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Keyboard or Piano? Selecting an Instrument for Home

KEYBOARD OR PIANO?

Selecting an Instrument for Home

As a piano/keyboard instructor, I frequently get asked about the topic of choosing an instrument for home practice – Keyboard or Piano? Do I need all 88 keys? Should the keys be fully or semi-weighted? Will practicing on a keyboard affect my ability to perform on a real piano? Will practicing on a piano limit my abilities as a keyboardist? I wanted to share some advantages (and disadvantages) of both options in relation to tone, feel, cost and, frankly, physical space.

Acoustic Pianos

There are so many great things about owning an acoustic piano for home practice. One of the first considerations is size. When searching for an acoustic piano, you will be presented with a choice between a “Grand Piano” and an “Upright Piano.” There are, in fact, even more choices regarding size ranging from “spinet” (just slightly larger than an 88 key keyboard on a stand) to “concert grand” (up to 9+ feet long). In most single-family home/apartment living situations, there will likely be enough space for at least a small upright piano or spinet.

Aside from the physical space, there are a couple of additional considerations – moving a piano requires professional piano movers, and can present you with difficulties (or deal breakers) such as fitting the piano up tight staircases, or even fitting through the front door of your house – careful measurements should be taken before purchasing any piano. One other thing to consider is the wall your piano will be positioned on – ideally, an acoustic piano should not be placed on an exterior wall, nor should it be exposed to direct sunlight. Finally, pianos at every price-point may not be well regulated, may have not been tuned for many years, and could have major issues such as cracks in the soundboard.

PROS

  • Looks beautiful in most any space, and is somewhat of a “furniture” piece.
  • Has a very rich sound – full of overtones and sympathetic string resonance.
  • Students will develop a feel for weighted keys, and real mechanical feel that will translate more easily to other acoustic pianos.
  • Students will develop a greater understanding of room acoustics, dynamics, and articulation.
  • Cost can range from free (+ moving costs) to very very expensive.

CONS

  • Larger than most digital keyboards.
  • Needs to be placed on an interior wall away from direct sunlight.
  • Needs tuning (at least once per year), regulating and voicing by a professional piano technician.
  • Piano moving will likely cost $300-400+ even for local delivery. 
  • No additional sounds that may be found on a keyboard (synth, strings, brass, organ, electric piano etc.)
  • No guarantee that the piano (especially a free one) will be in good mechanical condition, unless looked over by a certified piano technician.

Digital Keyboards

Many students and parents decide to purchase a keyboard for home use, and there are a number of reasons why this may be a better choice for some folks. There are a variety of keyboard sizes, and much less maintenance required on a regular basis. Is there something missing here? Can you achieve your goal of becoming a “concert pianist” using a keyboard for the majority of your practice? Let’s explore.. 

PROS

  • Does not need to be tuned.
  • In most cases, maintenance can be done without the need of a professional technician.
  • Usually contains a variety of “sounds” aside from just “piano” – (synth, strings, brass, organ, electric piano etc.)
  • Variety of sizes can fit even the smallest of rooms.
  • Students may get a better feel for “sound design” and for performing in situations where a variety of tones are needed.
  • Can be used with headphones or at a low volume for practice applications (playing at night/early morning, not disturbing neighbors etc.)

CONS

  • Requires a larger investment to achieve a comparable feel to a real piano “action”. 
  • Usually can not replicate the sound of a real acoustic instrument in a given space – the tone may not be as “rich” or “dynamic” as that of an acoustic piano. Overtones/sympathetic string vibrations are sometimes modeled, but can not fully reproduce the sound of real string resonance.
  • Usually made of plastic as opposed to wood, and may not look as decorative in your home. 
  • Requires additional investment in stands, stools, cases and pedals.
  • May not translate well to performing on a real piano (especially if the keyboard has unweighted or semi-weighted keys)

Choose the Instrument That Resonates with You

We all have our own passions and interests in regards to musical style, genre, performance and practice. In a traditional musical world, pianists are encouraged to play classical music, and discouraged from pursuing pop, rock, jazz, blues and other styles of music they might be interested in. In my experience as an educator, this can discourage some students from pursuing music altogether. I am a classical music performer, listener and lover, but ultimately want my students to pursue the music that they are passionate about. 

As a classical pianist, an acoustic piano may be the instrument of choice for you. Most music in the standard piano repertoire is composed, of course, for the “piano.” Can you practice on a keyboard as a classical musician? Yes. My advice for classical musicians who have weighed the pros and cons of keyboards and acoustic pianos, and have decided that a keyboard is best for them is this – be sure you invest in a keyboard with all 88 notes, and with fully weighted keys. 

For musicians who prioritize contemporary genres – your options are more wide open. Perhaps you’d like a keyboard with a ton of cool sounds to imitate organs, synths, strings – any sounds you hear on a recording. Perhaps you just want a small keyboard for some basic music production.

Maybe learning how to play classical music is not something you are ever interested in pursuing. That is a choice that you can make for yourself in your musical journey. If you are a parent or teacher, I recommend not forcing students into one genre or the other, and to provide access to an instrument that will be conducive to playing any type of music – perhaps a piano, or keyboard with all (or almost all) of the keys. Ultimately, a keyboard with 66 or fewer keys is not ideal for a piano student.

Students need support to thrive through their early music education. Selecting a reliable instrument for practicing is a huge first step to take. 

By Evan Cooper, Professional Pianist & Stages Piano Instructor

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