Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with concert pianist Nicholas McCarthy. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, where it is my job each episode to tease out the habits, routines, tactics, and tools of world-class performs, whether they are from the worlds of entertainment, athletics, business or otherwise. In this episode, we have Nicholas McCarthy, @nmccarthypiano on Twitter, who was born in 1989 without his right hand and only started to play the piano at age 14. He was told he would never succeed as a concert pianist.
Fortunately, the doubters were completely wrong. His graduation from the prestigious Royal College of Music in London in 2012 appeared in press around the world, as he was the only one-handed pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music in its 130-year history. Since, Nicholas has performed extensively throughout the world, including in the U.K., U.S., South Africa, South Korea, Japan, and even 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, which I highly encourage, is entitled Solo from Warner Music. It features 17 stunning pieces of left-hand repertoire – and we talk in this interview about what that means – spans three centuries and has been released around the world to great acclaim. This was a blast of an interview and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Please say hello to Nicholas on social and as always, thank you for listening.
Nicholas, welcome to the show.
Nicholas McCarthy: Hi, thank you so much for having me.
Tim Ferriss: Where are we finding you right now? Where are you seated?
Nicholas McCarthy: So I am sat in my lounge, at my home, where I haven’t been for about three weeks. I’ve been on tour. So it’s quite nice. It’s nice to be chatting to you from my house for once.
Tim Ferriss: And is that in the U.K.?
Nicholas McCarthy: Sorry, yeah. That’s in the U.K. I’m about 50 minutes outside of London.
Tim Ferriss: And you have a companion with you also, in case we hear any barking. Who is that?
Nicholas McCarthy: That’s my little Pomeranian, Binnie, who is very good and she’s quiet unless a dog walks past the front of my house, and then she senses they’re there and likes to say hello. So I’m sorry if that happens.
Tim Ferriss: That’s what dogs do. I remember hearing you comment, I guess it was in a BBC interview that she was a good companion but a little breathy in the dressing room.
Nicholas McCarthy: She is. She is a bit breathy, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So talking about sensing things, let’s start towards the beginning, maybe not the very beginning. But when did you first get bitten by the bug as it related to music or piano?
Nicholas McCarthy: It was very late, actually. It was when I was 14, which for most people who go into music as their full-time career, they usually have started at the age of 3 or 4, on average; even younger sometimes. Usually they’ve played their first public concert by the time they’re 5 or 6 and maybe played with their first orchestra by 7 or 8. I’m talking about these professional concert pianists or concert violinists or whatever you want to say. So for me, to start at 14, again I was already swimming upstream for one very clear reason, but that also exasperated that really.
Tim Ferriss: And what was it at age 14 that triggered it?
Nicholas McCarthy: Well, I was very non-academic, should I say, at school. I was very average. Academia didn’t interest me. I wouldn’t go and study for hours because I wanted to or I had to. I just wouldn’t. I wasn’t like that. So I didn’t really discover anything throughout my life where I was really good at it, you know? Until 14, when I discovered the piano.
What happened was a friend of mine – I’m still friends with today – a very accomplished pianist, she played one of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, the Bechstein sonata. She played that in my school assembly. I just had one of those moments that you see in movies, that you see on TV, that you hear people talk about. I had one of those moments where I was just completely transported, completely bitten by the piano bug. I just loved everything about the instrument: the way it looked on stage, the sound that was coming out of this instrument, the possibilities of what it was like.
You remember what it was like when you were a teenager. You’ve got that teenage invincibility, that kind of thing where anything is possible, and it is fine. I loved that. So for me, looking back, I didn’t even think about the fact I only had one hand. In my head, that is what I was going to be. I was going to be a concert pianist. Not just play the piano, but I was going to earn my living from playing the piano.
Tim Ferriss: Walk me through just the moments before and after that experience. I’m always curious about these types of details. Were you talking to your friends and then all of a sudden the music started and you stopped talking? Were you paying attention from the very beginning? What was your response afterwards?
Nicholas McCarthy: We were all quiet. We were all in assembly. We sat down in our chairs. Obviously, we all knew that my friend could play the piano. She’d played in school a lot. But I hadn’t seen her play in this capacity before. I hadn’t seen her play on the big piano in our hall. It wasn’t that. So we were all quiet in anticipation, but just normal.
We were just waiting for this performance to happen, like you do in school. You just get told to do something and you do it and you go and sit down. So we were all just waiting. I didn’t realize that moment and that ten-minute performance would affect my entire life and my entire career and everything about me. I didn’t realize that, obviously at that time. Afterwards, again, it was probably again that teenage – what’s the word? Where you’re a bit flat as a teenager as well sometimes. Even though I said earlier we’ve got that teenage invincibility, you’re almost sometimes a bit like, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to be a concert pianist. That’s right.”
Tim Ferriss: Very nonchalantly, right?
Nicholas McCarthy: [Inaudible] as if it’s an easy career choice. It was “Okay, yeah, I’m going to go and do that.” That is how it went. That immediacy – I decided at that performance.
Tim Ferriss: What were the next steps after that? Did you sit down and have a conversation with your parents? Did you get a hold of some type of keyboard on your own and start tooling around with it and seeing what you could come up with? Did you find a teacher? What were the next steps?
Nicholas McCarthy: Well, it wasn’t as formal as sitting down with Mum and Dad. My Mum and Dad are both non-musicians. They’re both salespeople for a living. They’re just hard-working, normal people and they’ve got no particular interest in classical music at all, apart from the odd favorites that you hear on adverts and things.
So for me, I just went home and said, “Mum and Dad, I want to be a concert pianist.” I can’t really remember their faces, but I’d love to have seen their faces when their one-armed son comes up to them “I want to be a concert pianist.” “Really? Are you sure? Are you really sure?”
So yeah, it was fine. Mum and Dad just said, “Okay, well what do we need to do? What do you want to do?” I said, “Well, can I have a piano?” The answer was very quickly “No,” of course, as if they’re cheap instruments. This could be a very quick, passing fad. We’ll get you a keyboard. Which was also very generous of them to do.
So they bought me a middle of the run kind of keyboard and that’s what I started to learn on. I started teaching myself to read music, teaching myself the keys on the piano because see, I didn’t know any of this at that stage. They don’t really teach that in school in England like they used to. So I didn’t really know. I kind of knew where middle C was on the piano, but that was it. So I was working things out. I’ve already mentioned I come from a non-musical family, so for me, I hadn’t heard of Chopin’s music. I’ve never heard of a piece of Liszt before. I’d never really heard Rachmaninoff.
Tim Ferriss: What was the second one? A piece of Liszt?
Nicholas McCarthy: Liszt, yes. Franz Liszt is one of the great, romantic composers of piano literature. He was really held as the super virtuoso of the 19th century.
Tim Ferriss: These are things I need to know.
Nicholas McCarthy: There we go. So I was like a sponge. I literally was searching for recordings, listening to the radio, just absolutely trying to listen to as much stuff as I could to find out what I liked. When you hadn’t really heard of any of these pieces. Like with you, I’ve just explained who Liszt was. You never know he might now when you go and listen to him, and I encourage you to go and listen to some of his works – you might absolutely fall in love with it. You just don’t know these things. So I was like that. I was exploring all this stuff while actually putting it into practice myself. Just me and my little keyboard up in my bedroom. Just working it out for myself.
There was one moment which really changed that, which I remember very clearly. As I used to listen to so much music all the time, there was one time my Dad shouted up the stairs to me, and just said, “Nick, turn the radio down!” I said, “Dad, it’s not the radio; it’s me.” There was deathly silence from downstairs. The next minute, Mum and Dad were at my door, “Do you want piano lessons?”
The answer was yes and that’s how I transitioned from becoming a self-starter, if you like, to then having semi-formal lessons, because she was a local piano teacher and she was quite young. So it was all quite relaxed. It wasn’t as if straight away I was sent to this special teacher in Vienna or somewhere. It wasn’t like that. It was just a local piano teacher. But that’s how I started.
