Piano or Keyboard?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the piano vs. keyboard debate. When parents ask if a keyboard is okay for a beginner to learn on, my first gut reaction is “No! Don’t get a keyboard! Get a piano!” But I stop myself before I say this because I know buying a piano is an investment, especially when buying a new or gently used one in good condition. So what I usually say instead is, “Yes–a digital piano is fine, if it has weighted keys, a full-size keyboard, and a pedal attachment.”

There are some advantages to digital pianos: they can be put anywhere: against windows, in a bedroom, etc. They are compact. They have a headphone attachment, fun sounds, a built-in metronome, and MIDI capabilities. They don’t have to be tuned. They are portable (depending on the style). They can be less expensive (although some models cost more than a simple upright acoustic piano).

The disadvantages are that it’s harder to play expressively on a keyboard, and the touch is different, even with weighted keys. It’s just not like an acoustic piano. I wonder what effect playing a keyboard has on one’s technique compared to a piano. I also wonder if it’s more motivating for a student to play on a piano vs. a keyboard: I think the piano is inherently more satisfying to play (but I learned on a piano so I can’t really know what it was like to learn on a keyboard). Also, a student can get lost in all the fun sound and rhythm buttons on a keyboard and play around with those instead of practicing (even though fun free-play is an important aspect of practicing, and sound exploration is important, a child who has ADD tendencies may not be able to help themselves from tinkering).

Also, if parents don’t get a digital piano with all 88 keys, the students come to lessons not knowing exactly where Middle C, or Treble G (etc.) is. On a full-sized keyboard, letter-named notes have very specific places on the piano. When a student of mine plays at home on a truncated keyboard, they come to lessons with their hands in the wrong position.

If the keyboard doesn’t have a pedal attachment, pedaling can’t be practiced at home. Pedaling is usually introduced by book one or two in many piano methods.

If the keyboard doesn’t have weighted and full-sized keys the student will not learn to play expressively because dynamics are impossible to play on these types of “faux” keys. Also, when they do play on an acoustic piano during lessons, they’ll be so unused to the touch that they may have to “unlearn” how they played their song on their keyboard because it feels so different. Staccatos, legatos, and other expressive elements feel different on an acoustic vs. a keyboard.

I understand the cost issue, if a parent is unsure if their child will continue to be interested in lessons after a year. But, a good piano that is maintained properly can keep its value over time, whereas the technology for digital pianos will change over time and value is lost. I guess I’m also biased: I think every house needs a piano. Everyone in the household (or at least 2 people) should be able to play something on an acoustic instrument, whether it is chopsticks or new-agey improvisation. A piano is a gorgeous piece of furniture that could become an heirloom. A room with a piano in it seems more alive for some reason–it makes a room more beautiful, and just think of all the guests who come over during parties to play it–even if it’s a couple of 3-year-olds playing a loud and colorful duet. I’ll never forget a birthday party of mine a few years ago: I had collected a bunch of cheap old (from the 1910’s and 20’s) sheet music, and a couple of us started singing and playing these tunes on my $300 old Monarch upright piano. Pretty soon a crowd had gathered and we were all singing (and some were even harmonizing) these corny songs. It was one of the most fun parties I can remember. I would bet, out of a typical friend group, at least one person knows how to play a piano. Collect a ton of sheet music, and Bam! instant (hilarious) good times.

When I was in elementary school, my poor, single mother somehow afforded a new console piano for my brother and me (although I think my brother had stopped taking piano lessons by then). I think if you really want a piano, you can make it work, financially. Most piano stores have payment plans. It could also be something the family saves up for, if they are committed to making the most out of music lessons and of having a musical life in general. Can’t afford it? Or won’t afford it?

If you’re looking for a new or used piano, I highly recommend “The Piano Book” by Larry Fine. It has tons of info about buying a piano and what to look for (don’t buy a used piano on Craigslist without it!!).

If you’re looking for a new or used flute, here are some websites I came across that are super helpful. This one provides useful info on buying a used flute. This one is about why cheap and poorly-manufactured flutes aren’t worth the trouble. Sometimes it’s more cost-effective to buy a new or gently used high-quality flute than it is to keep repairing a low-quality flute. And a flute (or piano) that is in disrepair can injure hands (for example if some flute keys are leaking, the student will over-compensate and press harder to make a tone come out. This is very bad).

An instrument that is easy and fun to play will keep the student motivated to learn more, and will prevent injuries. High-quality, acoustic instruments are also more fun to listen to—would you rather listen to “Hot Cross Buns” on a keyboard or on a piano? Chopin on a keyboard or Chopin on the piano?

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