Keyboards, Digital Pianos and Piano Lessons

 

by John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
Rio Rancho, NM USA

  S
 
tudents and parents of students often ask us if a keyboard or digital piano is suitable to take piano lessons. Many piano teachers have strong opinions on this topic, perhaps understandably so in light of the facts that the overwhelming majority of teachers were trained on and play the acoustic piano. However, a recent piano marketing report summary indicates that digital pianos already outsell acoustic pianos worldwide, with most of those sales in the U.S., so it seems appropriate to take up this topic in more detail. One of our earlier articles discusses briefly some of the considerations in using a keyboard or digital piano for lessons. This one will discuss the topic more fully for both teachers and students.

 

 

keyinfo.gif (1045 bytes)It's not the instrument that turns notes on paper into music; it's the performer.

 

Acoustic and digital technology

The acoustic piano ("piano") is an entirely mechanical device, brilliantly developed by Cristofori to overcome the limitations of its predecessor, the harpsichord, in playing both loud and soft sounds. Whereas, in the harpsichord, the strings are plucked, in the piano, they are struck with hammers. It is this difference in the way sound is produced that accounts for the greater range and potential of the acoustic piano. The piano was improved steadily for over a hundred years, but the design is now basically stable. There have been no major changes in the workings of the piano in probably a 100 years or more - refinements, yes, changes, no. Because the piano is a mechanical device composed mostly or entirely of natural materials, whose critical properties change with temperature and humidity, it must be tuned and maintained regularly to retain pitch, voicing and feel. It is also subject to wear and requires occasional repair or reconditioning in the same way that any mechanical device does.

Digital pianos and keyboards are products of the integrated circuit revolution, less than twenty years old, and have been developing rapidly over that period. Every year, new models cost less and do more for the same amount of money. They require virtually no maintenance and upkeep, since they have few moving parts. Sound generation is entirely electronic in nature and can be amplified easily to adjust volume for any room.

The history of these instruments is important to keep in mind, since it underlies many attitudes about them. Because the piano was developed first and had a couple of hundred years to become a sound we're used to hearing (and also one in which many people were trained to play), it sets the standard of sound and feel for many people. If the digital keyboard had been developed first, we might have acoustic piano manufacturers trying to mimic the digital keyboard. In the end, an argument about whether the acoustic piano is "better" than a digital piano or keyboard seems to me to have a certain sterility, since it involves values and familiarity as much as it does factual comparisons of advantages and disadvantages. I will not even attempt to address these value issues here. The important question is not whether the digital keyboard can, or even should, be a better acoustic piano than an acoustic piano or whether the acoustic piano should be given all the capabilities of the digital keyboard, but rather, how best to utilize the unique qualities and values of each in piano training and learning.

Advantages - digital and acoustic

Both digital and acoustic pianos have inherent advantages and differences, which stem mostly from their different construction. These must be considered in light of the potential purchaser's plans and interests. A partial list of some of the advantages of digital piano and and/or keyboards might include:

  1. availability of multiple instrument voices in one instrument
  2. lower space and floor strength requirements
  3. computer connectivity for use of learning and composing software
  4. direct composing on the computer from the keyboard
  5. popular and familiar to most children, who are more likely to practice (in at least some cases)
  6. less costly new than a comparable new acoustic piano
  7. no normal maintenance (tuning, reconditioning, etc.)
  8. no pitch changes with varying room humidity and temperature
  9. a larger community of current buyers
  10. more rugged than an acoustic piano (most models)
  11. ability to adjust the touch more easily (some models)
  12. easily upgraded by simply flashing new software into the on-board ROM (most models)
  13. more amenable to experimentation and creativity (mixing voices and sound effects)
  14. lower "white elephant factor" if the student doesn't continue with the instrument
  15. special entertainment features like karaoke, built-in orchestra for accompaniment, CD player, etc (some models)
  16. recording features built in (most models)
  17. differences in sound with the acoustic piano can give us a different view of works written for the acoustic piano
  18. greater usability in small apartments and other places where one has to be concerned with neighbors hearing the sound
  19. more easily played by those who have limitations in hand strength
  20. easier transportability

The acoustic piano has its own advantages. Chief among these might be:

  1. history
  2. familiarity
  3. a huge literature of music specifically written for the acoustic piano
  4. easier playing of certain passages (e.g. those which are both fast and soft)
  5. many people trained and training to play it
  6. a special sound and feel which at least some digital keyboard instruments may not be able to duplicate fully
  7. a more "organic" character which is more comfortable for some

Neither of these listings of advantages is complete. They are intended to illustrate the differences and strengths of the two types of instruments.