Tim Ferriss: When you were teaching yourself and then starting with this local piano teacher – I’ve tried to do, of course, a bit of homework before we jumped into this interview – left-hand or left-handed repertoire, is that something that you found on your own first or that the local teacher provided? At what point did that even come into the picture and can you explain to people what that is?
Nicholas McCarthy: Well, funny enough, a lot of people don’t know this even in the U.K., because I just tend not to speak about it. That’s not what I do now, but I started the piano playing what I affectionately called “my little arm,” which is my arm which I haven’t got.
So I was born, as you know, without my right hand. I haven’t got my right hand, my right wrist and about three-quarters of my forearm, but I have got my elbow. I’ve got my elbow and a very short part of my forearm. With that, I can actually play on the piano a single note. So I started learning two-handed pieces, if you like, and playing it as it was written. So I played the left-hand part as was written and with my little arm, I would play a single note in the right hand.
So obviously repertoire choices – I wouldn’t be playing something with two massive big chords in each hand because I didn’t have two hands to do that. So I would find pieces which had one-note melody lines, for instance, and quite complicated left hand, and I would play those. That’s actually how I did my grade exams. I did that. I didn’t discover left-hand repertoire – I didn’t even know it existed.
No one along the way told me it existed until I was 17. That was exciting and deeply frustrating for me at that time.
Tim Ferriss: Was it frustrating because you wished you’d found it earlier? Or was it frustrating for a different reason?
Nicholas McCarthy: No, I didn’t want to play it. I was so in love with the repertoire that I’d learnt: Mozart, Rachmaninoff and Mendelsohn, and all these composers which I’d grown to know and love. To then be told at the age of 17, after working so hard and by this point having gained a place at London Music School, I was then told that I had to wave goodbye to that repertoire and say hello to this left-hand repertoire, which I knew nothing about and I had no intention of it.
As well, I think my attitude at the time – being a very headstrong 17 year old – was that no, I don’t want to play left-hand repertoire because I can do this. I can play two-handed repertoire with my little arm and left hand. Why do I want to specialize in left-hand repertoire? It was what my teacher at the time said, “You don’t want to become a gimmick.” Especially with all the TV talent shows which were just coming about then. It was all the start of Britain’s Got Talent and all that kind of thing.
I’m so relieved I took her advice because I would’ve just been that gimmick who would’ve maybe made a quick buck over two years, but certainly wouldn’t have had the respect that I have now as a pianist, and certainly wouldn’t have had the career that I’ve had to date and that I look forward to continuing until I’m in my 60s.
Classical musicians do have long careers. We don’t burn out. You can carry on playing until you want to stop. I think if I went down the route, the gimmicky route, and believe me, Tim, I’ve said in the papers over here and I’ve said it in various interviews, every year, even if I didn’t own a calendar, I would be able to tell you the month because every year I get – well, my manager gets now but I used to get before I had management – an email or a phone call from Britain’s Got Talent asking me to go on the show.
I’ve had that for years. I’m a big fan of the show. I love it. I’m one of their viewers, but for me, it’s just not for me. Because those doors I’ve tried to hold open – the classical music world. And to try and spread my message in the least gimmicky way I can – I’ve worked so hard to do that. As soon as I sold out and did one of these shows, all of the classical music doors would close on me and I’d never be able to reopen them again. Yes, I’d have a bigger fan base, I’m sure. But I’m looking at the long-term and I always have been, ever since I was young. So there’s various different things.
Tim Ferriss: There are at least two dozen questions I want to ask about everything you just said. A few points.
Just to reiterate something you said, which is the importance of playing the long game, right? Because particularly in a – how should we call it? A sort of esteemed, high barrier to entry world like classical music, it might take you 20 years to build a reputation and only 20 minutes to destroy it if you make the wrong choices.
Nicholas McCarthy: Yes, true.
Tim Ferriss: Something that I’ve spoken with a former podcast guest about – Eric Weinstein – who’s a mathematician and physicist. He said, “Generally fame is overrated. You want to effectively be famous to 3,000 people or so of your choosing.” If you do that well, you can do what you want with whom you want and effectively have all the things that you would like to have and do in life. It seems to me, at least.
But one of my questions to you is, what gave you the unusual combination as a teenager of being headstrong enough that as a one-handed piano player, well, as a one-handed boy you would aim to be a concert pianist? Thank God for that, that you had that stubborn will. While at the same time, you were open to the suggestions of this piano teacher. Was it something special about the teacher? Was it something that your parents instilled in you? It’s an unusual combination to be both very stubborn and open-minded at that age.
Nicholas McCarthy: I think I’ve always been both of those things. I think I’ve always been. If I look back through my childhood, I’ve always been one of those really headstrong people who if you tell me I can’t do something and I will do everything in my power, even if I’ve lost interest in it by that point, I’ll still go ahead and do it because I need to prove that person wrong.
Tim Ferriss: Are your parents that way?
Nicholas McCarthy: No, not at all.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have any siblings?
Nicholas McCarthy: No, I’m an only child. I think probably that contributes to it as well, and I think the fact that my disability and being born with one hand, that contributes to it. I’ll give you an example. When I was younger, I lived in a very small street with lots of kids my age. So we were all friends. We all used to play out in the street together and things. I remember one of the parents said to my Mum, and this was not in a malicious way at all, this was in a kind of – I don’t know what way she meant it.
“It’s such a shame that Nicholas won’t really be able to learn to ride his bike with the other boys.” And my Mum said, “Oh, I’m sure he’ll find a way.” I overheard this conversation. So in my head, we were all quite young and we all had our training wheels on our bike. I remember even hearing my inner voice in my head saying to myself, “I want to be the first boy,” – not want to be, “I’m going to be the first boy out of all of my group of friends to ride my bike without training wheels.” And I did.
I remember all the parents standing at their front porches looking. Some of the women were crying with admiration and things like that, which of course I loved as well. I loved [inaudible] I remember being very pleased with myself at that age. I don’t know how old I was, I was young. I remember that. And that is what I’ve been, I’ve always been like that with anything. Just like I said to you earlier, just not with academia because I just didn’t care. Academics just wasn’t my bag. I didn’t feel that burning desire to prove anything with that.
Tim Ferriss: For people who aren’t familiar, and I would count myself among those people, what do the hands generally do in piano? Meaning the left and the right. You mentioned melody earlier. Is that typically the responsibility of one hand over the other?
Nicholas McCarthy: Yes, definitely. The right hand is certainly the star of the show and your left hand is the supporting actor.
Tim Ferriss: Got it. So your left hand is kind of like the rhythm guitar and your right hand is the soloist?
Nicholas McCarthy: Exactly. Not obviously, across – there’s so many pieces of classical music, so that doesn’t apply to everything, of course. But usually. Generally speaking, the right hand is doing all the flashy, virtuoso, big stuff that you’re seeing and carrying that melody line. The left hand also, in two-handed repertoire, does a lot of very difficult things, and virtuosic things. But the supporting harmony, usually. With left-hand repertoire, that turns everything on its head.
So me as a left-hand pianist, I have to create to you, the listener, or you, the audience, that there’s in fact two or even three hands playing this piano, whereas in fact there’s only just one. So the amount of times I’ve had people come up to me and say, “Do you play with an overdub? Do you pre-record stuff and then play along with it?” I’m saying, “No, it’s just me and an acoustic piano.”
It’s because their ears are tricking them or I’m creating that illusion where it the sound is a lot fuller than it looks that I’m playing.
Tim Ferriss: Maybe this is a silly question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. The right hand virtuoso flair, left hand rhythm tradition in piano, does that create difficulties for two-handed but left-hand dominant piano players? Because presumably that was created by people who were setting the norms and who were right-hand dominant? So that does mean at the highest levels of two-handed piano playing that the majority of players are right-hand dominant?
