"Key" Questions for the Beginning Student
Do I Need a Piano for Piano Lessons?
Though times have definitely changed, many questions remain the same. Here are some common questions about lessons that parents (even parents who were music students themselves) often ponder.
Please note that this information should be used as a guideline only and is not meant to replace your own research.
Can you begin lessons on something other than an acoustic piano? The answer is definitely "yes" though it is important to consider the experience of the student and goals of having lessons. ๐น
As a general summary, although one can easily start a young child or beginning adult player on a relatively inexpensive electronic keyboard, eventually a piano student needs a good instrument, to develop proper strength and technique and to provide the necessary physical and aural feedback between the piano and the student. The qualities of touch and technique, sound and range, are all key to develop musicianship in a student. Note also that some of the keyboard options may be limited in terms of the keyboard's "action" (the feel and responsiveness of the keys), number of keys, dynamic range, and availability of the pedal(s).
Available space in your home for an instrument and budget for a quality instrument are also considerations. You may have an instrument already (or have inherited one which needs tuning, repair or maintenance). In all cases, you will want to ensure that your beginning piano student has the best experience while learning to play and that you periodically evaluate and take advice from your student's teacher as to whether and when to make a change for your student.
There are three basic categories of keyboard instruments available today.
๐น ๐๐ฐ๐ผ๐๐๐๐ถ๐ฐ ๐ฃ๐ถ๐ฎ๐ป๐ผ๐
๐น ๐๐ถ๐ด๐ถ๐๐ฎ๐น ๐ฃ๐ถ๐ฎ๐ป๐ผ๐ & ๐๐๐ฏ๐ฟ๐ถ๐ฑ๐
๐น ๐๐น๐ฒ๐ฐ๐๐ฟ๐ผ๐ป๐ถ๐ฐ ๐๐ฒ๐๐ฏ๐ผ๐ฎ๐ฟ๐ฑ๐
The largest and most expensive, and if you have a quality instrument, the best when it comes to developing piano skills, are the acoustic pianos.
There are also many excellent digital pianos or hybrid pianos, which are generally smaller, more portable, less expensive, and depending on quality, can emulate the sound and feel of an acoustic instrument.
In the third category are the electronic keyboards, which come in a wide price range and quality, but may not have the right mechanics and tone to develop hand strength and touch sensitivity for a beginning pianist, or enough keys to play a wide range of music including even beginning music (which aims to familiarize the student with the whole of the standard keyboard, not just the notes around middle C). Some keyboards are essentially no more than toys with non-weighted keys and don't provide the capabilities to develop the touch necessary to generate a dynamic range, something that even the youngest students are taught from the beginning.
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A quality acoustic piano is ideal for piano study. Some piano sellers offer rental instruments, which give you a solid piano without the worry of upkeep, and allow for time to be sure piano lessons are right for your student. Used or almost new acoustic pianos can be found on various online bulletin boards for free or very little cost, but you MUST have a piano technician evaluate it before purchase and tune it every 6-12 months. There is also a moving fee to deliver to your household. A good acoustic can last a lifetime if well-maintained. There is a wide variety of quality and capability amongst acoustic pianos.
A quality acoustic instrument that produces sound from real strings and real wood offers a level of responsiveness and a range of dynamics and tone color that even the nicest digital piano cannot match. Acoustic pianos, however, are expensive and require maintenance. A typical price range for a quality acoustic upright (also called โverticalโ) piano can start from $4,000 to $8,000. The different sizes of vertical pianos (spinet, console, studio, and upright) manifest different sound volume and tone quality, dependent on the size of soundboards and string lengths, which translate to touch and strength required to engage the keys.
A new grand or baby grand piano may cost up to $6,000 to $10,000 or more. The Yamaha U series are a favorite upright piano choice for many students, but there are many fine brands such as Young & Chang, Mason & Hamlin, Steinway, Baldwin, Chickering, Kawai, Boston, and Schimmel. Please keep in mind that well-known brands of the past, have undergone changes in company ownership and manufacturing, and depending on their year of manufacture, may no longer be a "best" choice for a student and family.
It is best to do your own research and even consult with piano turners/repair professionals who are familiar with the qualities and issues of current brands and former models.
Many piano stores have affordable acoustic piano rental programs which allow you to easily obtain a quality acoustic piano without the pressure of a purchase decision.
