Help! Should I Get My Student a Piano or a Keyboard?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a guide for parents interested in buying a guitar for their students (check out that blog post, here). I was pleased to hear some positive feedback from parents and students alike who were planning on using some of the information in the post to help inform their guitar purchase. I've since been chatting with some other parents about the comparisons between electronic keyboards and acoustic pianos, specifically in regards to the way they affect the musical development of their piano-playing students.

So, for this week's post, I decided to lay out some of the most educationally-relevant pros and cons for the keyboard and for the piano, as well as some shopping recommendations for those who are in the market. Here we go...


Pianos.

A concert grand piano.

A concert grand piano.

A "spinet" vertical piano. 

A "spinet" vertical piano. 

Before I begin, let me just say that you simply can't beat the beauty, elegance, and sound of a real piano. While you may often find professionals who only use keyboards because of the specific nature of the music they play, you will seldom find a pro who doesn't greatly appreciate and value the authenticity of a real piano. That said, in a perfect world, I would have every beginner pianist start out on a piano and not a keyboard, but there are several very valid factors that come to mind that could sway that decision. Here's the basic rundown.

 

Pros.

1) The Truest sound.

There's something wonderful about the authentic timbre of real hammers striking real strings, the vibrations and tones that resonate the sound board, and the instrument's ability to amplify its own sound. Students who start off on a piano naturally develop a sensitivity to how the piano sounds when it is played various ways, and they therefore adjust their playing style to produce the sound they are trying to attain.

2) Authentic feel.

On a real piano, when a key is played, it causes the action frame to move the hammers, which then strike the string. This physical process presents a very specific feel to the fingers when playing, which the student becomes familiar with and comes to expect. And no matter how close they might come, keyboards will never truly be able to reproduce this exact feeling.

3) Easier to transfer to keyboard.

Students who learn on a real piano usually don't have a very hard time adjusting to the feel and sound of a keyboard. This makes the acoustic piano a more desirable educational vehicle for beginners.

 

Cons.

1) Costs more.

Simply put, new pianos cost a lot of money. The least I would advise spending on a brand new piano for a beginner is about $4,000 (gasp!). But, thankfully, used pianos can be a solid, more affordable option for beginners.  Here's the catch, though: You have to make sure that the used piano you buy doesn't compromise the points on the "Pros" list. If the sound and feel are not of decent quality, then you lose the benefit of having your student learn on a piano at all. At that point, it would be better to purchase a good keyboard for a similar price.

2) Higher maintenance.

When compared to a lot of acoustic instruments, pianos are actually pretty durable, but they still require a level of maintenance that electronic keyboards don't need. The biggest piece of maintenance is tuning. I usually recommend tuning about once a year for your basic in-home piano, and also every time you find yourself needing to substantially relocate it (like if you move). Additionally, acoustic pianos react to climate change, so keep the room at a fairly consistent temperature and humidity.

3) They're really big.

This kind of goes without saying, but it's a pretty substantial point in the practicality-realm. An average vertical piano is about 5 feet wide, 2.5 feet deep (but you also have to factor space for the musician to sit), and weighs around 500lbs! Owning a piano makes moving or rearranging much more difficult, and it can be hard to find a home for them in smaller houses or apartments.

 

Purchasing tips.

  • If your student is just starting off, it may be worth checking out some used pianos. Be sure it's in the best shape possible and that every key plays well.
  • Vertical piano sizes (smallest to largest): Spinet, Console, Studio, Upright.
  • Some decent, affordable piano brands include: Baldwin, Yamaha, Kimball, Wurlitzer, and Kawai.
  • Vertical pianos are significantly less expensive and take up less room than horizontal pianos, though horizontal pianos (like a baby grand) are super cool if your house can fit it.

Keyboards.

An electronic keyboard.

An electronic keyboard.

A console digital piano.

A console digital piano.

And now for the electronic counterpart: keyboards. Keyboards are a very popular option for every level of musician, beginner to professional. Here are some points to consider in regards to purchasing a keyboard.

Pros.

1) friendlier price.

This is the most common tipping point for parents who are starting their students off and are deciding between a piano and a keyboard. And it makes sense doesn't it? When you compare prices of a brand new keyboard to a brand new piano, keyboards are way more affordable.

2) Much less maintenance.

Keyboards create their sound electronically, so there is no need to worry about tuning or climate control as with an acoustic piano. The only thing you have to do is be careful not to drop it (as you would with any other electronic device), and be sure to use it the way it was intended to be used.

3) Greater practicality.

There are several characteristics of keyboards that present a high level of practicality to their owners. For one, the dimensions and weight of keyboards are significantly more manageable than those of acoustic pianos. Relocation becomes fairly easy. Students can even bring their keyboards with them to practice when they're out of town.

Additionally, electronic keyboards are much more versatile in the sounds they produce. Most decent keyboards come with an array of built-in sounds that are available at the touch of a button. Likewise, some of them have capabilities of connecting to computers and operating as electronic "controllers," which opens up an unlimited amount of sound possibilities.

 

Cons.

1) Inauthentic sound source.

Though the replication of the true piano sound has improved greatly in recent years, the source of the sound is, and will forever be, inauthentic. Rather than hammers striking strings that are amplified acoustically through a sound board, the sound source of a keyboard is always speakers - whether built-in or connected to the keyboard.

2) Imperfect feel.

There is no perfect substitution for the real feel of the keys of a piano. However, there is a close alternative that I recommend to parents who really want to purchase a keyboard for their students. Many keyboards have keys that are "weighted" in order to simulate the resistance of an acoustic piano. Some manufacturers get even closer to the real deal by applying a "graded weighting" to their keys, which makes the keys for the lower notes a bit heavier than the higher notes, just like on a real piano. And even better, some keyboards have "hammer weighting," which means when you press a key, there is actually a small hammer that strikes the electric trigger for that key, making it the closest thing to the acoustic feel.

3) Harder to transfer to piano.

Students who learn on a keyboard often have a harder time playing acoustic pianos. Case in point: For a while, I was hosting recitals for my private students at a venue that allowed me the luxury of using their beautiful grand piano. At the very first recital, I observed that the piano students who practiced at home on an acoustic piano adjusted much easier to the feel and sound of the grand piano than those who practiced at home on a keyboard (even a high quality, weighted keyboard)!

 

Purchasing Tips:

  • Make sure that your student learns on a weighted keyboard. Though graded hammer-weighting is best, any kind of weighting system is better than nothing.
  • For a decent starter keyboard, I would expect to spend about $400-700 after everything (keyboard, stand, stool, etc.).
  • Make sure you know if your keyboard has built-in speakers or not!
  • If you want a keyboard with a standing cabinet (see right-side picture above), consider a console digital piano.
  • Some good, affordable keyboard brands include Yamaha, Casio, and Korg.

That's it!

You now are fully equipped to tackle the decision of purchasing a piano or keyboard for your student! I hope this has been helpful to you. Now the only step left is finding your student the right teacher to start them down the path to becoming the musician you know they can be. If you live in the greater-Indianapolis area, head to the Vibe Music Academy "free lesson signup" page to set yourself up with a free piano lesson with myself or one of our other expert music instructors!

- John Gotsis, Owner and Music Instructor at Vibe Music Academy, Fishers, Indiana.