Nicholas McCarthy: I would probably say so. I do know a couple of very well-known two-handed pianists who are actually left-handed naturally and in day-to-day life. I think, obviously, when you’re honing your craft at the level that we are honing our crafts to as concert performers, it doesn’t matter what hand is dominant.
I’m speaking as someone with one hand, as you know, so I can’t be the authority to think of on this, but I would say it’s like a sportsperson. You’re rehearsing, you’re practicing so much that even if that left hand is more naturally dominant, because the right hand is the way the music is written, you have to do these right-hand technical difficulties and if you can’t do it, then you can’t play the piece. I think it’s just something that two-handed pianists would just get over. They just have to work at it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I’m not left-handed, I’m right-handed, but when you really stop to notice a lot of the day-to-day interactions with objects, they seem to be designed very much for a right-handed world. And even something as non-obvious as, for instance, dog training. They always have the dog heel on the left-hand side.
At least in the United States, that’s true. I was thinking to myself, “Why is it on the left-hand side?” The only plausible explanation that I could come up with, pure speculation, is that because many people are right-handed, perhaps this was developed for, say seeing-eye dogs, where someone would have something in their non-dominant left hand securing them to the dog and it just brings up all sorts of questions, but I don’t want to digress too far. We’ve heard some stories of your supportive parents, but not everyone has been that supportive, I would imagine. Tell us about your process of applying to musical schools.
Nicholas McCarthy: That’s where it started getting slightly more difficult for me. This wonderful piano teacher who I first started with, as I mentioned earlier, the local piano teacher, she was lovely. She was young. I really responded to her.
She was a think-outside-the-box kind of girl, you know? She very admirably said to me and my parents, “Look, Nicholas has become more advanced than I am as a player.” She felt she was doing me a disservice by continuing to teach me. She felt that I needed to go and study properly in London with a proper concert pianist to further my career.
As I was very explicit with everyone, I didn’t just want to learn the piano, I wanted to become a concert pianist. I always think she was so admirable for that because she was giving up quite a lot of money to do that, especially someone her age. And yet she did that for me. So I’m eternally grateful for that. My friend who inspired me at the age of 14, she went to a –
Tim Ferriss: What is her name?
Nicholas McCarthy: Hanako, she’s a Japanese friend of mine.
Tim Ferriss: Well, thank her for that.
Nicholas McCarthy: Yes. She went to a specialist piano school. It wasn’t that far from me. So obviously, in my head, I was thinking, “How wonderful. Hanako and I can go to school together.” This school was held on Saturdays. So we went to a normal school in the week and then on Saturdays you’d go to this and they did concerts in London and they did concert tours to Europe and all sorts of things, a really high-level school.
So I thought, “How perfect would that be? My friend and I can go together.” They already knew me at the school because I’d been to see a couple of competitions with my friend that my friend was in. So I rang up the headmistress of this school one day after I’d finished school. I come in and I rang her. She was very – do you know what I mean by an “old school headmistress”?
Tim Ferriss: I think so.
Nicholas McCarthy: Yeah, like, yeah. She was just very old school. Very traditional in her teaching, in everything. It turns out she wasn’t like my other teacher where she wasn’t thinking outside the box. The phone call went something like this.
I introduced myself and said I’m a friend of Hanako’s and I was born without my right hand. She said, “Yes, I’ve heard of you. I know who you are from Hanako.” I’d already had a lesson with one of the school’s teachers. I purposely went and had a private lesson with one of the school’s teachers, almost as a little inroad into the school. This teacher gave me her blessing and said, “I would love to teach you at the school. You need to go and audition for the school.” So she kind of gave me the green light for that.
Tim Ferriss: And how old were you at the time?
Nicholas McCarthy: I must’ve been 16? Yeah, about 16. She said, “Oh, yes, I’ve heard of you because of one of my faculty and because of Hanako, but unfortunately, I haven’t got any time to see you or audition you because, to be honest, I just don’t know how you can possibly be a pianist and I don’t really know how you could possibly play scales.”
I was quite the cocky 16 year old at the time. I said, “Well, I don’t really want to play scales, I want to play music.” Wrong thing to say.
Tim Ferriss: That must’ve been a crowd pleaser.
Nicholas McCarthy: It wasn’t the best thing. So she hung up the phone on this 16-year-old, one-armed boy, which I didn’t think was [inaudible]. I was deeply upset by this, as you can probably imagine. Because you know what it’s like at that age. Well, maybe you didn’t. In this business, but for me, I felt at that age that was it. That was my one path; that was my one path of becoming a concert pianist and that path is now ended because this woman has stopped it.
Now, I’m an adult. Obviously, I know there’s many paths that people take throughout their lives to success whatever they want to do. Whereas, at the time, as a youngster, I just felt that one path has now been finished and that’s it; I can’t do anything more.
So for two weeks, I was really quite down and didn’t play the piano at all. And then, I don’t know why, I was just walking home from school one day and I thought to myself, “Why am I letting – how many billions of people in the world (do you know the figure? I don’t even know the figure, but however many billions of people there are in this world), I’m letting one person who hasn’t even seen me play the piano – I’m letting one person stop me from achieving my dream.”
I thought, “Well, that’s it. I’m going to audition for a better music school.” So I did. I auditioned for the Junior Guild Hall School of Music and Drama in London.
Tim Ferriss: What was the name again?
Nicholas McCarthy: Junior, well, as a junior because I was obviously only going on Saturdays. It’s the Guild Hall School of Music and Drama in London. So it’s where Orlando Bloom studied acting. There’s lots of big names on the acting side of it and also big names on the classical side of it. So I auditioned for them. I didn’t say about my disability in the application form.
There was a slightly awkward moment when I turned up for the audition. It was kind of this X Factor-style audition with a big grand piano and three judges at the back of the room. I had to walk in and say, “By the way, I only have one hand.” Yeah, it was fine. It was just slightly awkward. But I played and I was offered a place. I was so pleased that I had that little chat with myself on the way home from school that day where I thought I’m not going to let this one woman tell me I can’t become a pianist.
And you know what interests me even now? The fact that she was – she must’ve been in her late 60s, early 70s, been in the classical industry all her life – she didn’t even think about left-hand repertoire. She didn’t even think to suggest well, yes, I would like to audition you but I would like you to learn two left-handed only pieces before. She didn’t even think of that. That surprises me a lot.
Now I’m just so thankful because by that path and that series of events, it took me to a better school. It took me to London which, you know, the standard was much higher, basically. It really did kind of sow the seeds for my future career.
Tim Ferriss: Well it sounds like you, in some ways, dodged quite a bullet as well in the sense that you can have old school teachers, and there are different ways to interpret that, of course, who are open-minded in some respects. And you can have old school teachers who are very closed-minded, and it sounded like she was in the closed-minded camp. So if organizations take on the personalities of their leaders, it’s quite a good thing indeed that you had your phone scuffle with her.
Nicholas McCarthy: Yeah, [inaudible] that school isn’t around anymore, so it was definitely, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Can you tell us about Paul Wittgenstein?
Nicholas McCarthy: Yes. Paul Wittgenstein – basically, I’ll tell you a brief, potted history of left-hand repertoire.
Left-hand alone repertoire started in the 19th century, where a lot of the time concert pianists – and as you mentioned earlier – most people in the world are right-handed. So concert pianists which, bear in mind, Tim, they were rock stars of their day. I’m in the wrong century here. They were celebrities, forget these reality stars. They were the celebrities of the day. They would sell out in minutes, like Madonna does. Back then, some of them would close their concerts and as an encore, they would perform something with left hand alone.
And the reason left hand alone was because your left hand is your naturally weaker hand. So it’s almost a sense of irony. Like you thought I was good for two hands? You wait and see what I can do with my weak hand.
Tim Ferriss: It’s like a Princess Bride moment.
Nicholas McCarthy: Exactly. So they would play these amazing virtuoso displays at the piano, with just their left hand, and they would absolutely send the crowd wild. Then let’s fast forward in history. The first World War happened. There’s a man named Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the famous philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Tim Ferriss: I was wondering that. I thought I was going to embarrass myself because they’re probably two centuries apart. Okay, I wasn’t wrong.
