself).
It's a real gift to his fans that have been supporting Nicholas from the very start.
He says: "My fan base has always been half core classical and half lighter classical.
"I didn't want to alienate anyone by putting longer pieces on my first commercial release, but I really hope this album will offer a snapshot of the range of repertoire that exists for left hand. My selection also offers a portrait of me as an artist, including three of my own arrangements."
The disc's final track is a new commission by the British composer Nigel Hess - a Nocturne for left hand, written specially for Nicholas: "It has a really simple, beautiful theme and I love the way Nigel uses harmony. He does some unexpected things that I really like."
Warner Classics had every faith in their new artist. Head of classics at Warner Music UK, Patrick Lemanski, said: "When we saw Nicholas in concert for the first time, we were blown away by his artistry and warm connection with the audience. He truly is a one-of-a-kind artist who gets people excited about classical music in a unique and modern way. We're delighted he's now part of the Warner family."
His left-hand-alone repertoire was composed as a result of pianist Paul Wittgenstein losing his right hand in the First World War. Ravel, Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten were among those who wrote music for him. Nicholas has revived and championed this repertoire and he is thrilled that people have welcomed his album.
"It is amazing, especially as the majority of people will not have heard this music before. "It is so nice. When you put something out there and you don't know how it will go, and for it to have done so well, I am thrilled."
Belfast audiences will be treated to some of the music on the album when he performs here on Saturday. The following night, he marks his official album release with a performance in London's Royal Albert Hall.
He first visited Northern Ireland when he came to the city to promote the Belfast Festival last month.
He is looking forward to returning this week: "It was really nice to meet everybody from the festival and to see the beautiful church where I will be performing. I am really looking forward to coming back and playing in Ireland for the first time.
"My album launch is in the Royal Albert Hall the next day, when I will get to play for all my fans, and it will be great to play my album live and I will have the same programme which I will be playing in Belfast the night before."
He has also just become the latest internationally-acclaimed pianist to join the ever-growing and prestigious Yamaha 'official' artist roster. For his debut album, he selected a Yamaha CFX piano, a revolutionary new concert grand representing the culmination of more than 19 years of collaborative research and development with some of the world's greatest musicians.
The instrument produces outstanding expressiveness coupled with exceptional tonal presence.
He says: "I am thrilled to become a Yamaha artist.
"Yamaha has always been my piano of choice and it is a status I am very proud of. Performing on a CFX is always a memorable experience; only with the CFX do I find a complete affinity between myself and the instrument.
"Its colour, range and depth of sound express the full feeling that I'm looking to convey to the audience."
Nicholas is Patron of Carers Gloucestershire, Patron of Create, Patron of EDRIC and Patron of The Towersey Foundation and has recently been appointed ambassador of The One Handed Musicians Trust (OHMI).
He keenly works alongside a number of other charities, including The Tadworth Children's Trust and Scope, all of which are very close to his heart. Home is in Colchester, where he lives with his partner and manager, Simon Robinson, and their Pomeranian puppy, Binnie.
While Simon travels the world with him as his manager, Binnie is left at home, where a close network of family and friends are happy to look after him. More travel lies ahead as his album is now set for release in the US, where Nicholas aims to tour, followed by Japan and South Korea.
He says: "I've some really exciting things coming up and I've been lucky as my career just seems to naturally grow and I'm happy to sit back and watch it grow."
- More details of his Embrace workshop in Belfast and concert tickets, priced at £14/£12, are available from www.belfastinternationalartsfestival.com