The One-Handed Concert Pianist, Nicholas McCarthy (#174)

Photo credit: Paul Marc Mitchell
Photo credit: Paul Marc Mitchell

“I don’t really want to play scales; I want to play music!” – Nicholas McCarthy

Nicholas McCarthy (@NMcCarthyPiano) was born in 1989 without his right hand and only started to play the piano at the age of 14.

He was told he would never succeed as a concert pianist.

Fortunately, the doubters were wrong. His graduation from the prestigious Royal College of Music in London in 2012 appeared in press around the world, as he became the only one-handed pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music in its 130-year history.

Nicholas has now performed extensively throughout the world, including the U.K., U.S., South Africa, South Korea, Japan, Malta, and Kazakhstan. He has also played alongside Coldplay and given a rendition of the Paralympic Anthem in front of an audience of 86,000 people and half a billion worldwide viewers.

His first album, entitled Solo (Warner Music) features 17 stunning pieces of left-hand repertoire spanning three centuries and has been released around the world to great acclaim.

If you only have 5 minutes, I recommend Nicholas’s thoughts on playing the long game vs. instant fame.

This was a blast of an interview, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Thanks for listening.

#174: The One-Handed Concert Pianist, Nicholas McCarthy

Want to hear another podcast with a mega-successful performer? — Listen to my conversation with Jamie Foxx. In this episode, we discuss his workout routines, untold Hollywood stories, and he shares many of his best impressions. (Stream below or right-click here to download):

#124: Jamie Foxx on Workout Routines, Success Habits, and Untold Hollywood Stories

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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Selected Links from the Episode

  • Connect with Nicholas McCarthy:

Website | YouTube | Facebook | Twitter

Show Notes

  • The inspiration to become a concert pianist at age 14. [05:24]
  • How Nicholas went from being an obsessed self-starter to getting his parents to pay for lessons. [11:15]
  • Nicholas explains left-handed repertoire, his initial resistance, and how his teacher changed his mind. [12:46]
  • Why Nicholas never took the offer to play on Britain’s Got Talent (in spite of being a big fan of the show). [16:15]
  • For a two-handed pianist, what does each hand generally do — and what challenges does a left-hand dominant player face? [20:56]
  • Nicholas talks about applying to music schools and dealing with rejection. [24:48]
  • Paul Wittgenstein’s influence on left-handed repertoire. [32:06]
  • What’s the difference between arranging and composing music? [36:06]
  • Nicholas on his love of food and desire to be a chef. [40:28]
  • Having performed around the globe, what does Nicholas notice about different audiences worldwide? [42:57]
  • When Nicholas hears the word “successful,” who comes to mind? [45:01]
  • What advice would Nicholas give to his 20-year-old self? [48:45]
  • How does Nicholas deal with negativity? [50:12]
  • What would be on Nicholas’s billboard? [52:01]
  • Nicholas shares his morning routines. [53:36]
  • How Nicholas approaches the building of his own brand. [55:42]
  • While being an overall positive person, Nicholas shares the closest thing he’s had to a favorite failure. [57:17]
  • Nicholas’s best investment in money, time, and energy. [1:01:33]
  • If Nicholas could design a curriculum to teach piano, how would he diverge from the way it’s taught now? [1:06:18]
  • Lesser-known composers Nicholas recommends. [1:08:50]
  • Bad advice Nicholas has heard (and ignored). [1:10:08]
  • The best meal Nicholas has ever had. [1:13:56]
  • Nicholas geeks out about interior design. [1:15:27]
  • The benefits of aromatherapy. [1:18:17]

People Mentioned

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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39 Replies to “The One-Handed Concert Pianist, Nicholas McCarthy (#174)”

  1. In “The 4-Hour Body” the Geek-to-Freak, and Occam’s Protocol chapters mention supplement regimens. Specifically, From Geek to Freak, you mention a supplement regimen you used in 2005 including NO-Xplode, Slo-Niacin, ChromeMate, BODYQUICK, Micellan, and others. You also suggest other supplements in other chapters, but you do not mention if they are taken daily, or only on work out days.

    Also, in “Occam’s Protocol I – Occam’s Feeding” it is suggested to follow the Slow-Carb Diet, as well as adding additional starches such as brown rice and quinoa, but it does not state whether this is for every day or only training days as well.

