Pianos vs. Keyboards--the ongoing debate


Why your child needs an instrument to practice on to be successful

We have received many questions about students wanting to take piano lessons, but they do not own a piano or they want to learn on a keyboard.  We would like to address your questions in this article.  This is our opinion, only! 

First of all, the main goal we have with students taking piano lessons is to set them up for success!  Would you send a student to school and send them with no school supplies, or no lunch?  Would you let them go to school to absorb the information, but not let them do any worksheets or tests in class, and also ban doing homework?  (The students may enjoy that…but how much would they actually learn in school?)  Would you send them to track practice in sandals?  Those things probably sound far-fetched...but that is what it's like to sign a student up for piano lessons with no piano to practice on!  

To truly set a student up for success with piano lessons, they need an instrument to practice on at home.  This is because when they commit to piano lessons, they are expected to commit to practicing 4-7 days/week at home.  Can you imagine how many years it would take to absorb one school year’s worth of information without being able to do any homework, and only going to school once a week?  It works the same way in any discipline or skill, whether it’s basketball, gymnastics, or playing the piano. 

Another item to consider is that students will only sound as good as the instrument they have to play on.  It is essential for future success to have an adequate instrument to play/practice on.


But I don’t own a piano, and my son/daughter still wants to take lessons! 

Here are a few solutions to try:

1)  Look around for a low-cost or free piano that still works and does not sound “sick.”  (“Sick” pianos can sometimes be tuned, though!)  Often friends or family members have a piano you could borrow for a few years, or there are many other places to look (see below).

2)  Wait one year to take piano lessons and save the tuition you would have paid toward piano lessons and use it at the end of the year to purchase an inexpensive piano. 


What is best:  a keyboard, digital piano or a piano?

In our opinion, it goes in this order:

1)   A well-tuned and well-kept piano

2)   A digital piano

3)   A full-size (88-key) keyboard with weighted keys and a pedal

4)   A smaller keyboard that is not touch-sensitive and does not have 88 keys or a pedal. 

Honestly, the first two options typically work well for teaching, the third option will get a student by for 2-4 years, and the last option often ends up in frustration for the student, parents and teacher.  Most students that begin on keyboards but do not upgrade to a full-size instrument quit after roughly two years of lessons.  Those keyboards will hold students back, and stunt their musical growth.


Why is it difficult to practice on a smaller keyboard (one with fewer than 88 keys?)

This is why we believe practicing on a “smaller” keyboard may be frustrating for students:

1)   Learning piano is a discipline; if a keyboard resembles a toy, it will be treated more like a toy than a discipline to master; students typically do not want to practice as much on a keyboard as they would on a piano.

2)   It doesn’t have all of the keys, so students end up with music that says to play notes that do not exist on their instrument.  

3)   With smaller keyboards, it is very difficult to switch from a keyboard to the piano in lessons, because spatial recognition is different.  For example, Bass C may be slightly to the left on a piano, and way over to the left on a smaller keyboard, so students (especially young ones) often get confused as to where to put their hands, and have a much more difficult time with learning to read music.

4)   Smaller keyboards usually do not have pedals, so students do not have the opportunity to learn how to pedal. 

5)   The keys are easy to push down, so finger muscles do not get strengthened.  When “keyboard” students play on a piano, they often complain about how hard it is to push down the keys.  (It’s somewhat like weightlifting using two empty water bottles at home, and then going to the gym and using two 10-pound weights with a trainer once a week.)

6)   There is no bench, so students often end up practicing at a table or on their bed, which teaches them poor posture, and often awkward piano playing, which is very detrimental to technique and is difficult to correct later on.

7)    It messes with the recital and other performances.  Can you imagine practicing on somethng all year, then performing on something entirely different?  The grand piano at the recital is much larger, feels a lot different, is much louder, a student sits at it differently, and it has pedals.

What about digital pianos and full-size weighted keyboards?

Digital pianos or full-size, touch-sensitive keyboards with a pedal are better than smaller keyboards in that they have all 88 piano keys, pedals, and many have other sounds and advanced technology such as recording, a built-in metronome, headphones, etc. 

Even though many of these are touch sensitive, the action is still not as weighted as it is in pianos; I can usually tell a difference in tone produced between students who practice on these and students who practice on pianos.  Digital pianos are usually fine for getting basic practicing done, but overall, pianos (even old ones!) yield the best results in controlling tone and for building strong fingers.  If a student is playing advanced music and/or considering trying out for college piano scholarships, it is probably time to upgrade to a piano.


But we can’t afford a piano!/Where do we look for a piano?

Here are some more affordable places to shop for pianos:

1)   Shop on http://www.craigslist.org/.  They are usually full of used pianos that people want to get rid of inexpensively, if not for free!  You have to “weed out” the bad ones a little, but it’s like going to garage sales; you sometimes find a great deal there!  Usually people getting rid of pianos ask you to move it yourself.  (You may either arrange to move it yourself, or hire a piano mover, which is usually well worth the money.) 

2)   Rick Jones piano (see our 'Resources' page) has a wealth of used pianos available with excellent warranties.  If you are close to his warehouse in MD, you can visit and browse to your hearts content!   Tell Rick we sent you.

3)   Piano Craft (see our 'Resources' page) has high quality, top end restored pianos.  They are recognized nationwide for their work.  They also do have a few new pianos available in various price ranges.

4)  The Piano Company in Leesburg (see our 'Resources' page) is the local place for brand new pianos in a multitude of price ranges. 

We will add to this as we find others that we trust.


What should I look for in purchasing a piano?

1)   Do all the keys play?  Are there 88 keys?  Do they produce a nice tone?  (Some of this may be corrected by tuning the piano.)   Is the plastic or ivory coating on all the keys?  Are any tops of keys missing? 

2)   The piano should have 2-3 pedals.  The main pedal you want to work is the one on the right.  If you push it down and play notes, it should create a nice sustained sound.  The pedal on the left is the “soft pedal” and if pressed down, should help the piano play softer.  Don't worry too much about the pedal in the middle. (Students don't use that one too much. )

3)   How does the piano sound? This is sometimes a tricky one if the piano hasn't been tuned in a while. However, you can still listen to it's tone. Is it a tinny tone? A "round" tone? Do the keys play softer or louder than you expected? (Translation:Could you listen to this piano for hours? You have to enjoy what you will be listening to every day!)  

4)   When you don't have any pedals down, play a few notes then lift your fingers off of the keys. Do the keys stop ringing? (They are supposed to.) If they keep ringing, and no pedals are down, there is something wrong with the dampers and/or the sustain pedal, which could indicate a costly repair.

5)   Look at the outside for scratches, dents, etc. (although don't get too worked up about cosmetic things.  What matters is the feel and sound of the piano.) 

6)   Ask if it comes with a bench.

7)   Ask about delivery.  It's often worth paying for someone to deliver this.  

8)   Do not purchase a piano with a cracked soundboard (on the inside)! 

9)   You may always contact a piano tuner/technician to come with you to check it out for a minimal fee.  (This is equivalent to bringing a mechanic with you to check out a car you’d like to purchase.)  The tuner/technician may look for all kinds of flaws that you or I might not catch with the mechanics of the piano.  We have a wonderful tuner in the Northern Virginia area, Steven Cunningham, on our resource pager.  You may also look for tuners in the Piano Technicians Guild, http://www.ptg.org/, for a certified technician/tuner.