There are also many used and refurbished instruments that may also be a very good choice. If you find a used instrument that you are interested in, or are inheriting a piano, it is a very good idea to engage the services of a piano tuner/repair professional to inspect the instrument (especially for antique pianos) and give an assessment. Pianos that have been subjected to environmental damage, extremes of temperature, or been used in public venues where they may have been mistreated, need careful examination and may be hard to tune or be in need of extensive repair.
If you already have a piano, or plan to purchase or rent a used instrument, be sure it is in tune and the keys are in good working order. An out of tune acoustic piano in poor condition will cause frustration and hinder the progress a beginning student as well as hamper ear-training. Also note that for virtual lessons, it is important for the student piano to be "in tune" with the teacher's piano.
As a general guide, here are the different types of acoustic pianos you may encounter.
The spinet piano is the smallest type of upright pianos and also the most affordable. Though spinets are no longer being built, but you can usually find a pre-owned spinet from many sources, and while theyโre the most affordable option, spinets also provide the poorest sound quality of the upright pianos, with some exceptions, such as the Baldwin Acrosonic Spinet.
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Console pianos have a โdirect blowโ action. That means the keys connect directly to the action. This makes the piano easier to play and improves sound quality. At up to 44โ in height, the console features longer strings that provide better sound quality. Console pianos are usually not much more expensive than spinets. Except for a few very rare cases, youโre better off buying a console than a smaller type of upright piano.
The taller a piano is, the more sound it can produce. Studios are generally 45โ and up, and produce better sound than the spinet or console. Along with a longer soundboard and strings, studio pianos have a full-size action. The better action makes it easier for players to bring out the full range out of a piano. Soft pianissimo and resounding fortissimo are easier to get out of a studio. Yamaha and Kawai are two piano makers known for excellent studio pianos.
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Full-size uprights are the largest type of upright pianos. In fact, the soundboards on these pianos are nearly the same size as a baby grand. That means you get the power of a baby grand without losing as much space in your home. These pianos can be quite expensive. You can often find a grand piano for what youโd spend on a quality professional upright. If youโre a serious player with limited space in your home, this type of instrument might be the right choice for you.
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Grand pianos can range from โbaby grandโ at 4.5 feet long, to almost 10 feet for a concert grand and are a serious purchase.
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While itโs impossible to entirely simulate the experience of playing on an acoustic piano, a quality digital piano is a very good option. In fact, a quality digital piano may be much better than an old out-of-tune acoustic piano with sticky or broken keys!
Digital pianos are designed to sound and feel as much like an acoustic piano as possible. Keys are weighted to provide the right resistance to touch, and are sensitive to speed and pressure to give a range of dynamics (loud and soft). They may come installed in a cabinet-style console, and are smaller and less expensive than an upright piano, usually $1,000 - $2,000.
Hybrid pianos are a newer entity, with the internal structure of a hammer-action piano to allow for a true piano touch, but synthesize the sound in the last stage without a sounding board or strings.
