1. Its’s a perennial question for piano teachers and parents. What should I buy— a piano or an electric piano or keyboard?
Do you want to learn to play the piano but don’t have one? Are you considering buying a piano for a child? Do you know what to look for when buying a piano? Should I buy a piano or a keyboard? This question is often asked by parents of their piano teacher. It’s a big decision as the costs associated with buying either a piano or an electronic keyboard can be high for some.
Here are 7 tips to help prospective piano or keyboard buyers through their decision-making process.
2. Pros and cons of buying a Piano
A piano is a nice instrument to have. There’s something special about having your own piano. Modern pianos look good. Grand pianos have that special appeal about them and are often the centrepiece of a room.
The sound from a piano is the real deal. Although we can come close to the sound of a piano with technology today, there’s no denying the sound of an acoustic piano is appealing. There is arguably a warmness in the acoustic properties of a piano that cannot be replicated via technology.
Furthermore, the level of engineering in a good quality piano is par-none. They are accurate, hold their tuning, and have an evenness of sound and tone across the range. The keyboard is well balanced and effortless to play on. The touch and responsiveness of a good piano is well worth it. The build quality of most pianos is good. They are built to last, which is not something we can often say about electronic goods and devices these days.
The re-selling ability of a piano is good if it’s well maintained and a well-known brand. I see many 10-20 year old pianos going for solid prices. This is because the price of new pianos is quite high, even for uprights. So the 2nd hand market is buoyant, particularly for the big brand models like Yamaha, Kawai, and Steinway.
Pianos are reliable. You don’t require power or need batteries. There’s no need to recharge a piano either. We are charging so many devices these days, it’s good to get something that just works without having to switch on wait for the OS system to boot up only to find the battery is flat. Lastly, pianos have the ability to grow with the learner. Pianos can cope with the demands of beginners through to very advanced learners so will stand the test of time.
Pianos can be costly and require a large initial investment. They always have been and well-known brands command a premium price because of their quality. Cost is a significant consideration as pianos are expensive compared to keyboards.
Pianos, like cars, require regular maintenance. This involves regular tuning and at times, some additional regulation of the moving parts. Tuning once a year, or even twice is good, so this is a factor which needs consideration as an additional cost.
Pianos are large and heavy so moving them from house to house requires a removalist or specialist piano movers. Again these are additional costs. Also consider this inside your home. How easy will it be to move into another room or to another part of a room? Pianos are cumbersome and once in place they tent to stay in that same place. Consider this before buying a piano. Do you have space for one?
Although good pianos tend to command a good resale value, they can often be slow to sell. Pianos are not a commodity which we can buy and sell easily. So, if you need to sell quickly, expect a wait. Obviously there are ways of making a piano sale happen quicker if you drop your price to rock bottom, but that’s a decision you need to be happy with. My experience is that when you list a piano for sale you will get a lot of initial offers from piano dealers and re-sellers for rock-bottom prices. That’s just they way they work. High offers will come from interested buyers such as piano students or parents. However, you may have to wait a little longer from these types of buyers to appear.
Pianos do not have a volume control or headphone jack. This is an important consideration if you live in an apartment or a small house with lots of people. Pianos are not soft instruments. They can play very loud. Your household needs to be happy with the additional music (sound/noise). This is more important as many pianos will be played of an evening after school or work. This may typically be wind down and quiet time for many people, so factor that into consideration. Your neighbours will thank you. Some pianos (uprights) come with a practise pedal which can significantly reduce the noise. Look for this feature if you think noise is going to be an issue.
3. Pros and cons of buying a keyboard
Electric keyboards and electric pianos are relatively inexpensive compared to a piano. This is a big positive for those on a budget. Electric pianos and keyboards often come with a variety of sounds. This is appealing for some, particularly children. It’s fascinating to play piano repertoire with the sound of a harpsichord or a honky-tonk piano. It also allows us to explore other sounds not available on an acoustic piano. Electric pianos and keyboards often have headphones and volume controls. This is an ideal solution for those who live in apartments or those with close neighbours where noise could be an issue.
Electric piano and keyboards often have integrated technology such as bluetooth, midi to connect to other devices. This allows for expansion of sounds, ability to save files and performances so much more.