Nicholas McCarthy: The Wittgenstein family was a very wealthy, very well-respected, society family of the time. In those days, being a concert pianist in those kind of families, or being any kind of performer, was very much looked down upon. So Paul’s father had absolutely forbidden him to perform to be a concert pianist, even though that was always Paul’s lifelong ambition.
So when Paul’s dad died, he went out and gave his concert debut to very favorable reviews. By the look of things, he had a very promising career as a good two-handed pianist ahead of him. Then the First World War happened and within six months, he was in battle. Within eight months of his concert debut, he lost his right arm in battle.
Talk about steely determination. He was taken as a prisoner of war. During that time, he found some old wooden crates and he turned these crates over and he chalked a piano keyboard onto these crates. He worked out how to play some of his most favorite two-handed pieces. How he could arrange them for left hand alone. He was then – thanks to his family who were very influential and pulled some strings – repatriated back to Vienna. It was here where he decided to use his vast wealth and the fact that everyone knew the Wittgensteins and wanted to be involved with the Wittgensteins.
He used his position and his wealth to pay the biggest composers of the day to write pieces for him. So Ravel and Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten, Richard Strauss, Hindemith, they all composed left-hand alone pieces for him. He paid them around the sum of £30,000 back then. But now that is a lot of money for a composer to get.
Tim Ferriss: That sounds like a good chunk of change, yeah.
Nicholas McCarthy: That’s above the U.K. salary now. Imagine back then. You could buy a house for, I don’t know, £6,000. I’m plucking that figure out of the air, but certainly it was an awful lot of money. It was that that really expanded that left-hand repertoire and really grew it to becoming now – most two-handed pianists, if you ask them to print out their repertoire for them, most of them will have at least one or two left-hand piano concertos in their repertoire. Usually Ravel’s piano concerto for the left hand, which is probably the most famous piano left-hand piece out there.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve heard you mention before that you’ve arranged but not composed and that might be out of date. But to be perfectly honest, I thought I knew what compose meant and now I’m not sure. What is arranging music versus composing music?
Nicholas McCarthy: So arranging music is basically – in every century since the 19th century, there’s been one left-hand alone or one one-armed pianist, if you like, who was making waves in their industry. In the 21st century, I’m very fortunate enough that it seems to be me. That’s something which I’m hugely proud of and hugely humbled by.
I want to provide as much repertoire, if not more, than Paul Wittgenstein left for the likes of me to come along and play in the future. So by doing that, I do a lot of commissions. I work with a lot of commissions. Unfortunately, I’m not quite as wealthy as Paul Wittgenstein, so I haven’t got a lot of money to be throwing around at these composers. But I do a lot of arranging.
Tim Ferriss: And is arranging taking two-handed music and converting it into, in this case?
Nicholas McCarthy: Yes. So the difference between composing is someone thinking up a melody or an idea or something and creating a piece of music.
Arranging is where I would take from my album, for instance, I took my favorite piece of music ever, Gershwin’s Summertime.
Tim Ferriss: And this is on your album, Solo?
Nicholas McCarthy: This is on my album, Solo, yes. I decided that would work well for left hand alone, which it did. So I arranged that for left hand along and there’s two other of my own arrangements on the album as well. It’s lovely because people come up to my concerts after and say, “Where can we buy your arrangements?” Unfortunately, they’re in my head. So I need to actually sit down and get them published properly because there’s a demand for them already, which is lovely because I was kind of in my head doing it, so when I die, I’m going to be – [inaudible] when I’m older. So already it’s quite nice that there’s a demand for some of my arrangements.
Tim Ferriss: I think you need to get those on paper, young man.
Nicholas McCarthy: I do.
Tim Ferriss: That long life is not guaranteed, not to get all morbid and Stoic.
Nicholas McCarthy: Very true.
Tim Ferriss: I’d love for you to tell the story of the blind man in Malta, just because I found it very touching. I’ll leave it at that.
Nicholas McCarthy: This was very sweet. I was equally as touched. So usually when I’m playing a concert, I usually do my album signing after the concert and there’s often people waiting afterwards if they want to speak to me further. It’s very rare in the interval that I ever have people come back at that stage. But there was a knock on my dressing room and my manager said, “There’s someone who really wants to speak to you now. Is that all right?” I was like, “Yeah, that’s fine. No, problem. Bring him in.”
So it was him and I could see straight away – he had a white – he was blind and he had his ably-sighted friend with him. He said, “I’m so sorry to disturb you. I had to come and speak to you now. My friend booked these tickets for me and I didn’t realize until my friend in the interval, just as that last applause happened before I walked upstage, said, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that he does all of that and just with one hand?’” He said, “I just don’t believe it.” He said, “My ears never, ever lied to me.” He said, “I do not believe that you have one hand. Can I feel? Can I hold your left hand? Can I feel the right hand?” I said, “Yes, please, by all means.” [Barking] There’s my dog [inaudible].
Tim Ferriss: It’s a rousing story. So please continue.
Nicholas McCarthy: So I’m in my dressing room. This blind man’s there and he’s kind of feeling my hand and my right arm. He’s like, “I still can’t believe it.” It was lovely. I said to him, “Well, it means I’m doing my job right, because I’m creating that illusion and that’s what I wanted to do and what I aim to do.” So yeah, it was lovely.
Tim Ferriss: What a story. Now most people listening probably have two hands and I would imagine it’s difficult for them to image what might not be as difficult for someone with a single hand.
One note that you had shot to me, with no elaboration of course, was “I wanted to be a chef before I was a pianist.” Now can you please elaborate on how you would cook? Now, of course, there are ways you can cook with one hand, but what types of approaches or cuisines or modifications have you made and why cooking?
Nicholas McCarthy: I know, it’s funny. Again, it’s an equally dexterous job. I don’t know why I was drawn to these two-handed jobs all the time. I don’t know what it is. Again, I don’t really think I adapt anything really. I think one thing, if I’m cooking for friends, for instance, I always put – because say I’m slicing an onion, so I will support the onion with my little arm and I will obviously slice with my left hand.
But what I do is I put a sandwich bag, you know, like a little bag kind of thing, over my little arm. That way, I don’t know why I do that actually. But yeah, I would say that’s one little adaptation I just do. I almost feel like it is a bit weird cooking with a forearm. [Inaudible] even if you wash your hands. I wash my forearm, but it doesn’t seem quite as hygienic as cooking with hands. So I put a little bag over it and work it that way. But apart from that, there’s nothing I can’t do. I crack eggs with one hand. Yeah, I never really struggle with cooking.
I think the more I travel – and obviously my job involves an awful lot of travel and food – I’m such a foodie. I’m driven by food probably equally as much as I am by music, which isn’t always good for your waistline.
Tim Ferriss: What’s your favorite cuisine? Do you have a favorite cuisine?
Nicholas McCarthy: Japanese, definitely, which is good for your waistline, unless it’s kind of okonomiyaki kind of things and then it’s usually high in carb and sugar.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, it’s so good though. Like the katsudon, the deep-fried pork cutlets on rice. So good.
Nicholas McCarthy: It’s amazing. I love playing in Japan anyway, but especially over here, Japanese food, like it is in the States, it’s very popular. But when you go to Japan, it’s just on a different level. It’s completely – as you know – it’s just amazing.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s an alien landscape. It’s really an incredible experience. Is there a particular – I remember having this conversation with Paul Levesque, “Triple H”, he’s a very well-known professional wrestler and he was at one point over dinner describing to me the differences among – or I should say across – different crowds and how the Japanese are totally different from the Brits, who are totally different from the next person.
When you perform, is there any particular audience or place that treats you with an inordinate amount of respect or reverence?
