"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. 🎹
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.
🎹 𝗔𝗰𝗼𝘂𝘀𝘁𝗶𝗰 𝗣𝗶𝗮𝗻𝗼𝘀
🎹 𝗗𝗶𝗴𝗶𝘁𝗮𝗹 𝗣𝗶𝗮𝗻𝗼𝘀 & 𝗛𝘆𝗯𝗿𝗶𝗱𝘀
🎹 𝗘𝗹𝗲𝗰𝘁𝗿𝗼𝗻𝗶𝗰 𝗞𝗲𝘆𝗯𝗼𝗮𝗿𝗱𝘀
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.
🎹 𝗔𝗖𝗢𝗨𝗦𝗧𝗜𝗖 𝗣𝗜𝗔𝗡𝗢𝗦
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 “vertical”) 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 they’re the most affordable option, spinets also provide the poorest sound quality of the upright pianos, with some exceptions, such as the Baldwin Acrosonic Spinet.
🎹 𝗖𝗢𝗡𝗦𝗢𝗟𝗘 & 𝗦𝗧𝗨𝗗𝗜𝗢 𝗣𝗜𝗔𝗡𝗢𝗦
Console pianos have a “direct blow” action. That means the keys connect directly to the action. This makes the piano easier to play and improves sound quality. At up to 44” 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, you’re 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 45” 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.
🎹 𝗣𝗥𝗢𝗙𝗘𝗦𝗦𝗜𝗢𝗡𝗔𝗟 𝗨𝗣𝗥𝗜𝗚𝗛𝗧𝗦
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 you’d spend on a quality professional upright. If you’re a serious player with limited space in your home, this type of instrument might be the right choice for you.
🎹 𝗚𝗥𝗔𝗡𝗗 𝗣𝗜𝗔𝗡𝗢𝗦
Grand pianos can range from “baby grand” at 4.5 feet long, to almost 10 feet for a concert grand and are a serious purchase.
🎹 𝗗𝗜𝗚𝗜𝗧𝗔𝗟 𝗣𝗜𝗔𝗡𝗢𝗦 & 𝗛𝗬𝗕𝗥𝗜𝗗𝗦
While it’s 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:
🎼 𝟴𝟴 𝗸𝗲𝘆𝘀
🎼 𝗪𝗲𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁𝗲𝗱 𝗸𝗲𝘆𝘀 (“𝗵𝗮𝗺𝗺𝗲𝗿” 𝗮𝗰𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝗶𝘀 𝗿𝗲𝗾𝘂𝗶𝗿𝗲𝗱; "𝗴𝗿𝗮𝗱𝗲𝗱 𝗵𝗮𝗺𝗺𝗲𝗿 𝗮𝗰𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻" 𝗶𝘀 𝗽𝗿𝗲𝗳𝗲𝗿𝗿𝗲𝗱; 𝗻𝗼𝘁 “𝗽𝗮𝗿𝘁𝗶𝗮𝗹𝗹𝘆-𝘄𝗲𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁𝗲𝗱” 𝗼𝗿 “𝘁𝗼𝘂𝗰𝗵-𝘀𝗲𝗻𝘀𝗶𝘁𝗶𝘃𝗲”)
🎼 𝗕𝘂𝗶𝗹𝘁-𝗶𝗻 𝘀𝗽𝗲𝗮𝗸𝗲𝗿𝘀
🎼 𝗣𝗲𝗱𝗮𝗹 𝗼𝗽𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 (𝗻𝗼𝘁 𝗮𝗹𝘄𝗮𝘆𝘀 𝗻𝗲𝗰𝗲𝘀𝘀𝗮𝗿𝘆 𝘄𝗶𝘁𝗵 𝘀𝗺𝗮𝗹𝗹 𝗰𝗵𝗶𝗹𝗱𝗿𝗲𝗻/𝗯𝗲𝗴𝗶𝗻𝗻𝗲𝗿𝘀, 𝗯𝘂𝘁 𝘀𝗵𝗼𝘂𝗹𝗱 𝗵𝗮𝘃𝗲 𝗮𝗻 𝗼𝗽𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝘁𝗼 𝗮𝗱𝗱 𝗽𝗲𝗱𝗮𝗹𝘀 𝘄𝗵𝗲𝗻 𝗻𝗲𝗲𝗱𝗲𝗱)
As of this writing, some quality digital pianos include:
🎼 𝗬𝗮𝗺𝗮𝗵𝗮 (𝘀𝘂𝗰𝗵 𝗮𝘀 𝗣𝟰𝟱 𝗼𝗿 𝗣𝟳𝟭, 𝗣𝟭𝟬𝟱, 𝗣𝟭𝟭𝟱 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗵𝗶𝗴𝗵𝗲𝗿; 𝗔𝗿𝗶𝘂𝘀 (𝗬𝗗𝗣), 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗖𝗹𝗮𝘃𝗶𝗻𝗼𝘃𝗮)
🎼 𝗖𝗮𝘀𝗶𝗼 (𝗣𝗿𝗶𝘃𝗶𝗮 𝗣𝗫, 𝗖𝗗𝗣)
🎼 𝗞𝗼𝗿𝗴 (𝗦𝗣, 𝗕𝟭)
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 ‘PX’ 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.
🎹 𝗘𝗟𝗘𝗖𝗧𝗥𝗢𝗡𝗜𝗖 𝗞𝗘𝗬𝗕𝗢𝗔𝗥𝗗𝗦
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. What’s 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 player’s 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.