Electric piano and keyboards are easy to move, transport, and pack away. If you have limited space, then an electric piano is an ideal solution.
There are some cons to electric pianos and keyboards. Firstly, an electric piano requires power. Not a big deal but just something to be weary of. Ensure you have a space near a power outlet or where you can safely run and extension cord. Electric piano and keyboards, although cheap, can also be cheap for a reason and that is bad quality. Bad quality means lack of longevity, parts breaking (often made of plastic). Inability or difficult to service when something goes wrong. There’s no point servicing a cheap keyboard when the cost of the service is more than 50% of its value.
Another issues related to longevity are that electronic pianos and keyboards not often up to the task for intermediate to advanced repertoire. The touch and technique required for intermediate and advanced repertoire is limited with electric semi-weighted and sprung-loaded keyboards. This leads to poor touch and technique development.
The touch and feel of an electronic keyboard is unable to match that of a piano. There’s a reason you only see LangLang or Yuja Wang at the piano for a concert and not an electric keyboard. The keyboard will struggle to handle the repertoire they can play.
Furthermore, many electric pianos and keyboards are not full-size. That is some keyboards do not even have full-size keys. Others do not have the full count of 88 keys that you have on a piano. Electric pianos and keyboards may not have the full range of keys. Keyboards typically come with 49 or 61 keys. This further limit repertoire and advancement as eventually you will ‘run out of notes’ on an electric keyboard.
Finally, and mostly for keyboards, they often do not come with a sustain pedal. This is important for pianists as they progress. The use of the pedal in piano playing is often required once reaching around Grade 3-4. If the keyboard does come with a sustain pedal, it may be a lightweight model which does the job but is simply an on/off design. More robust and better designed pedals will be similar to pianos where there is gradation of sustain (on pianos you can 1/4 and 1/2 pedal). It allows the pianists to adjust the level of sustain according to the responsiveness of the piano and the sustain sound. Checking if the keyboard or electric piano has a pedal is another feature to consider and also the quality and capability of the pedal.
4. Teacher Concerns: Issues of technique development
Many of the cons of keyboards will translate to piano teacher concerns. These are no pedal leading to the inability to pedal phrasing in piano repertoire or even get the sound of legato through the use of the pedal.
Some teachers don’t take students who learn on an electronic keyboard because of issues of technique development. I have in the past, had students who have come to me for lessons which have only learnt on a keyboard or electric piano and it shows. Knuckle bridge collapse, poor finger control, inability to play legato and in a connected fashion. These can be corrected, but it will take time and effort. It is particularly pronounced in beginners who have only learnt on a keyboard with sprung loaded keys.
Think of it like this—Piano repertoire written specifically for piano. It would be like trying to learn to play guitar on the drums. Something is just not right.
5. Parental Concerns
Parents often have concerns about committing to buying a piano or an expensive keyboard. The issues are cost, student interest, and their longevity in learning the instrument. Children can be whimsical and change favourite tasks and activities weekly. Parents are the best judge of this, as they know their children and will know better than a piano teacher if their child is likely to continue or give up quickly.
There is a lot to consider before buying a piano or a keyboard. A lot will depend in individual situations such as the child or learner, finances, household situation, and knowing your child or yourself in terms of maintaining motivation and interest in learning. As you can probably tell, my preference is to go for a piano if you can, particularly if you or your child will enjoy the opportunity.
7. Some Solutions
There are ways to find a piano. I was fortunate I got one from my grandmother. Do you have a relative with a piano they don’t need? Providing it’s in reasonable condition, this can provide a short-term solution (Short-term in piano language is 1-3 years or normal progress before a newer or better condition instrument will be required (eg AMEB/Trinity Preliminary to grade 2 or 3).
Look at second hand classified for used pianos and keyboards. See what’s available and for what prices. Make a list of brands, models, ages and prices. Keep this going for a while to get an idea of the second hand piano and keyboard market. This will give you a good idea for what to expect to pay if you do go down this path.
Other solutions — rent to buy from a piano dealer (depends on household finance (often not the cheapest route —like hire purchase for a car, you will end up paying more but you get a new instrument immediately).
—Should I buy a piano or a keyboard for a beginner student?—
© iteachpiano 2021