Sound and Feel

Those of you who have read my article, Creating Sound and Music on the PC, know something of how complicated it is to perfectly mimic ANY sound with an electronic device. It simply wasn't possible within the severely limited capabilities of the earliest 1960's synthesizers, the first electronic keyboard instruments. With today's very powerful Digital Signal Processor "chips", the picture has changed dramatically. With enough electronics, it's possible now to get arbitrarily close to the sound of the piano or almost any other instrument, especially using hardware based on wavetable DSP's, which store actual samples of instrument timbres. The linked article has much more information about how sound is created electronically for those who might be interested.

The ability of modern keyboards to duplicate the sound of a piano is now well within the individual variation in the sound of acoustic pianos. For example, an acoustic Steinway piano is generally brighter than a Mason & Hamlin; these both differ slightly in sound from a Yamaha. When comparing a good digital piano or keyboard's sound with that of a piano, it's very much like comparing a Yamaha to a Steinway - a matter of personal taste. I'm not suggesting here that you can go out and buy a digital keyboard or piano that will sound exactly like the acoustic piano you're used to. Rather, I am saying that a good keyboard or digital piano will sound virtually identical to many acoustic pianos.

Acoustic pianists contend that the touch and feel of a digital keyboard or digital piano is very different from that of an acoustic piano, since the keys are shorter and the escapement mechanism governing the key action on acoustic pianos is not present on most keyboards and some digital pianos. This criticism is certainly valid for the cheapest keyboards. The touch response of the acoustic piano can be largely duplicated these days through escapement mechanisms built into digital pianos, though only in the more expensive models. These are not the ones that most beginning students would be likely to buy - unless they would be willing to spend enough to get a cheap, off-brand acoustic piano with the same amount of money.

Because the acoustic piano's system for generating sound is entirely mechanical and depends, ultimately, on the player to energize it through the keys, it takes more sheer finger strength to play an acoustic piano than it does for a digital piano or keyboard. This can present some problems for students used to playing a keyboard or digital piano, when they play an acoustic piano. Similarly, the pedal mechanisms of keyboards and digital pianos tend to be electronic in nature, rather than mechanical. Many teachers indicate that this is a problem in teaching proper pedaling technique and skills for the acoustic piano. While pedals differ somewhat from model to model, it's fair to say that most digital piano and keyboard pedals are fewer in number and lack the same feel as the acoustic piano pedals.

Repertoire

Some people, especially those trained on the acoustic piano, feel that many aspects of the acoustic piano repertoire simply cannot be played appropriately on a digital piano, even less so on a small keyboard lacking the full 88 keys of a standard piano. No doubt, there are some parts of the repertoire, particularly Impressionist works with passages requiring both fast and light playing, that are written for and best rendered on the acoustic piano, at least when one compares trying to play them with limited range keyboards.

Some pianists take the position that one can't achieve as much control over the sound he produces on a digital piano or keyboard. They argue that one must have an acoustic piano to achieve the necessary control. This position seems to pose the question of an acoustic piano versus a digital piano as one with a yes or no answer regarding whether the player wants to control the sound or not. That is, if he wants to have control over the sound he must have an acoustic piano. As for control, I suppose that point is to be conceded if your standard for judgment is "producing the exact sound of an acoustic piano with the exact feel of an acoustic piano." However, if your standard takes into account the immensely greater flexibility in sounds (even a small digital keyboard has at least 64 MIDI "voices") that a digital piano or keyboard can produce and its ability to be interfaced to a computer, both to use learning software and to do composing, the question is not as black or white in nature as the issue of "control" might make it seem to some. A broader standard, which takes into account the full capabilities of both the acoustic piano and the digital keyboard might lead to a choice which is far less "binary" in nature. Indeed, in an ideal world, pianists and students would have access to both a good acoustic piano and a good digital keyboard or piano.

Some of the same people would suggest that digital pianos and keyboards have their "place" - in rock or modern genres. However, digital pianos are used in a lot more than contemporary rock. Most music in contemporary, modern, new age, easy listening and several other genres embody and embrace the digital piano. Many of these works can be played to excellent effect on the acoustic piano as well.

Others suggest that, because Bach works were written for harpsichord or Rachmaninoff works for the acoustic piano, they should only be played on those instruments, not on digital ones. Such an approach seems to me simply to ignore both reality and the importance of artistic expression. For example, we play Bach keyboard works mostly on modern pianos, not Viennese pianos or the harpsichord. We do this not because it is "right" or "wrong", but because renditions of these works on the piano speak to us in important, if somewhat different, ways than renditions on the instruments for which these works were written. From an artistic standpoint, these differences can be both pleasant and revealing.

