Keyboards are not Substitute Pianos

An explanation in the value of practicing on a piano for piano lessons. By Wanda L. Cook (Artistic Director, Young Artists Conservatory of Music).

So very often, parents ask this question, “Is it ok if my child practices on a keyboard?” So often we, as piano instructors, find ourselves hedging the obvious answer to the question, “NO!” We hedge because perhaps we carry some kind of misplaced guilt about the cost of purchasing a piano. Or maybe because we so understand the value of music lessons in your child’s development that we think, “somehow, if we can just get them started and successful, the value of a piano purchase will become obvious”. Well the outcome of that reasoning is nearly always and invariably self-destructive.

A child CANNOT develop the skills necessary to experience musical success when practicing on a low budget keyboard.Imagine signing your child up for soccer. You take him to soccer practice, but rather than purchasing the appropriate shin guards and soccer shoes, you convince yourself he can still have fun. He gets out of the car, clad in a polo shirt, jeans, and flip flops. He’s out there running around, but for some reason he’s not running very fast. If the ball does happen his way, and he tries to kick it, his flip flop flies off. His toes and shins are bruised, following weeks of the constant battering. He is frustrated and says he is doesn’t like soccer anymore. You respond with encouragement, “lets practice together” and purchase an orange foam ball rather than a regulation soccer ball with which to practice. SOUNDS RIDCULOUS DOESN’T IT? What parent would ever do that?

We all know that the proper tools help us do our jobs, train for success and develop our skills. Studying music is HARD! It is more difficult than soccer but similarly requires the right tools. A PLAYSCHOOL toy saxophone is not an alto saxophone, and asilver 4 octave 110.00 dollar 56 key non-weighted electric keyboard purchased at the local discount box store is a toy and not intended to substitute for a piano during training. Even the best velocity weighted digital stage piano ($2000+) is not an adequate tool for learning to master the piano. Only pianos help students train on how to be a pianist.

Now that I’ve stated the case, here are a few reasons why the differences between keyboards and pianos represent such a significant chasm for development. The most significant difference is represented by the weight of the key and the action that brings the key back to position after it is struck. One of the most influential and innovative developments in music history is the engineering marvel of the piano action. This invention by Cristifori around 1700 and further developed in the following 100 plus years, allowed musicians to do something not possible in any other instrumental application from the beginning of history. Through the invention of the piano action, music can be played in a manner that embraces multiple motions and various volumes at the same time by one artist!

A well trained piano student is being taught to engage the action of a piano in order to express the sound of music that comes from a piano. The weight and response in the action of piano is controlled by the technique of well developed finger strikes and releases. How the keys are struck are a function of velocity, weight placement (fingers, wrists, arms), precision, and presence. How the keys are a released takes years of training and development to master the motions of the hands and arms to express and balance melodies and harmonies at the same time. To practice all week on a keyboard is more like practicing flute on a kazoo and wondering why you aren’t getting any better. Keyboards do not produce sound the same way as a piano and thus cannot be manipulated as a piano requires.

The piano is an acoustic instrument in which sound and melodic structure is created, sustained, and degrades by the quality of physical manipulation. The best digital pianos attempt to simulate the acoustic nature of sound. They cannot fully duplicate the sound of felt striking steel strings in just the right place, under tens of thousands of pounds of tension in order to set a cypress sound board vibrating so the human ear can change vibrations of the air into meaningful sounds. A properly trained piano student grow accustomed to creating tones and managing what they hear in order to produce meaningful musical expressions.

A question to ask yourself when determining the value of practicing on a keyboard: When was the last time you heard a Mozart piano sonata performed on a Digital Piano. It is most important to begin piano lessons from the start on a piano. Many parents, not wanting to make the initial financial investment, will decide to begin their child in piano lessons using a keyboard until they are sure the child will want to continue and find success. Unfortunately this approach will almost certainly ensure your child will not be successful and will want to discontinue the study of the piano. After teaching piano to beginners through advanced and professional levels for over 30 years, I have never witnessed a piano student experience developmental success while practicing on a keyboard. Invariably students who begin practicing on keyboards become dissatisfied and frustrated with their piano studies at an enormously higher rate than those who practice on piano. Thus the drop out rate for these students is significant.

Choosing to educate your child in the study of piano is an investment and commitment. They are in need of the correct tools and a commitment to the priority of disciplined along with rewarding practice modeled by their instructors and parents. A full length keyboard is a MUST. Students who practice on small sized keyboards do not learn how to recognize note positions. Pianists play 7 octaves recognizing over 50 note placements times 10 fingers and up to 6 half step variations at any one time. If middle C at home is not middle C at the lesson, what is an 8 year to do? So I know you’re thinking, “Wait a minute! Famous people perform on keyboards and I just want my child to play at church if they want someday. They use a keyboard at church”. Famous pianists (other than Yani) do not generally perform on keyboards. Keyboards, Synthesizers, and rock / jazz organs all have their place in the world. All classically trained pianists are equipped to play keyboards. All keyboard players are not necessarily skilled enough to play classical piano. Plunking out chords at church is not “playing piano” to the fullest extent of the artform. YACM piano students learn to play piano focusing on the fullest expression of the instrument and are trained to manipulate keyboards in the appropriate simpler applications.

If you must have a keyboard rather than a piano, choose wisely and expect to replace it as soon as possible. A digital piano, (NOT A KEYBOARD) for piano practice must have fully weighted, graduated, velocity responsive keys. The digital piano you choose must have a full 88 key keyboard. Pedals must be in working condition and the bench is at the appropriate height to ensure proper posture. Quality digital piano will cost no less than $500.00 with the better ones listing at about $1200.00. This is not a piano on which to practice. If your child is practicing on something like this, replace it immediately. They are learning bad habits that are being formed into bad musicianship. If your child is practicing on something that looks like this, plan to upgrade to an acoustic piano as soon as possible. The keys have a basic weight but do not provide the parameters for defining technical control, velocity, or melodic expression. If you have questions regarding replacing your keyboard for a digital piano or acoustic piano, please contact our offices for a list of preferred vendors and quality instrument makers. This article is reserves all copyright and is under the sole ownership of its author, Wanda L. Cook. Although published by Young Artists Conservatory of Music, this article does not necessarily represent the opinions or views of Young Artists Conservatory of Music or its staff, board of directors. – 10/2013

Wanda L. Cook

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