The question I get asked most often is “Do I need a piano at home?”
The answer is “Absolutely”. Your child will need to practice at least 5 days a week in order to see progress and success (more on that on Practice Help)
“We have a keyboard… that’s ok, right?” The answer is “What kind of ‘keyboard’ do you have?”
The best analogy: Imagine your child wants to take golf lessons. But you don’t want to buy golf clubs, so you send them to golf lessons with some hockey sticks. Well, a hockey stick kinda looks like a golf club… similar shape, size, you swing it to hit something… it could work, right?! So your child could probably make it through 18 holes of golf with the hockey stick. But they won’t play very well.
And when they come back the next day with a hockey stick, they won’t improve their game. So… you decide to buy them golf clubs. But not a full set of clubs. Just a few. They can use a putter to get out of the sand trap, right? So, their game will be better than with the hockey stick, but they will not achieve their potential because they simply don’t have the right equipment.
This is the difference between a keyboard, a digital piano, and an acoustic piano!! Make the investment to ensure they are using the equipment that will help them to achieve success. If you must buy a digital piano, acknowledge that this is a short-term decision, and that you will eventually get an acoustic.
I always suggest to parents that the best instrument is an acoustic piano (traditional piano with strings). The student will learn good tone production, hand position and finger strength. Piano strings resonate and produce a full, rich sound, which cannot be replicated on even the best digital pianos.
To purchase a new piano, go to Regina, Saskatoon, or Calgary to a store such as a Yamaha or Baldwin dealer (they often sell used pianos too, which will come with some type of warranty). If you are looking at a used piano, there are always pianos that come up on Kijiji in the $500 range. But make sure you have a used piano inspected by a qualified piano tuner before purchase. He will be able to tell you if it is in good condition, and if it can be tuned. Sometimes older pianos are neglected and then it cannot be tuned.
Look at it this as a one-time purchase. It is something that all your children can share, and they will have it for 10-15 years or longer.
Tuning – if you have an acoustic piano, it is essential that you maintain it by having it tuned at least once annually, preferably twice. If your piano needs repairs (missing keys, pedals that don’t work, etc.), get this work done as soon as possible. Not only will your child be able to practice more successfully, but it shows your child that you are committed to their success. See my Links for piano tuners.
Your piano will stay in tune longer if it is placed on an inside wall to minimize temperature fluctuations. If you have to put it on an outside wall, leave a space of at least 6 inches between the wall and the back of the piano.
The next best option is a good quality digital piano. The minimum requirements to look for are:
1. Full size keyboard (all 88 keys), and the keys need to be weighted AND touch sensitive. This means that weighted keys will feel like a real piano, and you can make the sound quiet or loud by pressing the key slowly or quickly.
2. At least 2 pedals (damper and soft pedals). The third pedal in the middle of a piano is the sostenuto pedal, and it would not be required for most students until advanced studies. The pedals should be physically attached to the frame of the piano, not free-floating on a cable. The latter is very difficult and frustrating to play as the pedal always shifts position.
3. A good book stand. This sounds odd, but many digital pianos have flimsy book stands and the music either slips off because the ledge is too narrow, or falls backwards because the stand is too short. This ultimately makes practicing very frustrating!
4. The more amps on the speakers, the better. The speakers define a lot about how it will sound (robust or tinny). If you want to add external speakers, that will also improve sound output.
All of the other gadgets like sound effects and backing tracks, etc are all fluff, and you probably will never use them when studying classical piano. Those are used by keyboard players who learn to do mixing.
There is a wide range of quality in digital pianos, but essentially you get what you pay for. The bottom of the range is $500-$700 to start, and they go up from there. Costco has several digital pianos (such as Casio), and they always come on sale, so watch their website. You can order on-line and they deliver to the door, so it’s convenient. Read the reviews, and buy the best you can afford. (Other good quality models are Roland and Kawai, but they are quite expensive ($1500 and up), so if you are prepared to spend this kind of money, then get an acoustic!!). This website has really good reviews of digital pianos- AZ Piano News
The significant drawback of digital pianos (aside from compromised sound quality compared to a real piano) is that if something goes wrong, they are almost impossible to repair.
Alternatively, you can rent a digital piano. Long & McQuade in Regina (or Saskatoon) rents digital pianos – make sure you ask for the minimum requirements above.
The last type of instrument is a digital keyboard. These are often smaller (61 keys or less), and sometimes the keys themselves are smaller than on a real piano. The keys are not weighted or touch sensitive, and they often do not have pedals, or there is one pedal on a cable. They are usually less than $400, so the price is attractive, but I absolutely do NOT recommend keyboards.
Students that have keyboards at home have problems with hand position and the basic ability to play with good tone. It develops very unfortunate habits, and it eventually affects their musicality. If you buy a keyboard, I can almost guarantee that your child will be unhappy coming to lessons as they will find it difficult to play on a real piano, and you will end up replacing it later anyway (and the resale value for keyboards is virtually nothing). I once asked an RCM examiner if they can tell during an exam if a student has a keyboard at home, and she confirmed this… within 5 minutes, they can tell!!
The terms digital piano and digital keyboard are often used interchangeably, which is confusing for buyers. Look carefully in the specifications to understand the features of the product.
So, my preference, and recommendation, is an acoustic piano! For recitals, Music Festival, and eventually music exams, students play on pianos (most often grand pianos), so learning how to control the sound and tone of a piano is a fundamental skill. Learning to play piano is a long-term commitment, spanning many years. A piano isn’t like a dance costume or hockey equipment that they will grow out of, and replace. A piano is something that your child should grow into. The instrument that you purchase needs to be able to support their learning and development over those years, and to encourage a good physical approach to nurture and inspire musicality.