Typically we think of the piano as being an instrument that requires two hands (more if it’s a duet, trio, or other multi-piano performance). We certainly view the piano virtuoso, the performer, as a well-trained, very dexterous showman/woman who plays the piano on stage very dramatically with two hands.
Is it possible to play a complicated, serious piece of music with only one hand? Actually, it is.
The twentieth-century witnessed a growing interest in one-handed piano music, particularly written for renowned piano virtuosos who, like Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), have lost an arm due to some traumatic event.
Ivan Ilic in the Washington Times Communities notes that Wittgenstein was a concert pianist in the early 1900s. He received injuries while fighting in World War I and had his right arm amputated. Refusing to admit to his new handicap, Wittgenstein not only commissioned works for the left-handed pianist, but he also devised techniques to help him perform complicated pieces that were not written for a five-fingered (one-handed) pianist.
More recently, British concert pianist Nicholas McCarthy has made the headlines. Born with only a left arm and born into a non-musical family, it might seem unlikely that this young man would take to the concert stage as a piano virtuoso. But, despite the odds against him, McCarthy did just that and much more. In fact, he is the first one-handed pianist to graduate from the world-renowned Royal College of Music and his performance career is really taking off.
Decoded Arts’ Interview with Nicholas McCarthy
EJHO – Hello Nicholas. Thank you for agreeing to an interview with Decoded Arts. I’m sure being the first one-handed pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music was not your goal. Tell me something about music and you. Why is music so important to you? And why is the piano so important as your instrument of choice?
NM – I come from a very un-musical family, so the concept of being a ‘concert’ performer was quite foreign to both myself and my parents. So when I started to play the piano, my love of music grew with me. I always loved the feeling of getting absolutely lost in my own world when playing the piano. I think this feeling then drove me forward in pursuing a career as a concert pianist.
EJHO – How old were you when you realized that music was important to you?
NM – As soon as I heard my friend perform the Beethoven ‘Waldstein’ Sonata I knew the piano was for me. I just love everything about it, the sound it makes, even the look of it as a piece of beautiful furniture.
EJHO – You say that you were fourteen when you started piano lessons. By that point you had already taught yourself. Tell me something about your first teacher.
NM – I didn’t have any trouble finding a teacher. When I was scouting for a good teacher, I didn’t tell them about the fact that I was born with only one hand. So when my first piano teacher turned up at the door, she was shocked to say the least. But, thankfully, once I had performed for her, she was more than happy to take me on.
EJHO – What did you enjoy most about your lessons? What did you find the most challenging as a piano student (other than the obvious physical challenge)?
NM – I loved the sense of achievement, especially once I had done my first exam as then I was always looking ahead, thinking what’s next, what am I going to learn next etc. I think the thing I found most challenging was sight reading, as I had started so late it really was like learning another language, it was definitely a struggle, but I persevered and it paid off.
EJHO – In one of the articles I read, you described teaching yourself to play on a cheap keyboard. You were able to use your ‘incomplete’ right arm to play the melody. Is this something you still do on occasion? If so, in a public performance? Or do you perform entirely with your left hand?
NM – If I have a quiet time away from the concert platform and I’m at home with nothing hugely important coming up then I definitely enjoy sitting at the piano and playing some of my old ‘two-handed’ repertoire. I love Mozart and unfortunately he didn’t write anything for left hand alone, so it’s my private way of getting my Mozart fix. I never perform like that in public. I think I’ll keep it that way for the time being.
EJHO – Who was your inspiration to pursue your goal to become a pianist?
NM – I didn’t have a sole person who inspired me, but lots of concert pianists who I would watch on YouTube, namely my favourite pianist Martha Argerich. But the whole concept of being a concert pianist intrigued me and I was just desperate to be able to walk on stage and sit down to play to an audience for an hour and half or play a concerto with an orchestra.
EJHO – There have been other one-handed pianists, Paul Wittgenstein being one of the most celebrated; did any of these gifted artists influence your goal?
NM – Paul Wittgenstein definitely influences me. The press have often labeled me the Wittgenstein of today, which in a way is nice as he was such a trail blazer and I hope I am doing the same by making the [left hand piano] repertoire more known to a wider audience.
EJHO – There have been works composed entirely for the left hand. These are amazing works to perform, even for a two-handed pianist. Is there a particular piece, or a selection of pieces from this repertoire that you really enjoy performing? Why?
NM – I love performing Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. It’s beautiful, dark and yet a fun work to perform. In regards to solo piano I love performing Chopin/Godowsky’s Etude Op.25 No.12 ‘Ocean’. It’s a hugely difficult virtuosic work but the passion I try to convey to my audience when I perform it always leaves me feeling great about the piece. My audiences love it too.
EJHO – Beethoven composed some of his best works when he was deaf. How would you compare your challenge to that of Beethoven’s?
NM – For me, I feel there was no physical challenge as there is so much left hand alone repertoire and I, of course, have my left hand. So, in that respect, I can’t compare to the struggle that Beethoven had. My only struggle at the earlier part of my career was to try and convince the quite closed minded industry that left hand repertoire is worth listening to. Things have changed now, but at the beginning it was tricky.
EJHO – Have you reworked, or re-composed, (or commissioned someone else to do this) some of the Classical piano works so that you can perform them with one hand? I understand Wittgenstein had some of the Classics re-written for the left hand.
NM – I have been doing a lot of transcribing of late and am finding I love doing it and then performing something which I have managed to create. I have transcribed Bach/Liszt Fantasy in G Minor as well as Chopin’s Ballade No.1 in G Minor, which is quite the showstopper. People often ask me to perform it time and time again.
EJHO – Do you have a favourite composer whose work you really enjoy performing? What is it about his/her music that really speaks to you?
NM – I love Franz Liszt. He has always spoken to me as a composer. I’m not sure whether it’s the sound world he manages to create or the virtuosity. But nevertheless, I adore his compositions.
EJHO – A typical concert musician’s day is filled with hours of practice, hours of rehearsals and hours of listening. How would you describe your typical ‘working’ day?
NM – I usually practice for about four hours a day. This sometimes doesn’t happen due to radio and television commitments ahead of a concert. This can be quite frustrating, especially if I have a concert in the evening yet that morning I’ve been doing breakfast radio and television.
EJHO – What is your goal in music?
NM – I always say I’ve been very lucky in the fact people want to see me perform and am in the position where I don’t need to teach on the side as so many musicians do. However, teaching is something that I’ve always loved, so I always make sure I do a lot of school workshops and educational talks. It is definitely something that I love and am passionate about, especially because in the UK, music in schools is not at the forefront of education, so I think that it’s important that artists can engage with students of all ages.
EJHO – Thank you so much, Nicholas, for your time in answering these questions.
The Start of a Promising Career
Nicholas McCarthy has a bright and promising career ahead of him as he continues to prove that music comes from somewhere deeper than the basic ability to perform in the same way as others perform. It is always inspiring to hear someone perform on the piano, but to do so with such a great gift as well as the use of only one set of five fingers, is more than just inspiring.
McCarthy’s work goes beyond the concert stage. His involvement in the schools and with young people is his gift to the next generation. Not only is he sharing his music with these impressionable young minds, he is also pointing out that anything is possible in life. All you need is a dream and the courage to pursue that dream.