Nicholas McCarthy: Yeah, I mean, the different – like with [inaudible], it’s huge. Us Brits tend to be quite staid, which doesn’t surprise anybody really. We tend to just applaud and be quite reserved. Whereas when I’m in Malta or Italy and places like that, they’re very vocal. “Bravo! Bravo! Bravissimo!” And the shouting, which I love. It’s great. I love that. They’re very vocal if they’ve enjoyed something. When I’ve played in the States, I’ve only actually played in the States a couple times now. I’ve always been very well [inaudible]. They’re lovely. I think you guys kind of get my story, whereas a lot of places like France, for instance, they’re not really interested in the story that goes with me, they just want to hear the music.
So it definitely – Japan and South Korea, they’re response is great. They have a really – you’ve probably experienced it over there, Tim – they have this fandom. They love being a fan. When I’m in Japan, people come up to me and ask me to sign the backs of their iPhone, like their actual, metal iPhone on the back. I feel like, “No, I don’t want to ruin it for you.” But that doesn’t happen here. It’s so funny. It’s different; it’s very different. It’s all wonderful. Especially when you go back to places, you know what to expect as well. You know what certain countries are like with their appreciation of you.
Tim Ferriss: I’m going to switch gears just a little bit. I’d like to ask some rapid-fire questions, which honestly I don’t know why I call them rapid-fire questions. They tend to be shorter questions but your answers don’t need to be short. They can be, but don’t need to be.
Nicholas McCarthy: As you can tell, I’m quite a chatterbox. So they’re not probably going to be short. I’m sorry.
Tim Ferriss: The first is when you hear the word “successful,” who is the first person who comes to mind and why?
Nicholas McCarthy: In my industry or just generally?
Tim Ferriss: Let’s say both.
Nicholas McCarthy: I would say – successful? I would say Bethenny Frankel, big fan of hers. I love the kind of rags-to-riches thing and the fact of what she did and the brand she created. I know I’m not in the liquor brand, but again, I’m trying to create my own brand as me. It’s hard. People don’t teach you when I’m at the Royal College of Music, for instance, they don’t teach you how to create a brand, create your own brand as an artist. You don’t get taught any of that. You’ve got to do it yourself or learn how to do it. Similar to how she did. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can sell myself for $150 million or however much she sold her company for.
Tim Ferriss: So that’s Skinnygirl or whatever it was called?
Nicholas McCarthy: So I would say that’s someone I do think of when I think of success. In my industry, I would say Lang Lang, the Chinese concert pianist.
Tim Ferriss: Lang Lang.
Nicholas McCarthy: Yes. He’s kind of bagged the whole brand endorsement thing and everything which one day I hope to do. He’s done that and definitely, whether you like his playing or not, you can’t deny that he is certainly a phenomenon in our industry.
Tim Ferriss: What book or books have you gifted the most to other people? If you have.
Nicholas McCarthy: I’m not really – I’m more of a Kindle kind of person. So I don’t really gift books. Sorry if that’s a really boring answer.
Tim Ferriss: No, no, that’s totally fine.
Nicholas McCarthy: I actually don’t think I’ve ever given a book as a gift.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. We can dance with that. Are there any books you’ve read more than once that come to mind?
Nicholas McCarthy: I would say I like books about people. I like books about interesting people. So I like autobiographies, but not like a reality star’s autobiography. I like a really interesting person’s autobiography.
Tim Ferriss: Any particular autobiographies come to mind?
Nicholas McCarthy: Yeah, like Graham Norton, the guy who – he’s quite big over here in the U.K. and the guy who you were listening to –
Tim Ferriss: That’s right, the BBC Interviewer.
Nicholas McCarthy: Yeah. He’s great because he’s had a fascinating life. I’ve read that twice now. So I would say anything about people. Nina Simone, I remember reading her –
Tim Ferriss: I’m sorry, what was that name again?
Nicholas McCarthy: Nina Simone.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah.
Nicholas McCarthy: I read a book with her and that was fascinating. So yeah, I think I like the real, live people thing. I’m not really one to go and get lost in a novel. That isn’t really me.
Tim Ferriss: I’ll make a suggestion for autobiographies, which is Open by Andre Agassi. Even if you’re not a tennis fan or player, which I’m neither, really. But Open is one of the most incredible books in terms of autobiographies that I’ve read in probably the last five years. I think you might enjoy.
Nicholas McCarthy: Okay, I will add that to my list. That sounds my cup of tea.
Tim Ferriss: How old are you at the moment?
Nicholas McCarthy: I’m 27.
Tim Ferriss: 27.
Nicholas McCarthy: Wrong side of 25, man. I’d like to be 25.
Tim Ferriss: Wrong side of 25. What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self? And can you place us as to where you were, what were you doing?
Nicholas McCarthy: I would probably say – age 20, I forget what age I was when I started at the Royal College, but I think if I’m right in saying I think I had started the Royal College then. What I would say would be, “Don’t listen to people.” No – “Don’t listen to the negativity,” because I used to do that a lot and it would influence me. It’s only really the last four years, really, that I’ve consistently not listened to negativity.
Obviously, when I would be turned down by that music school and various things that we spoke about earlier, I obviously wasn’t listening to that negativity then, but there’s been some other times where I have listened to people. I’ve had people say to me before, and they’re always a certain type of age, these older people in the classical industry. “Well, it’s a shame that you won’t ever really be able to have a recording career.” I used to be like, “Oh, well, what a shame, because that is what I really want to do.” And then obviously I went on and signed my major record deal with Warner Music.
I wish I could’ve told myself that or whispered in my ear, “Don’t listen to them because you’re going to be more well-known than they think you’re going to be.” You know?
Tim Ferriss: Now, when you hear negativity now, how do you cope with or respond to negativity? Is there something that you say to yourself when you hear it? Because, of course, there’s a lot of negativity in the world.
Nicholas McCarthy: Of course there is.
Tim Ferriss: You just go online and you’re going to end up wading in the mud at some point. How have you trained yourself to not take the negativity to heart? Is there something you say to yourself? Is there a practice of some type that helps with that?
Nicholas McCarthy: I always now try and spin it and make it into a positive. So I usually visualize myself – I’m quite a visual person – so, for instance, I’m quite lucky. It’s not as cutthroat as it is in the celebrity world. The classical world is cutthroat, but it’s not – what’s the thing? As negative where people are just being negative because they can be a negative, like tabloid press, for instance. We don’t really get that yet. So in regard to negative comments, I don’t tend to get them a lot.
But negative things like if I really wanted to play this certain concert or this certain concerto and then someone else has got that, I kind of then use that as a positive. So I would say, it’s not my time and it was their time. I’ll close my eyes. I’ll visualize myself in that situation in two years’ time, for instance. I just think, whatever will be, will be. It is what it is. Nothing I can do about it. I wish I had that when I was younger because I used to take things in and get so frustrated with things and so upset about things. Now, I just don’t. Now I just think it is what it is. I quite like that phrase, “It is what it is.” It kind of sums everything up, really. Nothing you can do about it.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a good segue. So you don’t have to choose that, but if you could put anything on a gigantic billboard that was not an advertisement, what would it be? What would it say?
Nicholas McCarthy: Anything is possible.
Tim Ferriss: Anything is possible.
Nicholas McCarthy: That is just my – I just wholeheartedly believe that. And actually, I’ve had some negativity about that because there’s some people I’ve been interviewed about things and that’s the message I bring to the countries I visit.
Because I do 100 percent think that. I think why wouldn’t I think that? Because a guy who’s from a non-classical background, from a non-money background, from a very small village in England – who no one’s really done a great deal from where I’m from – and then for me with one arm as well and the age that I started to then enter this arena of highbrow classical music and honing your craft to the highest level. I think by me doing that, I 100 percent think that anything is possible. I just think, of course, with hard work, determination, those things go hand in hand.
But those people have said to me, “But I don’t believe that. I couldn’t go out and be,” this one woman who was a journalist said, “I couldn’t go out and be the best lawyer in the world.”
I said, “Well, you probably could if you actually wanted to and if you 100 percent believed that yourself and you felt that you were going to be that person, but you don’t think that. You don’t want to be that, so you’re not going to be.”
