Against the Odds: The World's Youngest Left Hand Pianist
As anyone who has seen Alan Yentob's BBC documentary Imagine Being a Concert Pianist will know, establishing a career as a professional pianist is one of the hardest in the world. But if that's true with two hands and ten fingers, can you imagine doing it with just one hand and five fingers? Nor can I, but this month's guest writer, the brilliant young left-hand pianist Nicholas McCarthy, has done just that, and I am delighted to welcome him to the website in the second of an ongoing series of articles by guest writers.
Born without his right hand, Nicholas only began to play the piano when he was fourteen. Three years later he was awarded a place at London's Guildhall School of Music & Drama, where he studied with the acclaimed English concert pianist Lucy Parham. After being awarded the Annual Piano Prize in 2008, he went on to study with Nigel Clayton at the Royal College of Music. He has since played in many of the country's most prestigious concert halls, and has recently returned from his first performances in Europe.
You may well have read one of his many interviews, or seen him on programmes such as This Morning and GMTV, but local readers may be interested to know that he is giving a concert at Cheltenham Town Hall on October 25th. His programme will include works by Bach, Liszt and Scriabin, and if you are unable to come then you can find out more about his performances through Facebook, Twitter and his YouTube channel. But without further ado, I will now let Nicholas explain how his fascinating journey began.
Left hand piano repertoire is still somewhat unknown in the classical music world. Aside from the great concerto by Maurice Ravel and the Op. 21 Diversions for Piano and Orchestra by Benjamin Britten, people are often unaware of the other masterpieces for left hand and the wealth of repertoire that is available.
So when people ask me what I do for a living and I reply that "I'm a left hand pianist," I am often greeted with perplexed and slightly concerned looks. Sometimes I can even see what thoughts are flying through their heads. "Has he gone mad? He must be imagining he is a concert pianist." Or "He's joking. He's got to be joking. But I don't know if I should laugh cautiously or not at all, just in case he is telling the truth!" Their reactions are, of course, understandable, after all it's not every day you meet someone with one hand who claims to be a pianist. It's hardly the first vocation you would pick if you were missing a limb, and I would probably have the same perplexed reaction that I am so often greeted with if someone else told me the same thing.
As with everything in life there are two sides to the coin, pros and cons. The cons are that I am constantly having to explain my craft, as opposed to a 'normal' concert pianist who just says "I am a pianist" and is promptly greeted with admiring looks. However, I have found that for me the pros far outweigh the cons. Once the unsure looks to which I have grown so accustomed have subsided, people are intrigued and inspired by what I do and always want to know more about the repertoire I play. It's these reactions that cancel out the cons of being a left hand pianist.
The term 'left hand piano repertoire' conjures up images of a pianist sitting down and playing the left hand part of a normal two-hand piano piece, which would of course just be plain boring. Even the thought of listening to the left hand part of a piano sonata is enough to make me glaze over. So when I was first introduced to left hand repertoire I was equally as baffled by the concept.
It first came to my attention when I was seventeen. I had been playing the piano for only three years and had a very 'unmusical' upbringing, so the idea of attending a music school was alien to both my parents and me. Naturally, me being me and liking a challenge, I decided to audition for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Entrance was by audition only, and as if that prospect wasn't daunting enough I also had the hurdle of explaining (and winning them over to the idea) that I was a pianist with only one hand.
At that time I played 'normal' repertoire, and by 'normal' I mean standard two-hand repertoire. I used to play these pieces using my left hand and my right 'stump'. So anything with a one-note melody line and a left hand accompaniment was ideal. For my audition I decided to play Mozart's Fantasy in D Minor (K. 397). I entered the bleak audition room and was greeted by an 'X-Factor' style audition set up, went up to the panel and greeted them and explained that I was born without my right hand and told them the piece that I would be playing. I approached the huge concert grand Steinway, which was in fact the first grand piano I had ever played. And to my surprise, I played the piece as well as I could have hoped to. Subsequently I was accepted to the Guildhall School of Music, to study with Lucy Parham.
Little did I know at this time that Lucy would become a fundamental part of me becoming a left hand pianist. After my audition she mentioned some pieces of left hand repertoire that she thought I should learn. I was somewhat disinterested. I felt that all my hard work at learning the 'standard' repertoire was simply dismissed, and the thought of exploring entirely unknown repertoire did not appeal to me at all. Looking back at the first six months of learning left hand repertoire, which I had tried so hard to resist, it wasn't the music I wanted to learn. The composers I had grown to know and love simply hadn't written for the left hand alone, so I had to wave goodbye to my beloved Mozart and Mendelssohn and say hello to the many new composers whose music I was about to explore.
Another problem I had to face was the difficulty level of left hand repertoire. Most of it was written as 'show-pieces', to show off and demonstrate a pianist's technical achievements, so there aren't many easy pieces to ease you into the repertoire. The first piece I learnt was Scriabin's Op. 9 Nocturne. Anyone who knows this piece, or has seen me perform it, will know that it is not easy to pull off, so after only three years of playing the piano I felt I was thrown into the deep end. Luckily, I absolutely fell in love with it and have since played it in every recital I have ever given. I see it as a masterpiece for the left hand, along with its haunting Prelude.
The two years that I spent with Lucy were certainly not always easy. At times I came out of my lessons frustrated and upset at my progress. She was not one to praise lightly, and I constantly felt like I was under achieving. However, I have always thanked her for her patience and her persistence, as I am sure I was probably the most frustrating student she's ever had! If it weren't for Lucy I would not have been accepted by any of the conservatoires that I auditioned for, and I certainly would never have been good enough to get into the Royal College of Music (where I am now in my fourth and final year).
Being at the RCM has given me the resources and time to immerse myself even further into the world of left hand repertoire, and has enabled me to put together recitals to showcase some of the hidden gems that are available. But even so there is an immense amount of music that I have not yet performed, and I look forward to doing so in the years to come. My aim as a left hand pianist is to bring this forgotten repertoire back into the mainstream classical music world. There are so many masterpieces that are still un-played, because time has simply forgotten them.
Tickets for Nicholas's forthcoming recital are available online, or by calling the Town Hall box office on 0844 576 2210. You can also purchase his excellent debut CD here, which includes works by Bach, Bartók, Blumenfeld, Ponce and Scriabin.