Digital pianos are lighter, smaller, and easier to transport, but of course, as with all electronics, need to be treated carefully. Digital pianos may be constructed as table top keyboards (with options for pedaling) or be in a full cabinet and look like an acoustic piano in form.
Digital pianos may be sold with a bench and built-in cabinet to look more like an acoustic. Others may require separate purchase of a stand and bench, and a pedal option.
A quality digital piano should include the following as a minimum requirement:
๐ผ ๐ด๐ด ๐ธ๐ฒ๐๐
๐ผ ๐ช๐ฒ๐ถ๐ด๐ต๐๐ฒ๐ฑ ๐ธ๐ฒ๐๐ (โ๐ต๐ฎ๐บ๐บ๐ฒ๐ฟโ ๐ฎ๐ฐ๐๐ถ๐ผ๐ป ๐ถ๐ ๐ฟ๐ฒ๐พ๐๐ถ๐ฟ๐ฒ๐ฑ; "๐ด๐ฟ๐ฎ๐ฑ๐ฒ๐ฑ ๐ต๐ฎ๐บ๐บ๐ฒ๐ฟ ๐ฎ๐ฐ๐๐ถ๐ผ๐ป" ๐ถ๐ ๐ฝ๐ฟ๐ฒ๐ณ๐ฒ๐ฟ๐ฟ๐ฒ๐ฑ; ๐ป๐ผ๐ โ๐ฝ๐ฎ๐ฟ๐๐ถ๐ฎ๐น๐น๐-๐๐ฒ๐ถ๐ด๐ต๐๐ฒ๐ฑโ ๐ผ๐ฟ โ๐๐ผ๐๐ฐ๐ต-๐๐ฒ๐ป๐๐ถ๐๐ถ๐๐ฒโ)
๐ผ ๐๐๐ถ๐น๐-๐ถ๐ป ๐๐ฝ๐ฒ๐ฎ๐ธ๐ฒ๐ฟ๐
๐ผ ๐ฃ๐ฒ๐ฑ๐ฎ๐น ๐ผ๐ฝ๐๐ถ๐ผ๐ป (๐ป๐ผ๐ ๐ฎ๐น๐๐ฎ๐๐ ๐ป๐ฒ๐ฐ๐ฒ๐๐๐ฎ๐ฟ๐ ๐๐ถ๐๐ต ๐๐บ๐ฎ๐น๐น ๐ฐ๐ต๐ถ๐น๐ฑ๐ฟ๐ฒ๐ป/๐ฏ๐ฒ๐ด๐ถ๐ป๐ป๐ฒ๐ฟ๐, ๐ฏ๐๐ ๐๐ต๐ผ๐๐น๐ฑ ๐ต๐ฎ๐๐ฒ ๐ฎ๐ป ๐ผ๐ฝ๐๐ถ๐ผ๐ป ๐๐ผ ๐ฎ๐ฑ๐ฑ ๐ฝ๐ฒ๐ฑ๐ฎ๐น๐ ๐๐ต๐ฒ๐ป ๐ป๐ฒ๐ฒ๐ฑ๐ฒ๐ฑ)
As of this writing, some quality digital pianos include:
๐ผ ๐ฌ๐ฎ๐บ๐ฎ๐ต๐ฎ (๐๐๐ฐ๐ต ๐ฎ๐ ๐ฃ๐ฐ๐ฑ ๐ผ๐ฟ ๐ฃ๐ณ๐ญ, ๐ฃ๐ญ๐ฌ๐ฑ, ๐ฃ๐ญ๐ญ๐ฑ ๐ฎ๐ป๐ฑ ๐ต๐ถ๐ด๐ต๐ฒ๐ฟ; ๐๐ฟ๐ถ๐๐ (๐ฌ๐๐ฃ), ๐ฎ๐ป๐ฑ ๐๐น๐ฎ๐๐ถ๐ป๐ผ๐๐ฎ)
๐ผ ๐๐ฎ๐๐ถ๐ผ (๐ฃ๐ฟ๐ถ๐๐ถ๐ฎ ๐ฃ๐ซ, ๐๐๐ฃ)
๐ผ ๐๐ผ๐ฟ๐ด (๐ฆ๐ฃ, ๐๐ญ)
A good entry-level choice from Yamaha is their P71 model, which provides 88 keys with graded hammer action and a damper pedal.
The Casio Privia series, which are Casio digital pianos with model numbers beginning with โPXโ won't come as close to matching the feel and sound of an acoustic piano as the Arius series does, but are more affordable and a great place to start.
If you or your student enjoy interacting with many of today's music applications, your digital piano should include a MIDI interface - Musical Instrument Digital Interface is a technical standard that describes a communications protocol, digital interface, and electrical connectors that connect a wide variety of electronic musical instruments, computers, and related audio devices for playing, editing, and recording music.
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Electronic keyboards are the most affordable way to get started, and come in a wide array of choices, but learning to play piano on a non-weighted non-full-size keyboard is less than ideal. One should plan on upgrading to at least a digital piano as soon as possible.
Electronic keyboards come in many sizes and prices and quality. Rather than trying to mimic the experience of playing on a real piano, they are designed to be mini synthesizers, and many come with lots of different instrument sounds and even pre-recorded rhythm tracks. Whatโs most important for a new piano student will be the number of keys and whether or not the keys are weighted. All the bells and whistles on electronic keyboards are fun and interesting, but some are no more than toys, and are generally a distraction for younger students.
Remember that learning on a keyboard with 88 weighted keys gives a student a big advantage. Weighted keys build hand strength and respond more like the keys of an acoustic piano, making it easier for an advancing student to move on. Most electronic keyboards do not have weighted keys and even make a clacking sound when pressing the keys and may not even sustain the tone when pressed.
It is recommended that a keyboard have at least 61 keys in order to be able to proceed and play the majority of beginning music. A full size 88 key keyboard is preferable.
When buying an electronic keyboard make sure to also purchase an adjustable bench and a keyboard stand. A keyboard set on a table will probably not be at the correct height for a young student seated in a chair. Ideally, the keyboard and bench should be set at the right height so that the playerโs arm from wrist to elbow is parallel to the floor.
Whatever your starting choice, it is a good idea to revisit your student's needs and progress with the teacher at least once a year.