Music student, 23, becomes the first one-handed pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music in its 130-year history
Nicholas McCarthy was born without his right handHe graduated from the Royal College of Music today, the college's first one-hand pianist
He is also part of The British Paraorchestra who performed to welcome Paralympic athletes to LondonHe plays music written for left-hand only
21:46 GMT, 28 August 2012
A music student, who was born without his right hand, has made history by becoming the first one-handed pianist to graduate from the 130-year-old Royal College of Music.
As a child Nicholas McCarthy, 23, was refused an audition and told he would never succeed but went on to stubbornly defy the odds and the pessimists to reach the milestone today.
The pianist from Tadworth in Surrey is also part of The British Paraorchestra, the country’s first disabled orchestra, which played to welcome Paralympic athletes to London.
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Defied the pessimists: Refused a piano audition as a child, Nicholas McCarthy, 23, has graduated from the Royal College of Music today, the first one-handed pianist to do so in the college's 130-year history
After he was refused an audition at a school for young pianists as a teenager, Mr McCarthy became more determined.
He said: ‘It was soul crushing because that’s all I wanted to do – I could feel it would be an uphill struggle, but it made me more determined, I’m quite a stubborn character.’
He taught himself to play on a cheap, electric keyboard from Argos and did not start piano lessons until he was 14.
Mr McCarthy said: ‘I had never experienced anything that came so naturally. I found I could play a one-note melody accurately with my little arm – although anything with big chords was out of the question. I practised for hours and hours. Time just disappeared.
‘I vaguely knew how to read the notes from my compulsory music lessons at school, but I played a lot by ear at first: Beethoven sonatas, pieces by Mozart.
‘One day I had the volume quite loud and Dad called up: “Turn off the stereo, Nick”, and I said: “It’s not the stereo. It’s me on the keyboard.” There was silence from downstairs. My parents obviously realised something was happening.
Self-taught: Playing the piano came 'so naturally' and after teaching himself on a cheap keyboard, he started piano lessons when he was 14
‘It was then that I asked them for piano lessons… Mum and Dad never denied me an opportunity.’
The pianist had planned to become a chef but on hearing a piano sonata by Beethoven he was left ‘dumbfounded’ and changed his career path.
He said: ‘I just fell in love with it and decided that was what I wanted to do. I started playing around with the piano and found it came very naturally.’
When he was 17-years-old he secured a place at the junior department of London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, winning the annual piano prize.
He then went on to the prestigious Royal College of Music in London.
Professor Vanessa Latarche, the head of keyboard at the college, said he had been ‘incredibly enterprising’ in overcoming big challenges such as developing the stamina to present a 50-minute recital with one arm.
She said: ‘He has been a great inspiration to many of his fellow students in showing what it is possible to achieve with a disability.’
He plays music written specifically for the left hand including works by Austrian composer Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm in the First World War.
Mr McCarthy said: ‘There is a lifetime’s worth of work available. There are more challenges than for a two-handed pianist because you have to cover the whole piano.
‘It does sound like there are two hands playing.’
Various other well-known composers such as Ravel, Prokofiev and Bartok have written pieces for just the left hand which Mr McCarthy plays at performances.
He believes much of his audience is drawn in by curiosity.
He said: ‘For many, the first reaction is astonishment, that wow factor. I’ve had some people who thought I’d played with a backing track, but it is just me and my left hand.’
When he first joined The British Paraorchestra, some of the sight-impaired musicians were unconvinced that Mr McCarthy could play with only one hand.
He said: ‘When I first joined the orchestra, a couple of the musicians who are partially sighted and blind didn’t believe I was playing with one hand, that was a big compliment to me.
Welcomed Paralympians: Mr McCarthy is part of The British Paraorchestra, the countrys first disabled orchestra, which played to welcome Paralympic athletes as they arrive in London
‘The music is all written for the left
hand alone, I’m not changing anything, I’m playing the music as it was
written. ‘It’s written very cleverly but you’ve got to be very quick and
good with the pedalling to sustain the bass notes while playing the top
His determination has allowed him to turn an apparent disadvantage into an advantage, learning to ride a bike and drive a car.
Mr McCarthy said: ‘There are people in my position having counselling, and I just think: “Please get over it and make something of yourself!”
Last week he performed in Malta at the country’s prime ministerial offices and on September 13 he will headline his first evening concert at Fairfield Halls in Croydon.
Father Ray, a 46-year-old salesman, always let his son do things that other said he could not do.
He said: ‘You can do two things when you have a disabled child. You either wrap them in cotton wool and pretend the world isn’t there or you make them do anything and everything.
‘Nick stumbled across the piano. As a parent you think, “he has only got one hand, but what the hell”.’
Now watch the video of Nicholas McCarthy playing