Many of us still remember the remarkable recordings of Bach works by Wendy Carlos, done on one of the first crude "synthesizers" (the predecessor of the digital piano). Her 1968 triple-platinum album, "Switched On Bach", still available today, shows a person on the cover in a Bach-era powdered wig standing in front of a massive early Moog synthesizer. These recordings of standard Bach keyboard works were done by laboriously switching patch cords to mix the output of oscillator circuits, one note at a time, to achieve the desired pitch and timbre. If you visit Carlos' site, you can see photos of Carlos sitting in front of the synthesizer patch panel. This will give you an idea of how much work was involved to produce the recordings. When it appeared, critics characterized "Switched On Bach" with words like "brilliant", "revelatory", and "awe-inspiring". This album showed us things in Bach works that recordings on the piano or harpsichord didn't. And, this was all done on a synthesizer with a tiny fraction of the power present in even the simplest digital keyboard of today. Many people may also remember the popular Swingle Singers, who marvelously performed Bach instrumental works vocally using scat syllables. These examples bring us to an important realization. It's not the instrument that turns notes on paper into music; it's the performer and what he does with the resources of the instrument available to him. Each performer and each instrument can speak to us in different ways.

In light of these realities, I think it's hard to support a position that a digital piano or good keyboard is suitable for one kind of music and an acoustic piano for another or to use such arguments as the basis for a rigid position that one or the other is the only reasonable choice for lessons. Certain aspects of the piano literature are perhaps best interpreted on the piano, although technological advances mean that the size of that "piano-only" segment is decreasing rapidly. There are certainly things in other parts of the literature that only a digital instrument can do. The important thing is that the student and the listener is learning and stretching his mind to new areas.

If you would like to see a regular program featuring digital keyboards and pianos, check out Paul Todd's program on the Angel network (carried on most cable and satellite TV). Todd is the director of music at a large Miami church. His TV program has occasional religious overtones, but it's content is of the genre that I would call "fusion". It's a mixture of contemporary, new age, classical and rock. Todd plays multiple digital keyboards at once, putting on a virtuoso display. His program will give you a sense of the capabilities of digital pianos, when played by a professional.

Learning

It makes no sense to argue about whether a $200 digital keyboard is as "good" (for learning or playing) as a $20,000 grand piano. They are different instruments which happen to share enough attributes that they can be taught to some degree in the same lessons. Today, if I had to make a decision about whether I would spend $2000 on a digital piano or keyboard or $2000 on an acoustic piano, I think I might choose the digital piano, just because, for the same price, it has a greater number of capabilities (note that I did not use the word "qualities", which is a different, and more complex, issue), with virtually no maintenance costs. I'm sure I'd choose the keyboard if all I had was $200 and really wanted to start piano lessons.

Since most of us learned to play on an acoustic piano, it's easy to say that it is the only way to learn to play any keyboard instrument, through unfamiliarity with digital keyboards. However, I believe that it's far better to have people start lessons, even on a keyboard, than not to have them take them at all for lack of an acoustic piano. Learning to play acoustic piano may require, ultimately, an acoustic piano, but I think it might be elitist or misguided to pretend that an acoustic piano, especially a poor one, is a better choice all the time and in every case.

Teaching

Modern, top of the line digital keyboards and pianos can do amazing things, both in imitating the sound and feel of an acoustic piano and producing sounds that an acoustic piano simply couldn't. It might be true, at least in some circumstances, that the keyboard or digital piano isn't the perfect instrument for learning acoustic piano, particularly with the smallest, cheapest beginning digital keyboards. Does that really matter for the beginning student, who is trying hard just to learn to read music and develop the motor skills to play? While a good acoustic piano is probably preferable from the standpoints of learning both the sound and feel of playing the acoustic piano, a decent digital keyboard or digital piano might be a good option for a beginning student whose ultimate level of interest and motivation is basically unknown. It's certainly less expensive than a decent, off-brand piano (though probably only about half the price) and one gets a considerable number of additional capabilities.

Visitors have written us several times about their problems finding digital piano and keyboard (NOT acoustic piano) lessons. Although acoustic pianos and digital keyboards are NOT identical instruments, a strength for both in my view, they share enough similarities that they can be taught to a degree in the same lessons. A trained pianist will have to learn something about the additional capabilities of the digital piano, while a keyboardist will have to stress developing finger strength and pedal skills, if the student is also to play piano, among other differences.