Tim Ferriss: Tough talk, I like it.
Nicholas McCarthy: [Inaudible].
Tim Ferriss: You’ve got to tell how it is. Do you have any particular morning routines? Any routines or habits that are important to you? Say in the first hour or two of your day.
Nicholas McCarthy: Yeah, I’m quite a late riser. I usually wake up about 9:00 a.m., which I know is quite late for a lot of people. I do practice later at night though. I always feel – because I’m on stage usually at 7:30 and I’m off stage at 10:30. That’s kind of more where I prefer to practice. I’m not really a daytime practice. I almost feel like I’m missing out, even though people are at work. Most of my friends have normal jobs. They’re just at work. I still feel like I’m missing out; I don’t know why. So I’m not really one for daytime practice.
I do work slightly later. I get up about 9:00 a.m. I usually go to the gym in the morning to do a run. I’m quite a good runner and I enjoy it, as well. I don’t ever listen to music when I’m running, which people find very bizarre. People are constantly jogging and running with their headphones in and there’s me with nothing in. That is my time – I’m surrounded by music all the time and I’m surrounded by my own voice and speaking and doing interviews and things.
So I like the silence. I like the silence of running without headphones in, without me talking about myself, without me doing anything, just to run. I do a lot of running for two different reasons: one, because as I said, I love food so much. Two, because I find running the best way to increase stamina. Because of my concerts, I have to have a very hard stamina. Plus, it’s hard work playing the piano for 90 minutes with one hand.
So I have to do anything in my power to increase that natural stamina. So yeah, my morning routine starts at 9:00. I go for a run, usually. Maybe four times, five times a week. Then I would come home, have my shower. Then I’m just ready for the day then. Whether that is a little bit of practice or if I’ve got my interviews to do or catch up on emails or other projects that I’m doing. Taking my dog for a walk, just things like that really.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned building a brand earlier. Are there any resources, books, quotes, anything that you’ve found very helpful in trying to differentiate yourself and build a career?
Nicholas McCarthy: Well, I think, again, it’s difficult because most books on branding are talking about a product. And yes, I know I am a product, essentially. But it’s different, isn’t it? When you’re branding a person or an image. It’s kind of different. And also with me, having one hand, I’ve instantly differentiated myself anyway in that sense.
But I’ve always found a way of – or I hope I’ve tried to find a way of branding myself without always screaming from the rooftops that I have one arm. I never wanted to just be like, “Well yes, and obviously he’s good for having one arm.” I want people to say, and lucky they do now, “He’s a fantastic pianist. By the way, and isn’t it fantastic he’s only got one hand?” It’s first and foremost I wanted to be recognized for my playing ability, not for the fact that I’ve come a long way with one arm. So that, branding-wise and marketing-wise and things, you’ve got to be very careful with that.
Now, the press over here do brand me the one-armed pianist. That’s fine. My phrase again, “It is what it is.” And it’s saying what I am. That is what I am. I’m proud of that at one time. Like I said, I never wanted to be gimmicky. Because if I did want it to be gimmicky, I would’ve done one of the big TV talent shows.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I think you’ve made the right choice on that. So we’ve talked about some of your wins. Have you had any particularly punishing failures that have set you up in some way for later successes? Or do you have a favorite failure story of any type?
Nicholas McCarthy: See, being a very positive person, I try to spin any failures into a positive. I wouldn’t say this was a failure, but it was something that was hard to swallow. I, a couple of years ago, got – because, you know, being a public speaker, I do a lot of speaking for various businesses and things like that, and there’s my TED Talk and things. That’s a side of my career which I love. I love motivating people, inspiring people in any way possible. The BBC picked up on the fact that I was a good presenter and they asked me if I’d be interested in presenting for television a couple of the BBC proms, which are a huge deal over here.
Tim Ferriss: Now what is – I apologize. When I hear the word “prom” in the U.S., it’s usually associated with sort of a ball of sorts with high school graduation or college graduation.
Nicholas McCarthy: That’s the same here. We have our kind of high school/college graduation balls as well. With regard to proms, it’s an old tradition. It’s basically held in the Royal Albert Hall. It’s a big festival all through the summer of classical concerts every single day by the biggest names. The whole world kind of descends on this big festival. It’s now obviously covered by the BBC, but it never used to be. It went before the BBC. The word “proms” refers to prommers and it’s where you can £5 tickets on the day for standing in the arena, so it’s basically making classical music very accessible.
If you’re one of those people who stand in the arena, you’re called a “prommer.” So it’s this tradition thing. It goes back years. But it’s a really massive cultural thing here because we do get the biggest names and the biggest orchestras every single day from end of July through to September.
Every single day in the Royal Hall. People queue all the way. Most of the concerts sell out very quickly, but they don’t ever sell those prommers tickets until the day and you have to queue up for them. So you’re pretty much always guaranteed a ticket if you’re willing to be a prommer and pay £5 and stand.
Tim Ferriss: That’s cool. I like that.
Nicholas McCarthy: But it’s broadcast on radio every single day, every concert is broadcast on radio. Some of them are broadcast on television, which I was picked to do. One of the proms which I was asked to present was a very good French pianist, was playing Ravel’s left-hand piano concerto. So when the BBC asked me if I would be interested in presenting for them and I said, of course, yes, and here’s what you’ll be presenting. I said, “That’s fine.”
I said, “Has it not crossed your mind that maybe having Britain’s only one-handed concert pianist actually – probably the world’s only one-handed concert pianist presenting a prom where a two-handed pianist is playing Ravel’s left-hand piano concerto, do you think that might give a little bit of backlash?” And they said, “Oh, we didn’t really think of that.” I said, “Well, I’ll tell you now. I’m more than happy to do that. I’m more than happy to be involved, but some of my fans who are very loyal, very supportive, won’t take – they’ll find it bizarre. They’ll just find it odd. They will comment.”
I said that and then there was always that slight worry that no one would write in to the BBC or no one would Tweet in to the BBC about how awful it is that Nicholas McCarthy was presenting this prom when a two-handed pianist was playing a left-hand concerto. But luckily they got lots of complaints and Tweets in about – not necessarily complaints, but just highlighting the fact that it was probably not the best decision on their part.
For me, it was fine. It was kind of hard to swallow at first because I thought why wasn’t it me? But you know what? It was his time. He played it brilliantly and good for him. I was pleased that people Tweeted in and wrote in; I’m not going to lie.
Tim Ferriss: What has been the best investment you’ve ever made? That could be money, time or energy? I know that’s a big question, but whatever comes to mind.
Nicholas McCarthy: See, that’s difficult. When you’re starting out in any creative industry and especially in music, a lot of people think – especially in the classical world – you don’t need to be investing in yourself, whereas I completely have. When you’re creating any brand, you’ve got to do that. When I was first starting out, the amount of concerts I was doing for free just to build a fan base, just to sell a couple of my self-produced CDs and earn the money off the bat; that is an investment.
Me spending £2,000 pounds to make my first CD just so I can sell it. Yes, I made my money back on it, but I didn’t know I was going to make my money back on it. So there’s been so many times – and things like video production for YouTube. Especially now, there’s so much content that people are thirsty for content. If you want to be part of that, you’ve got to create that content. As you know, Tim, that isn’t cheap to do. That isn’t cheap to do. There is a cost to it. It takes people. You can’t just do it all on your own. That does take money to do that. So I would say there’s been so many things. I would say maybe I think I got offered, which was very kind, by – do you know the violinist Nigel Kennedy?
Tim Ferriss: I’ve heard the name.
Nicholas McCarthy: He’s very famous over here. In 1989, he released Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and he sold pop numbers of them. He really made classical quite cool back then. Even my Mum and Dad had bought this album.
The producer of that – he’s a very well-known producer called Andrew Keener – he’s produced the biggest names in the classical world. He produced that album which went on to sell pop figures of this classical album. Andrew heard of me and I hadn’t done a great deal by this stage. I had graduated from the Royal College and I’d played at the Paralympic closing ceremony and various things, but I hadn’t done a lot. He contacted me and said, “I’d love to produce a demo disc for you free of charge if you’d be interested.”
