Epsom born concert pianist Nicholas McCarthy said he is set on creating a legacy for other aspiring disabled musicians to follow.

The 30-year-old, who will appear at the Master Music Festival in Rickmansworth in June, was born with just one hand and yet rose to become one of the few handicapped artists in the industry boasting an impressive repertoire of solo performances.

The Royal College of Music graduate who had the phone slammed down on him during his first audition owing to his disability, said his positive disposition brought him through tough times and he wants his success to encourage more budding pianists to come through the ranks.

Nicholas, who played to an audience of half a billion at the 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony in London, was “proud” to perform alongside the British Para Orchestra and British rock band Coldplay.

He has since toured South Africa, South Korea, China and Japan before making his US debut at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC and later addressing the Royal Albert Hall in a TED Talk as part of their Albertopolis celebration.

Nicholas, who now lives in North Essex, sat down with the Watford Observer to discuss his life, career and the Master Music Festival.

What were some of the challenges for you growing up Nicholas?

“Aside from feeling different and being different, I was really very lucky because I was quite outgoing and humorous so I had a big group of friends who were very supportive - but I could have been quite an easy target I suppose.

“The real challenges were not being able to do certain things like the other kids in school such as sports and having to think more about it before getting involved. But again, I think I have quite a positive disposition and I never got down about that and I have my parents to thank for that positivity.”

When did you start to become interested in music?

“Well I had a completely unmusical childhood and I really didn’t start until I was about 14, and then from scratch. I had no interest in classical music or even knew how to read music and I then one day I saw my friend playing a piece by Beethoven in assembly and I just fell in love and decided there and then, with I suppose a degree of teenage naivety and invincibility, to become a concert pianist.”

During one music school audition when you told them you had one hand, they put the phone down on you – what was that like?

“It was really difficult because it was the first time I’d had a door slammed in my face due to my disability and up until then it had generally been quite positive. That was really challenging especially because at that time I was still a teenager and I felt like this was my only path and if it didn’t work out that would be terrible. Whereas as with hindsight and as an adult I know there were in fact lots of options.

“I remember I didn’t play for perhaps three weeks which was unheard of. Then one day after school I was walking home and I thought why am I allowing this one person to prevent me from pursuing my dream and I felt my confidence coming back. I then auditioned to Guildhall and after that I went on to study at the Royal College of Music.”

Watford Observer:

Describe the feeling of getting into the Royal College of Music

“I always had my sights set on the Royal College of Music after a trip to the Royal Albert Hall years before when I must have been about 15 which is a very grand Hogwarts-like building and they sort of mirror one another. I could hear the student practicing and singing and I had never seen or heard an institution like it and it was at that moment I decided to go and study there.

“That desire really put the fire in my belly and made me work hard and of course there are thousands of pianists who apply to the Royal College of Music each year but there are only so many places and I knew I was swimming upstream, but being offered a place there made me feel absolutely elated - it was indescribable.”

Nicholas’s graduation in 2012 made world press headlines as the first one-handed pianist in the colleges 130-year history. And in March 2018 he was recognised by the Royal College of Music’s president Prince Charles as an honorary member.

His repertoire comprises of over 3,000 solo works including Brahms’s arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor and Scriabin’s Prelude and Nocturne Op.9 as well as 28 piano concertos, a repertoire that first came into being in the early 19th Century and developed rapidly following the First World War as a result of the many injuries suffered on the battlefield.

What are the challenges of playing with one hand?

“The challenges are to do with stamina. Most pianists are obviously playing with two hands for around 90 minutes, or two 45-minutes segments. With me, I’m on stage for the same time with just five fingers and with no let-up, constantly working for that period - whereas someone with two hands might be able to allow one hand to do slightly less work at certain points. So stamina is something important to hone and I go to the gym regularly to maintain that. My hand doesn’t necessarily make playing hard, it’s my energy. It’s a very physical activity which can be quite exhausting.

“The second challenge was trying to establish myself back when I was starting out and getting those in the music industry to listen. But thankfully my persistence has worked. The music industry is quite cutthroat and when you have a disability - which isn’t well represented in the industry - swimming upstream is certainly an appropriate term.”

Describe the feeling you get when you’re playing a piece of music?

“It depends on what it is, you know - whether it’s a stormy and tempestuous piece or something more gentle it makes me feel different emotions, as it does with the audience.

“The whole first half of playing however can go by in what feels like seconds sometimes which is an interesting phenomenon and one which I enjoy in retrospect because I was so lost in what I was doing and in communicating what I was doing - it really is a privilege to do this.”

What are you most looking forward to at the Master Music Festival in Rickmansworth?

“Well it’s the first festival and the first of any series is always very exciting because you get a feel of what it is going to be like. And happily, I know a few other artists playing there.

“I have never played in Watford before so I am looking forward to communicating classical music to a new audience and hopefully to inspire someone who may also have a disability or perhaps they’ve had a stroke and may want to go back to the piano. So, if I can inspire just one person that will make me very happy.

“I see my role always as one of the very few disabled artists working in the music industry today trying to create a bit of a legacy for future musicians who can say, “look, he’s done it”, and inspire more disabled artists coming through the ranks.

“Needless to say, I’m absolutely thrilled to be part of the first Master Music Festival and to be able to play alongside other esteemed artists from the piano world.”

You can see Nicholas at the Master Music Festival in Rickmansworth on Saturday June 8 at 7pm.

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