    Thanks in advance.

  2. Another winner. The balance of guests is unparalled when compared to other podcasts. Keep crushing it man.

  3. First of all…

    Happy Birthday Tim! Today I’m truly grateful for you in this world and all the amazing work you dedicated yourself too. Without you and the work you do my life would certainly be poorer.

    Celebrate Yourself Today! You are a gift to this world!


    QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode?


    Main thing I learned – If you want to do something, quit telling yourself some BS stories and just f*cking do it. No excuses. No stories.

    If you really care about it, do what it takes, not your best.

    A lot of us have our “one-handed” stories not to play our piano 🙂 But is it really a good-enough reason not to follow our heart? Or just laziness and not being ready to do the work that our deepest desires require us to do.

    Thank you for the amazing episode and introducing all of us to another amazing human-being who achieved greatness at what he loves against all odds!

  4. Thank you! I have been waiting for something like this for a long time. Kudos to you with your amazing network and great questions.

  5. Nothing less than a badass interview!! Nicholas is really an inspiration and a testament to the human spirit. I actually teared up several times listening to his stories of rejection and other people telling him he can’t do it. Dude . . . what is our excuse? We have no excuse . . . we need to get out there and do shit. I play piano by ear and always had a deep respect for pianists who discipline themselves to reach the heights of their talent. I wonder if he can do Clair De Lune? That song gets me every time. Thanks again, Tim. Nice one.

  6. Classical musician here (pianist, performer, also teach music-history & -theory & -composition)–thanks for this terrific interview! Read an article on McCarthy in a recent issue of International Piano magazine, what an amazing musician and wonderful human being. I very much agree with his beliefs that some sort of classical music can appeal to everyone. Whether you agree or not, even William F. Buckley said something to the effect that if you love the Beatles then surely you would love J.S. Bach! And always please yes think outside the box–that’s what brought us classical music in the first place, and if you’re trying to make classical music stuffy and stuff it & the composers & performers into a neat little conventional & formulaic box, well, it’s far too late for that!

    Argerich is one of my top three favorite pianists, the other two being her ex-husband (they still perform together) Steven Kovacevich who has been loved & derided for his unconventional interpretations, and the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin who also did not carve out a conventional path never having entered a competition.

    One of the most beautiful things about classical music is that every time on repeated listenings/hearings of any one piece, you can hear & discover something you’ve never heard before, such is the richness in complexity or the richness of elegant simplicity (I know that seems like a contradiction in terms) found in the genre. Yes, start with the so-called “war-horses” of classical music, for instance if you think you may like the nine Beethoven symphonies you Must listen to the recordings by the conductor Riccardo Muti with the Philadelphia Orchestra, they’ve been described as being like velvet on the ear. There are lists all over the internet of the standard pieces to listen to if you’re new to classical music.

    Then quickly branch out to the lesser-knowns of different eras. For instance, to begin to explore more modern music you might begin with Ravel’s 2nd movement of his String Quartet in F made famous by the movie “The Royal Tenenbaums”, Poulenc (Movement Perpetual), Bartok (the “Game of Pairs movement of his Concerto for Orchestra), Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” for pulse-pounding polyrhythms (& the sacrifice of a virgin to the god of spring), or if you can bear expressionist music try Alban Berg’s opera “Wozzeck”. If you like sometimes loud, sometimes bombastic, nearly always atonal music (if you’re into jazz, then think Coltrane) then try listening to some twelve-tone music. Then there are the lesser-knowns of Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical-era, and Romantic eras music, it truly never ends.

    The topic of classical music is so vast that one of my very favorite things about being a classical musician is no matter how long I live, I–nor anyone else–can never know everything there is to know about the subject, so I’m still learning something new every day and can continue to do so every day for the rest of my life!

    Thanks again, for (another) terrific interview, Tim!

  7. Tim – thank you for highlighting this magnificent pianist – many individuals who were left handed did so because they suffered from dystonia – a type of movement disorder that has been a real problem for so many musicians. Many indidviduals are devestated when they lose the ability to use their right hand. I love that you have brought this amazing fellow and his journey. I am grateful as a fellow classical musician – and so truly thankful for you to share Nicholas’ willingness to play the long game.!!!