One concern I have is that teachers who insist that only an acoustic piano will do for lessons may effectively put off those people who want the extra capabilities and sounds of a good digital piano or keyboard. Digitals provide a medium for the teacher to encourage practice, get more people in lessons, provide opportunities for composing and much more. Ideally, teachers will teach elements of both to students. Indeed, many teachers do just that. If the teacher takes into account both the differences and similarities in her teaching, she can help herself and her students. There is an opportunity for piano teachers to broaden their student base here for a small amount of extra effort expended in learning the capabilities of digital pianos. Teachers who take the view that only an acoustic piano will do are missing the point and a great opportunity. It is particularly sad if teachers take this position simply from lack of knowledge, training or familiarity with digital instruments.

Most owners of digital pianos or keyboards at home only use a small fraction of their capabilities, mostly from lack of knowledge of what the keyboard or digital piano can do. Teachers can provide a real service in helping students learn how to make music and compose with these new tools. Teachers can't simply ignore the "digital revolution," in light of the fact that digital pianos now outsell acoustic pianos by a large margin in the U.S. and world. Training students on the acoustic piano to develop strength and touch, and also devoting some lessons to exploring the capabilities and differences of digital pianos and keyboards, seems like the best of both worlds (if they are different worlds) to me. Of course, if the teacher or the student has one of the best digital grand pianos, most of the touch and sound differences with the acoustic piano largely disappear.

Although teachers are becoming more knowledgeable, it's probably fair to say that most piano teachers don't really know the technology well and may not know how to learn about it. An existing PEP article explores what MIDI is, how it originated, how it works and some of the things it can be used for. This article will give you a sense of the technology underlying most digital pianos and keyboards. Check out the Teaching Studio (linked on every page on the site) for specific articles on various aspects of technology in the teaching studio. You might also want to look at my Music and the Home Computer series of articles for information on learning software and how to use it, composing packages and how they can be applied, information on sound creation on the PC, and lots more. For piano teacher reviews of over 60 software packages for home or studio, see our Piano and Software Reviews page. More than 90% of these programs either use or require a MIDI-compatible keyboard or digital piano.

Pianos and lessons

Whether a digital piano or keyboard is deemed suitable for lessons depends on your interests, your pocketbook and your teacher. If your goal is the same as most piano students, to learn both acoustic and digital piano, you'll need both eventually. The price of an acoustic piano is increasing steadily due to increased labor and material costs (not to mention the price of maintaining it after purchase), while the price of digital pianos is dropping rapidly for a given amount of capability. Thus, it seems that digital pianos and keyboards, especially the higher-end models, will become increasingly attractive for those who wish to take lessons and have limited space or cash for an acoustic piano. Most teachers of acoustic piano would say that a keyboard or digital piano is acceptable for the first year or so of lessons, although there are some who take the stance that an acoustic piano is a must from the beginning. The better the quality of the digital piano you buy, the longer you can use it in lessons. If possible, look for a full 88 keys, escapement-type action, MIDI or other interface for computer connection, and pedals which are as close in action to those of an acoustic piano as possible. Don't assume that an old, lesser brand piano which needs reconditioning and/or repairing work and has trouble holding tune is necessarily a better choice than a digital piano or keyboard of the same price. For advice on buying both acoustic and digital pianos, please see our page Purchasing and Caring For a Piano or Keyboard.

The future of pianos

I have not tried here to convince anybody that digital pianos and keyboards are better (or worse) in any sense than the acoustic piano. Such an argument ignores the unique qualities and capabilities of electronic and mechanical instruments. That said, it's hard to ignore the advantages, both technological and pedagogical, that digital pianos can offer - to students, teachers and accomplished players of the acoustic piano.

A love of the acoustic piano doesn't preclude one from taking advantage of modern piano technology. Indeed, we are fortunate that digital and acoustic pianos share enough similarities to make learning both possible in one set of lessons. As we consider the alternatives, it's important to keep in mind that digital pianos already outsell acoustic pianos. Teachers who think they can ignore the digital piano might find themselves in a bad spot in a few years. Those who can embrace it in their teaching and studio marketing, will see their student numbers and income grow, while discovering for themselves the creative vistas opened by digitals.

I hope, and believe, that the acoustic piano won't go the way of the harpsichord, becoming a footnote to the history of keyboard instruments. I also hope that we can recognize both the differences and relative advantages of both acoustic pianos and digital instruments and fully utilize the capabilities of each in teaching and learning. Digital technology presents advantages for students and teachers alike, which we would be foolish to discard out of bias, unfamiliarity or lack of knowledge.

 
 
 
 
Page created: 5/18/09
Last updated: 01/30/15
 
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1, http://pianoeducation.org
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