The Battle of the Boards
Keyboards, that is. Or more specifically, keyboards versus acoustic pianos.
"What should I buy when I take piano lessons?" I have been asked many times.
Twenty years ago, I would have replied to that question, "get an acoustic piano, a used one is better than any electronic keyboard."
Now, if asked this question, I start asking questions.
Where do you live? Are you a beginner or intermediate student? What is your long term goal or level of commitment? What kind of music do you want to learn to play and understand?
Here are some ideas based on my observation of how students fared on keyboards versus acoustic pianos, and what to look for in each once you decide which to purchase.
For beginners of any age, very young students, or people living in limited space, such as an apartment, a keyboard is fine for beginning to early intermediate lessons.
It used to be the only option was a 61-key keyboard, without touch sensitivity, which is NOT good for anyone who really wants to learn to play.
Go ahead and find an 88-key, touch-sensitive, semi-weighted or fully -weighted keyboard.
This helps students develop the physical awareness of not only where the keys are, but where the different octaves are. Students who learn on a 61-key keyboard are confused for a long time about where the lowest, middle and highest keys are on a full size keyboard.
Why touch sensitive and semi or fully-weighted?
Dynamics and voicing are an important part of playing the piano expressively. Learning to control finger pressure depends on the feedback you get from fingers pushing the keys and getting the resulting softer and stronger sounds. That is not possible without some kind of weight resistance and touch sensitivity. Students also need finger strength, which is not possible to develop on unweighted keyboards.
Listen for a good basic piano sound.
Do not be distracted by "bells and whistles" such as how many sounds are included, or built-in metronomes and recorders. It is fun on a keyboard to switch over to the harpsichord when playing Bach, or an electric piano sound for jazz, but beyond that, the extras are just more things to break down. You want to be satisfied with the sound of your piano as you learn music, so focus on that.
Having a damper pedal attachment is helpful. They never work the same as a "real" damper pedal, but it makes the transition to an acoustic piano easier if you have at least practiced on the attachment.
DO NOT SPEND AS MUCH ON A KEYBOARD AS YOU WOULD ON AN USED OR NEW ACOUSTIC PIANO!
No matter how expensive, the electric keyboard is probably going to wear out in two to five years. By then, you will probably want to purchase an acoustic piano in order to advance. Exception: if you are mainly interested in jazz or popular music, or need something portable, then buy a professional level keyboard after you progress to a late intermediate stage.
If you have a piano already, or know you are ready to commit, or money and space is not an issue, starting on a "real" piano is a great choice. Students at the intermediate level in "Classical" music who are ready to progress to advanced level should be practicing on an acoustic piano. Students who want to participate in Music Festivals, Auditions or Competitions need to be practicing on acoustic pianos. Students will not have the finger strength or control to do their best before a judge, if they are practicing on a keyboard.
Used or New?
Used is fine as long as it sounds good and responds well. Some things can be fixed on used pianos (squeaky pedals), and others cannot (a "tinny" sound). I decided I needed to buy a new piano when my Yamaha started "popping" strings. I had my tuner replace four of them, but he warned me that more would pop, and they did.
If buying new: listen, again, for a good sound, and do not be distracted by the cabinet. If the cabinet (outside of the piano) is ornate, then you can be sure the production cost went in to that part of the piano, rather than the inside. Sometimes that nice piece of ornate furniture will break (I have had legs come off of some pianos). For students, classrooms, and my own practicing, I like "workhorse" pianos such as Cable-Nelsons, Baldwin Hamiltons, and the midsize Yamahas, all uprights. The Steinway Boston upright tends to be more expensive, but I have enjoyed the sound and feel of them. Grands are great if you have room for them, and of course recitals are more satisfying when presented on a grand. For practicing purposes, however, I would rather have a good upright than a cheap grand.
Keyboards can be great starter instruments, but I have seen fine students lose interest in music lessons because the keyboard was no longer helping them advance. Keep an ear open to the student's level of enthusiasm and the advice of the teacher for when it might be time to switch to an acoustic instrument.
What should you buy? It depends on you and your needs. But, be sure to play or have someone play on the instruments you are considering. You are more likely to practice and advance if you are happy with the sound of your instrument.