  8. My comments relate to the Dog Training comments Tim made. He surmised that dogs are trained to heel on the left due to service dog prepartion. I was thinking more along the lines of Hunting Dogs were primarily the first trained. And you kept them on the opposite side of the gun. Just a hypothesis, as was Tim’s.

    1. I can second that notion regarding hunting dogs. 2 dogs ago, we trained a weimaraner (hunting dog) with a group made up primarily of hunting dogs and were told that since hunters carried their shotgun off their right side, their dog was on the left hip.

  9. I have an idea of an App, sort of like Pokemon Go, that will revolutionize the user experience. However, I’m not in tech/engineering and have no contacts. I’ve listened to your podcast and thought you would be a good person to help me reach my goal. Feel free to email me and would be happy to chat for a few minutes around your schedule.

  10. On aromatherapy:

    Check out Kurt Schnaubelt’s book, Advanced Aromatherapy: The Science of Essential Oil Therapy. He explains the precisely identifiable chemical qualities of essential oils and why they can have the effects they do.

    A few snippets:

    “The physical nature of essential oils — a low molecular weight combined with pronounced lipophilic tendencies — allows them to penetrate human tissue more quickly than any other substance.” – p.12

    “For many oils, it is not always possible to clearly identify the plant source by its common name, such as eucalyptus or chamomile. […] The oils from the leaves of Eucalyptus globulus, for example, differ significantly from the oils distilled from Eucalyptus radiata. These differ substantially from the oils of Eucalyptus dives and Eucalyptus citriadora. Each of these varieties differs in chemical composition, which in turn results in different uses for aromatherapy.” – p.14

    “The biosynthesis in the plant cell progresses from isoprene with 5 carbon atoms, to molecules with 10 carbon atoms (such as geraniol, a terpene alcohol) and 15 carbon atoms (farnesol, a sesquiterpene alcohol), to larger, more complicated molecules, such as cholesterol, the starting point for the synthesis of other steroids, including important hormones. The relationship of terpenes as the most important active ingredient of essential oils to hormones makes their strong influence on the body more understandable.” – p.21

  11. the blind man story was really poignent … The idea that he created the illusion of two handed play was really striking ( i was going to say a real eye opener)

  12. Didn’t like the gymnastic skills website. No real i9nformation on program, benefits etc. (which i’m used to from your stuff). simply leads to a hard sell on what bundle I should purchase. You should give them some marketing advice and stear your faithful away from the pure pitch… just a suggestion.

  13. Nicholas, you are a fucking legend. Sorry about the language but thats literally the exact phrase that came to my mind and mouth. Biggest respect

    Nicholas and this interview is worth 100 interviews with the individuals identified with the words ‘billionaire /tech/ start up’ Tim worships so often here 😉 would be grateful if this blog moves on permanently from the sillion droid valley & start up fetish and gets permanently plugged into the real world and real human beings of heart like our maestro Nicholas here 😉 we’re not all rich with comfortable easy lives – adversity brings so much to the learning table . not that Tim would disagree but certainly more diversity is needed here 🙂

  14. What a great musician. He can inspire a lot of people to follow their dreams no matter what. You always have to believe in yourself and not to hear other people who trying to stop you. I am completely amazed by Nicholas determination.

  15. Hey, Tim! So glad you’ve featured a Musician! We have more to offer the world than most would think.

    So, you mentioned the issue with the world being structured around right handed people, and gave an example with dog training and walking with a dog.

    In the States it has to do with walking with a dog on streets etc..etc…doesn’t it? You can’t walk against traffic with your dog on your right side, closest to the oncoming traffic, right?

    Of course, a well trained dog, and human, would be able to have their dog be comfortable on either side, as I saw when I took my dog to puppy school in Berkeley at, I think, Sirius Dog Training. I remember them explaining the importance of walking with the pup on the left side for this very reason.

    Anyhow, I’m sure it must be different in other countries according to the traffic moving in different directions on different sides of the roads. Or, perhaps it is, like you said, for a right handed world.

    I hope you keep bringing Musicians on the show!

    Thanks for doing such great work!

    -james scott

  16. Tim Tim Talk Talk;

    A couple of things to give some background.

