If you are thinking about spending money on piano lessons you will also have to think about an instrument to practise on. You don’t want an unsuitable instrument that slows down progress and causes bad habits. But choosing a suitable piano for a beginner can be a nightmare if you don’t even know the differences between an acoustic piano, a digital piano and an electronic keyboard.
Electronic Keyboards – are they the enemy?
There was a time when all piano teachers would be horrified at the idea of a student practising on an electronic instrument of any kind. This is because learning to play the piano is not just about knowing what sound you get if you press a particular key.
In the piano lesson a huge amount of effort will go into making sure that even a beginner student can play without tension. As they progress they will be taught to shape the music and make it sound beautiful using different arm weight and finger touch.
All of this effort is completely wasted if the student is spending the time between lessons on an instrument that feels and responds very differently. If none of the techniques make any difference they won’t get practised. When the keys are too light the student will play too heavily and with lots of tension when playing a piano.
Tension needs to be avoided as it causes a poor tone and leads to discomfort or even injury.
The age of the Digital Piano
Traditionally the piano that might have been in the home of your parents or grandparents was an acoustic piano. This is basically a piano with wooden keys and strings inside that produce a noise when hit. You don’t have to plug it in or insert batteries to get it to work!
Over the last while electronic instruments have come a long way. It is no longer just a question of a plug in instrument versus an acoustic. There is now also a distinction between keyboards and digital pianos.
These digital pianos are designed to sound and feel more like the traditional instrument than a keyboard. The keys may be thicker and heavier. They may be touch sensitive so you can produce different volumes using different touches. They may be weighted to mimic the amount of pressure you would use when playing an acoustic.
There is a big range in quality when it comes to weighted keys. The more expensive the piano the more touch sensitive the keys are and the more they feel like piano keys. The better ones will be weighted differently along the range of the keyboard which is more realistic. At the higher end Hybrid digital pianos even have wooden keys and the same mechanism as an acoustic piano. These replicate as closely as possible the feel of an acoustic.
There are also other advantages to these digital pianos. If you have limited space, a digital piano is more compact. You may also have options to record or to connect your piano to a computer. You will certainly be able to use headphones and not have to worry about disturbing the neighbours !
So a Digital Piano will be suitable?
While some teachers and music schools still insist on acoustic pianos the more informed ones will consider a digital. Whether it is suitable will actually depend on the level of the student and the exact model of the instrument.
There is a vast array of models out there. The different manufacturers all use different mechanisms to achieve some or all of the features described above. The specs and model numbers change constantly and the manufacturers have a bewildering array of phrases to describe their features. You cannot simply tell from the description whether it will feel like an acoustic or not.
This is another reason why some teachers recommend only an acoustic – it’s a lot simpler ! Teachers can really only recommend what they have experienced themselves. If you’ve spotted a bargain they may not be able to advise you unless it’s possible to try it out.
Should I play it safe with an acoustic ?
When I first started teaching I used to only recommend an acoustic. Hybrid Pianos were not available and the higher end digitals were more expensive than a good reconditioned acoustic.
I learned over time that a badly maintained piano could be just as harmful to the development of piano playing as a lightweight digital instrument. Stiff action, loose keys and pedals that don’t work properly will all cause problems with technique.
An acoustic also needs to be tuned regularly. I get my own piano tuned two or three times a year. If a student is practising on an out of tune piano they are less likely to notice mistakes, which then get baked in and are as hard to remove as the rings on your favourite casserole dish.
An out of tune piano also makes it much more difficult to develop a good ear which is an important skill for musical playing. Although a digital piano will eventually suffer wear and tear and need some kind of maintenance, you will not have to get it tuned.
If you love the look and feel of an acoustic piano and have the space go for it. The main advantage is the sound and tone. Many acoustics have a silent system or you can have one fitted if you want the option of silent practise.
What about using a keyboard?
If you just want to explore music and compose or arrange rather than becoming a piano player a keyboard may well be a suitable instrument. Keyboards have options for percussion and other effects that are not available on a piano. If you are looking to learn to play piano however you really need a digital piano.
The line between keyboard and digital piano can seem a bit blurred. I would classify an instrument as a digital piano rather than a keyboard if it has pedals is full sized (88 keys) and the keys are weighted. The keys also need to be solid for the instrument to be played as a piano. Keyboard technique is different and thin, plastic feeling lightweight keys are completely unsuitable for learning to play piano.
The right piano for a beginner is one that is pleasant to play and easy to progress on. A beginner of any age will make slow progress on an unsuitable instrument and may get frustrated and give up.
Up to the intermediate stage of learning, a digital piano will be sufficient to practise on, as long as it is high enough quality. More advanced players should consider upgrading to an acoustic or hybrid piano. Regardless of what you opt for you should buy the best instrument that you can afford and be prepared to maintain it.