And that was like, I don’t know, who is the best producer in pop? I don’t know who it is, but that’s like them ringing you up and say, “Oh, I’ll produce you for free.” It was like, okay. I’d never recorded, apart from myself when I’d done it very crudely myself. I’d never had that. So here I was from having two self-produced discs very crudely done, to then being sat in a concert hall with Andrew Keener, producer extraordinaire.
It cost money because I had to pay for the studio, I had to pay for the engineer, I had to pay for various things. It cost quite a lot of money, but what I got out of that was completely invaluable.
Tim Ferriss: How did he hear about you? If you trace it back, what does the spider’s web look like?
Nicholas McCarthy: I was on the cover of a piano magazine over here and I think he must have read it and then got in touch with me about it. Because this is the thing with me, I’ve never done – there’s usually a blueprint. If you see any success, whether it’s in pop or classical or whatever you’re in, there’s usually a blueprint of what happens. In classical, most people win a big competition and get signed by an agent and then they start touring around and then they get signed by a big record label. Then obviously the PR from that is amazing and then you become a name. Then you do another album and blah, blah, blah. Whereas with me, that didn’t happen.
I started getting major worldwide and national press before I’d even done anything. I was playing maybe three or four free concerts a year to a couple of hundred people, yet I was on the biggest shows promoting – well, not a lot really because I didn’t have anything to promote, you know? I did everything backwards. So I didn’t get picked up by the agent straight away, I didn’t get signed straight away; none of that happened. I did everything backwards. So I was already seen as a success, even though the reality wasn’t that. Yes, I was looked at as a success because I was on all these shows and people were seeing my name a lot, but I didn’t have any of the things which kind of went with that. I didn’t have the 90 concerts a year. I didn’t have the CD which was being sold around the world and every time I was on a show it was selling more copies. It wasn’t happening. That didn’t happen for me. Everything has always been a bit topsy-turvy with me.
Tim Ferriss: If you were to be in charge of a piano school or to just teach someone with no musical background how to play piano, and you could choose one-handed or two-handed, or design the curriculum. If you wanted to – because I feel like there’s – I have taken music lessons for piano, trumpet, trombone, recorder, and flute. You go down the list, the only thing that really stuck for me was the drums, I think in part because I’m impatient and you can sound conceivably tolerable pretty quickly with the drums. But if you wanted more people to stick with piano, how would you teach them in the first few weeks or what would you do differently than is commonly done?
Nicholas McCarthy: First of all, I would find out what their musical tastes are. Now, there’s a misconception with classical music and the amount of times I heard people say, “No, I don’t like classical music. It’s boring.” I’m thinking, “Well, classical music is a very big umbrella.” There’s a lot of stuff in there. You might not like opera, but you might love piano. You might not love Bach, but you might love Chopin’s music. You can’t just discount a whole section of our history and of culture just because you’ve heard a couple of pieces. Which yes, you may have found boring and I’m sure you did.
The amount of times I turn on a classical radio station and I turn it off again because I’m bored by it. Because it’s not my cup of tea some of the stuff that they play. It’s like with pop music. You don’t, say for instance, if you didn’t like Rihanna. You don’t then say, “Well, I don’t like pop music.” Because you might like Adele. But people’s mentality with classical music is very different.
They feel that they don’t like the entire 300 years of music because they’ve heard two pieces that they don’t like. That’s part of my thing. I would instantly educate people on listening. I’d get them listening to find out what they actually like and then I’d run with that. I would then say, “Right, so you like Russian 20th century music. Okay, so let’s learn some Prokofiev. Let’s look at some Kovalevsky. Let’s look at some composers which aren’t on the tip of everybody’s tongue but I’m sure you might love.”
Tim Ferriss: So could you – on that point – I do enjoy a lot of classical music, but don’t know the first thing about it. Nine times out of ten, I have no idea what I’m even listening to, honestly. If I wanted to or people listening wanted to explore a few lesser known classical musicians or composers, who might you recommend?
Nicholas McCarthy: Well, to you I would say go and listen to Liszt.
Tim Ferriss: That’s just L-I-S-T?
Nicholas McCarthy: L-I-S-Z-T. He’s a Hungarian composer. Very famous classical composer. So yeah, go and listen to him. I would say pianist wise, I would say YouTube, the concert of the Argentinian pianist called Martha Argerich. She is just super human. She is quite elderly now, but she still plays. She’s coming to the BBC proms this year. She has cult status in our world. She sold on the Royal Albert Hall which is what? 6,000 seats? She told that out in a day or two, I think. Obviously, the prommers can still go and see her, as I mentioned earlier. I would go and YouTube her. Because it’s almost – watching her is just super human what she can do.
Tim Ferriss: Cool. What is some of the worst advice that you see or hear often?
Nicholas McCarthy: See, it’s funny, people don’t really give me advice anymore. But when I was first starting out, I remember having a meeting with an agent once. She said – this was before I got my management and things and before I’d signed my record deal, but things had happened for me. I’d done quite a lot of stuff by that point. I remember her saying, “Yes, well I think you should go and do your Master’s degree (at £9,000 a year for two years). And then I think you should take another two years out and go and study in Vienna,” or something. And I’d been working for probably two years by that stage.
And I thought, “Why am I going to spend £18,000, minimum, on doing a Master’s degree when I’ve already got my Bachelor degree, on something that I already do. I’m playing the piano. I’ve already got a fan base. I’m already playing concerts. She just obviously had that very – like we mentioned that word earlier – old school.
She had that old school blueprint that I was never going to fit into, never. Even when I first started doing television when I was at the Royal College, I was doing these mainstream talk shows, daytime chat shows. No classical pianist was doing those because they didn’t necessarily have the back story that I had. The Royal College of Music was saying, “We don’t think it will do you any good to do these chat shows.” I said, “Why?” “Well, it’s not very highbrow, is it?” “I don’t want to be highbrow. Music is for everyone. Music is a universal language.
Why do I have to do these shows where 140,000 viewers or listeners listen to them as opposed to going on a TV show where 5 million viewers are watching? Why do I have to do that just because it’s not highbrow?” So I’ve always listened people’s advice and very promptly ignored it if I felt it was wrong. Likewise, I’m the first to take advice and the first to praise advice if I feel it’s suited to me.
A lot of the time, like I said, I feel that people were very quick to try and apply this blueprint to me and I was never going to be – for obvious reasons. The fact that I only have one hand, there isn’t a blueprint. There isn’t someone you can look at back in history and say, “Ah, well he had a very successful career and he was just like you.” It wasn’t like that.
Most of the people who played my repertoire, if you look back in history, having already had some sort of career as a two-handed pianist. I was starting straight away in left-hand repertoire as a one-handed pianist. I’m kind of that first one to kind of have to do that. So how can you apply the same blueprint that you do to a two-handed pianist? How can you apply that? I just don’t think it would work. Clearly, it hasn’t worked because I’ve done my own thing.
Tim Ferriss: Well, even if those blueprints could work, it seems like a blessing in many respects, but certainly in the sense that it would lead you to at least ask, or say to yourself, wait, hold on a second now.
Let’s test these assumptions. Let’s question these assumptions because maybe it doesn’t apply to me, whereas a lot of other people would have probably accepted the blueprint as the default. But you were in a position to have that instinctual response of questioning, which I think is always a good instinct to have.
Nicholas McCarthy: Well, like I’ve said, I’ve got it wrong many times as well. I’m not saying I’ve gone through and every decision I’ve made is right; of course not. That isn’t the case. At the same time, I think my wrong decisions I’ve certainly learned from very quickly.
Tim Ferriss: You’ve mentioned food a couple of times. I’m quite a fan of food myself. What is the best meal or drink you’ve ever had?
