November 10, 2017

The Practice Piano:  What Type of Piano Do You Need?

Students continually ask me what kind of piano they should have for practice.  Should they purchase a used traditional (acoustic) piano or a digital piano?  A new piano?  Is it ok to buy a cheap piano?  

First, let me say that practicing with a good instrument is a key motivational component to musical success.  A subpar instrument that does not respond to touch and lacks good tone is not only a motivation killer, but does not allow a student to develop their technique or their musical ear.  While it is okay to start very young children on a keyboard while they are developing basic fine-motor skills, a good practice instrument is critical for any developing musician.  

I will start with the traditional, acoustic piano.  If you have the room and can afford a good one, they can provide years of enjoyment and are a beautiful addition to your home. Keep in mind that just because it looks beautiful, doesn’t mean it is a good piano.  A good piano is a joy to play with rich, fullness of sound and touch.  How much does a good piano cost?  A decent used piano starts at around $2,500 and goes up from there.  Double that and more for a good new piano.  Can you find a piano for less than that?  Yes.  There are a lot of subpar cheap pianos being sold that are well, you know, subpar.  Stay away from them.  Buying a piano is a lot like buying a car.  And like a car, there are a wide variety of models and types, with a high-end luxury piano costing as much as a luxury car.  There are Yugo’s and Rolls Royce’s and everything in between. Trust me, you do not want a Yugo.

Care and maintenance on an acoustic piano warrants serious consideration.  First off, climate control.  Something that many piano dealers will neglect to emphasize (they don’t want to scare you off) is that a piano needs to be housed in a piano-friendly environment with consistent humidity.  Thirty percent or higher.  Air that is too dry effects the tone and tuning as wood expands and contracts.  A less than optimal environment can be ruinous to a piano.  I personally have an evaporative humidifier in my home and keep my humidity level over 35% to keep my piano happy.  Interestingly, that level or higher is also preferred for us humans.  When we moved from the Sacramento Area to the foothills, this became a major concern.  We moved into a home with a wood-burning stove as our main heat source in the winter.  I discovered very quickly that it dries out the air and my beloved piano did not like it, not one little bit.  My lovely piano started sounding off and slipping out of tune.  After a big freak out (this was a new and expensive piano) and extensive research, I figured it out and decided the best remedy was an evaporative humidifier.  My piano is now happy.  There are actually spendy devices which can be purchased and installed in your piano to control humidity.  Since the air was also dry for us humans, I decided the whole room humidifier would keep us all happy and it was a less expensive solution that didn’t require expert installation.  Pianos should be housed on an interior wall and kept away from hot and cold extremes.  A piano that has spent time outside or in a garage or even a non-climate controlled storage facility is a definite no!

Regular tuning is also a major component of care and maintenance.   A piano needs to be tuned annually (whether you think it needs it or not) and usually costs somewhere around $120-$140 or a bit more depending upon where you live.  Not keeping your big investment tuned regularly can ruin it.  Beware the cheap used piano for sale by the guy down the street or on the internet!  A free or cheap piano, in my experience, is more often than not, a liability.  If it were worth anything, it would have been sold for a fair sum.  Piano dealers will sell used pianos on consignment and usually warranty them.  If they will not warranty the piano, save your money.  If you must have an acoustic piano, please purchase a quality piano and plan to take care of it properly.  Purchase it from a reputable piano store or pay a professional piano tuner to go with you to check it out for soundness and quality.  Google the piano make and model number and check the piano blue book prior to purchase.  Good piano dealers offer trade-in and trade-ups on the new pianos they sell.  Request maintenance and regular tuning documentation from private owners of used pianos.  

So, now on to digital pianos. First, a digital piano and a keyboard are NOT the same thing!  An electric keyboard is basically a synthesizer with piano-like keys that do not respond dynamically.  A keyboard does not allow you to develop good piano technique.  On the other hand, a digital piano has graded-hammer action and weighted keys, accurately simulating the feel and touch of an acoustic piano.  A good digital piano also has great sound quality designed to simulate the sound of an acoustic piano.  I would rather play a good digital piano any day rather than an old piano that has lost it’s tone and touch.  A good digital piano also has on-board tools, like recording capabilities (for self-assessment and creativity), a built-in metronome, computer connectivity for motivational practice, assessment and learning tools along with a myriad of other useful learning and creativity-stimulating options.  We use a digital piano in my lesson studio and the practice and learning tools currently available are simply phenomenal and with the guidance of an experienced teacher, speed progress.  Who doesn’t want to speed progress?  A lot can also be said for volume control on a digital piano. An acoustic piano has a high enough decibel rating to cause hearing damage with continuous, prolonged practice sessions.  I have a special set of ear plugs made for pianists for long practice sessions at home.  Short practice sessions are fine, but longer than 30-minutes, I donn the ear plugs.  

The lower cost ($500 and up) and easy care of digital pianos have made piano lessons accessible to more students than ever.  A digital piano never needs tuning and it doesn’t care about climate control.  As long as you don’t pour water on it or throw it into the swimming pool, it’ll be good to go for many years to come.  There are hundreds of digital pianos currently available with varying features and specifications.  The combinations are endless and can make one’s head spin.  So, what do you look for in a digital piano?  As a piano teacher, there are certain elements that I consider must-haves for learning.  There are also a lot of digitals which lack the must-haves but have a lot of what I consider to be useless, albeit fun, fluff.  Too many times I have seen students purchase something (without consulting me) that was missing a key element or two required to maximize learning.  You can check out my Digital Piano Page for details.  There you will find my recommended list of requirements to help piano students get the most out of their lessons on a digital piano.  Again, please keep in mind that a good, quality instrument is critical for technique and ear training development.  A good quality digital piano is preferred over a worn out traditional piano.  

Even if you happen to have a great quality acoustic piano in your home, the addition of a digital piano gives students the ability to practice any time in a quiet location without disturbing other family members, which is another critical key to development on the piano.  A digital piano also gives students access to phenominal learning tools that motivate and speed progress.  Save the traditional piano for home performances and family gatherings.  A digital piano is light and can easily fit into a student bedroom or home office and can be outfitted with headphones for quiet and spontaneous practice.  I love digital pianos for practice and performance and highly recommend them to all my students.  If you are going to invest money on lessons, you need to also invest in a quality instrument to get the most enjoyment and fulfillment out of your musical experience.  

About the author: Robyn has been teaching piano full-time in Northern California since 1998 utilizing a unique approach to piano that emphasizes the joy of learning to play and share music. Lessons are open to all ages, styles and levels.