    1. Right handed melodies:

    The reason for most piano literature (and indeed most musical/orchestral literature) to be “right handed” is due to the fact that treble melodies stand out more than bass melodies, not due to right hand/left hand dominance. In part is due to the overtone series being “clearer” in the treble. If you play a chord in the treble (right) end of the piano it is usually clear no matter how high you go. However, moving down the keyboard (lower and lower, lefter and lefter 🙂 chords get more and more muddied.

    In fact, as an composer/orchestrator (as well as a classically trained pianist recording engineer, and software engineer) there are “rules” for thresholds under which certain intervals (the building blocks of harmony) should not be used because the overtone series makes them muddy. While all rules are meant to be broken, it is a good guideline with hundreds of years of history to follow.

    I won’t go into a multi-page dissertation on acoustics, but the physics behind these traditions is sound (pun intended).

    BTW – In most left handed piano literature, much of the melody is still placed to the treble (right hand) side of the keyboard.

    2. Regarding dogs healing on the left hand side.

    While it has to do with dominance, it’s has more to do with the poor dogs health.

    My sister is a dog breeder and the reason dogs generally heel on the left side is thanks to hunting. If you are a right handed shooter, the shells would eject and hit the poor dog on the head (they’re hot as well).

    Left handed shooters (rare though they are) would heel their hunting dogs on the right hand side for the same reason.

    Love the podcasts – inspiring and educational.

  17. Hello from Siberia, Russia!

    I love your podcast and five bullet Fridays.

    I’m an artist and creative director live in San Mateo.

    I would love to meet you and work for you for free.



  18. love love love! Nicholas you are an amazing human being. Saying “no” to the proverbial box at every turn, doing “you” all the way.

    I know what it takes to learn a complicated piano piece and that magnifies my respect for your mastery of the craft.

    Tim, thank you!! I appreciate the diversity of material you offer. So many parts of me get invited out to play.

  19. Have you considered interviewing Doug Lemov? He is managing director at Uncommon Schools and have deconstructed expert teaching and and metalearning in his books Teach Like A Champion and Practice Perfect. He seems to follow a lot of the same principles you do, but goes more in detail.

  20. An amazing life by his own choice! Very, very inspiring. Thank you.

    Also it’s always an honor to hear something about your and your guests’ experiences in Japan as I am one listening in Japan. Nicholas, come back son again.

  21. I’ll bet the Japanese steak was Hokkaido Snow Beef. If you haven’t already, get to Metropolitan Grille next time you’re in Seattle. They usually have it on the menu. Like buttah! And I think Alexander’s, here, sometimes has it.

  22. Trivia fact responding to your 7/18 podcast with Nicholas McCarthy. Historically dogs are led on the left side of a person, because horses are always led on the right side. So a person can lead a dog and a horse at the same time. It doesn’t have to do with right-handed or left-handed.

  23. Another great guest and podcast! In the podcast Nicholas mentioned the numerous musical arrangements that exist only in his head. There is now music writing software available that could probably write it for him as he plays it. I say probably because his music is more complicated than what I have dealt with. I suggest Finale or Sibelius software. No doubt you have listeners more knowledgeable than I who could make additional suggestions.

  24. Fantastic Pianist!! I don’t generally listen to this type music, but I can certainly appreciate it when I do.

    Podcast was great, very inspiring. Thank you.

  25. Tim,

    Is this interview with Nicholas McCarthy, you ponder why dogs are trained to be on the left side. I train dogs and really it doesn’t matter which side is chosen, but the preference for the left is because Rally (dog agility competitions) demand all dogs be on the left side. And so if trainers are exposed to Rally, that preference usually trickles down to general obedience classes.

  26. awesome story. what stuck out was the clarity of his Decision (and thus Conviction) that he would be a (successful) concert pianist, regardless of “the evidence”(!) showing that that was the wrong — or at least extremely improbable — choice. Thank you Tim

    ~ de Vie

  27. I just listened to this today….and Nicholas has be my favourite of all your interviews. What an inspiring positive soul he is! His positive yet single minded determination is incredible. I would love to know where, who and how his mindset was shaped. Was he born with it, was it fostered by a parent in his ear telling him anything is possible, did he suffer only to become resilient? As a parent I would love to know…..