Nicholas McCarthy: Best meal I had was in Japan. It was the end of my – I went out there to promote my album over there. I was out there for ten days, solid press. You know what it’s like when you’re doing these promotions of books or whatever you’re having to do.
t’s hard work. At the end of it, they took me out for this big celebratory meal. It wasn’t actually called the Wagyu beef. But basically it was similar, but it was called something else and I can’t remember the name of it.
Tim Ferriss: Akaushi, maybe?
Nicholas McCarthy: I can’t remember. But you should have seen the size of these filet steaks. I’ve never seen anything in my life. It was cooked all in front of us by a private chef in a private dining. Absolutely beautiful. And that was the – hands down – beat meal I’ve ever had in my life.
Tim Ferriss: Was it the food? Was it the company? Was it your relief?
Nicholas McCarthy: Everything.
Tim Ferriss: I guess it was all of it.
Nicholas McCarthy: It was the relief of having done a good ten days work. I like working and I like it when it goes well, as we all do. So it was that, it was the success of everything. It was the team I was with, who were just brilliant. They’re really great. My manager was with me as well, so it was lovely to travel. It was just everything, as well as the ambience, as well as the head chef cooking for us. The whole thing – the theater of it, it was just brilliant.
Tim Ferriss: This all makes me want to go back to Japan immediately.
Nicholas McCarthy: Yeah, I know.
Tim Ferriss: Outside of music, or I shouldn’t say outside of music. I’ll say outside of classical piano, where do you geek out? Meaning do you have any odd obsessions or obsessions like Star Wars? A sports team? Wine? Anything?
Nicholas McCarthy: Not really. I’m very much interested in something and I do get slightly geeky over things like interior design, for instance. If I wasn’t going to be a pianist and I wasn’t going to be a chef, then I’d have probably wanted to go into interior design because I love it. I love doing up houses and I’ve helped my Mum and Dad a lot with theirs and I’ve helped friends. If any of my friends are moving into somewhere new, they’re like, “Nick, will you come and help me?” Because I just love it. I love getting into people’s heads to see what their style is and what they want. I like to put together, obviously if I’ve got the time, I don’t have as much time anymore.
But when I am on time, I’m always reading interior design books or looking for various things I want to do to my house. So that’s something where I probably do kind of – it’s so different from my job. Even though it’s creative still, it’s so different from what I do and it’s something that I do get quite excited about in a geeky way, you know? I love going interiors shopping.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have any favorite books or magazines or anything else?
Nicholas McCarthy: Yeah, my favorite designer is Kelly Hoppen. She’s more well-known here, but she doesn’t lots of really high-end, luxury hotels and yachts and various things. But she’s also got these nice books which have done her more normal homes, if you like, not billionaire homes. She teaches you how to design and her thought process. I like that. I like reading about her actual process of it, as opposed to someone just telling you.
Like, “This is why I did this.” She was actually saying, “If you put this against this, this will really work and this will create some drama,” and blah, blah, blah. So I like her a lot. It’s not so much designs, but there’s often design companies which I like a lot, which wouldn’t really mean anything to you or anything to anybody even over here, because you only really use the design companies if you use them. I know them because I almost take influence from their design style.
Tim Ferriss: What is one that comes to mind? You’d be surprised who’s listening to this.
Nicholas McCarthy: There’s one called Hill House Interiors and they design a lot of the lovely show homes over here. It’s very similar to my style of my house. So I’ve designed my whole house almost off the back of their styling of how they design their interiors. I think they’re wonderful.
Tim Ferriss: Hill House Interiors?
Nicholas McCarthy: Mm-hmm. In Weybridge in Surrey.
Tim Ferriss: I will check that out. What purchase for less than $100.00 – I don’t know what the exchange rate is now?
Nicholas McCarthy: Well, it’s lots today now we’re out of the –
Tim Ferriss: That’s right. Let’s just call it £100. Has most positively impacted your life in recent memory? And it could just be a purchase. I’m just looking for something that isn’t say the price of a grand piano.
Nicholas McCarthy: Actually, this is quite random, but I love it. It’s a diffuser for aromatherapy oils. My piano is in my lounge and I have this diffuser on. I put different oils in. For when I’m practicing, I would put geranium in, for instance, which I love. I just find it relaxes me, but at the same time keeps me perked up enough to be able to work. Whereas if I want to relax, I might put ylang ylang in or something like that. I’m really almost suddenly – in the last six months, got quite interested in aromatherapy because I have 100 percent felt the effects of different aromas on my concentration or my relaxation or whatever.
So I would say that. It was only £50. The oils that I bought with it probably amounted in total to about £80. I use it every day when I’m here. I love it. It’s Neal’s Yard, which is a big brand over here of natural, organic aromatherapy oils and skincare products and various things like that. I love that. Only because I’ve seen such a difference. So it’s one of those diffusers, it’s not like you put the candle in. It’s an electric one which kind of emits steam.
Tim Ferriss: This will sounds funny to my fans too. This is actually of great interest to me. I recently got a sauna – I built a barrel sauna based on specs from two former guests – Laird Hamilton, a world famous big wave surfer, and Rick Rubin, the music producer.
I’ve bought various oils like eucalyptus oil and I do not know what the hell to do with them. It was just in the “people who bought this also bought” category on Amazon. So I went on a 3:00 a.m. binge and bought a ton of stuff. But I also noticed about a week ago, I had a woman blow Frankincense, basically put oils on her hands and then blew through her hands onto me. This requires a lot of explanation I won’t get into, but to relax me and it had the desired effect immediately. It was very – and psychosomatic or not, I don’t really care in this case because I needed to fucking relax and it worked. So I will have to check out a diffuser.
Nicholas McCarthy: Actually, everyone comes into my home and they say, “What’s that smell? It’s beautiful.” And I love that. What a nice thing for people to be greeted by. I think we’re very affected by smells as humans.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, definitely.
Nicholas McCarthy: And I think people often overlook that. The amount of gorgeous places I’ve been in or beautiful hotel rooms and things and the ones I remember are the ones who have a lovely smell to them. It instantly transforms the environment, doesn’t it? I feel. And it certainly – because I work from home a lot, it certainly transforms my working home life in a more positive way. It certainly helps me concentrate or helps me relax. When I’m practicing in a room, if I’m not as home, I miss it.
Tim Ferriss: For sure. So geranium, which I have not –
Nicholas McCarthy: Yeah, I use geranium a lot. I love that. That’s my one that I kind of –
Tim Ferriss: So it’s relaxing but allows you to have a calm focus of sorts.
Nicholas McCarthy: It doesn’t relax me too – you don’t want to be dopey when you’re working. You kind of relax because you’ve got focus still. I find that really works with me.
Tim Ferriss: This is exciting for me. I will try that. We could keep going for house, I am sure, Nicholas. But I want to be respectful of your time. I know we’re a couple of time zones apart. Where can people find you online and learn more about you, your music, say hello on social, if you’re engaged in any particular platform and so on?
Nicholas McCarthy: Well, I think the best bet for your listeners, if they go and check me out on YouTube – Nicholas McCarthy – they’ll be able to at least see what we’ve been talking about today. I think that’s the first thing. It’s so visual what I do. So I always encourage people just to go and look. Instead of us explaining it, it’s going to be so much more fulfilling for your listeners to be able to watch and see what I do. But yeah, come and say hello on Twitter. Come and say hello on Facebook. I’m nmccarthypiano on Twitter and Facebook. So come and say hi. I look forward to hearing this when it goes out and chatting to your lovely listeners.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I hope that they all check out your work and listen to your work and say hello on social. For everybody listening, of course, links to everything that we discussed will be in the show notes, as usual, at fourhourworkweek.com/podcast, where you can find all previous episodes as well. Nicholas, thank you so much for the time. This was great fun.
Nicholas McCarthy: Thank you, I’ve really enjoyed it. Thank you so much for having me.
Tim Ferriss: To everyone listening, as always and until next time, thank you so much for spending time with The Tim Ferriss Show.
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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