Can you Start Learning Piano on a Keyboard?

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This is an incredibly common question for many parents who are starting their children with piano lessons. After all, a keyboard has the same number of notes as a piano (as long as it has 88 keys); how different can it really be?

Before we get into the finer details of the differences between keyboards and pianos let’s first examine the cost – which is the driving factor for most parents. Like pianos, there is a large selection of keyboards available. They range from a few hundred dollars well upwards of $15,000 for some very advanced models. If you plan on getting a decent keyboard you could be looking at thousands of dollars.

Most piano teachers will agree that the bare minimum for a beginning student is an 88 key weighted action digital piano. In case you might not have heard the term weighted action before, this refers to a keyboard or digital piano that has weighted keys – which replicate the weight of keys on an actual piano. If you’ve played a regular keyboard you might notice that the keys are incredibly easy to push. If you’ve played a piano you know that the keys take some force in order to generate a good sound. So if a digital piano (keyboard) can replicate this, will this be enough? Not really. An actual piano action has hundreds of moving parts on each key and while a weighted action keyboard has weighted keys, it’s impossible to replicate the feel of an actual piano.

The keys on a keyboard are also very short. On a piano, the keys extend far behind the fallboard. On a keyboard, this is impossible to replicate. If you play on a keyboard it’s like pushing down on a see-saw close to the center when playing black keys and between black keys. On a grand piano, the force necessary to push down the keys is more equal from the front to the back of the keys.

The action on an upright piano is an improvement over a weighted action digital piano or a keyboard but it still isn’t as good as a grand piano action. Here is another video where I explain the differences between uprights and grand pianos. Eventually, every pianist who continues to play will outgrow the action of an upright piano and must eventually practice on a grand or baby grand piano because an upright action isn’t fast enough to keep up.

One of the biggest reasons parents decide to buy a keyboard in lieu of a piano is that they are worried that their children won’t continue to play. There is truth in the idea that the interests of children change rapidly – but starting them off on an inferior instrument is really only a recipe for failure. Investing in a suitable instrument will not only reinforce the interests of the player, it will actually help them develop much more quickly. Having an actual piano to play on will do wonders for the development of any musician.

So is it OK to start with a keyboard? Sure, it’s far better than nothing. But if you plan on actually playing the piano, prepare to make an investment at some point in the future and get yourself an actual grand or upright piano.

Thanks again for joining me Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com (949) 244-3729

8 thoughts on “Can you Start Learning Piano on a Keyboard?”


 
 

  1. Thanks for this illuminating and necessary message, Robert. This is something that I have been trying to convince parents of for years – almost every time I get a new student. And they still end up buying a keyboard. I will share this with my students and see if another professional opinion makes an impact.

  2. Get them started! It doesn’t matter even if it’s a smaller board, not weighted etc. Just make the distinction that it’s not and never will be a piano substitute. If it’s a crappy keyboard then it’s only use is for theory. And constantly remind them that a real piano is the way to go. Now if some people can’t get a piano because of apartment living etc. then that’s the way it is. Also, you can’t fault parents for not wanting to spend the money on real piano until they are absolutely sure that the kids will keep it up.

  3. Thank you, Robert, for the excellent clarification. A question plaguing all of us since the 1980’s. For me the answer is yes, if necessary. But I always strongly suggest to the family that they start planning right away to buy a suitable acoustic instrument within a year at the very latest.

    In my opinion, a child is more likely to “stick with it” when they have an instrument that can inspire them when they play it…….and in most cases, a keyboard is not going to do that.

    Thank you

  4. I have two keyboards and a 1929 Knabe concert grand. They all have their pluses and minuses.

    The first keyboard is a 61 key Kawai FS690, from Craig’s List for $50. It has what I call a “doorbell button” action. No matter how you press a key, you always get exactly the same sound. It’s by far the best choice for taking along to have something with keys on it when I’m going to be stuck in a hotel room for a week. For me, a lot of the work is just drilling phrase by phrase to get the right fingers to the right keys at the right times. And the Kawai works fine for that. The extremely light action has a strange advantage: it forces me to not get sloppy and put any pressure at all on the wrong keys.

    The second is an 88 key Yamaha CP33, from Guitar Center for $1K. It has a weighted action, and the pivot point for the keys is fairly far back, much like a small upright. But what’s also important is that the action is force or velocity sensitive: the harder you press, the louder it plays. This is more like a real piano, but the range from pp to ff just isn’t as wide as on the real thing. It does help to have some sort of dynamics, though. This is now my main night and phrase drilling practice unit. One curious advantage is that you can turn the volume down on the headphones and force yourself to play harder, or turn it up to develop a more subtle touch. This helps with being able to adapt to whatever pianos or other keyboards you may have to play in the real world.

    Keys are pretty much the same size and shape on all instruments, but the muscle movement to music conversion function varies radically from instrument to instrument, even from one real piano to another real piano. So, as far as I can tell, the best idea is to have a variety of instruments to practice on.

    The digital keyboards have one more advantage: They never need to be tuned. This actually makes me more aware of when the Knabe is getting out of tune.

    — J.S.

    1. The comment about the digitals not needing tuned brings up the larger concept of service in general. The basic truth is that real pianos require periodic maintenance — tuning, regulating, voicing and are capable of real sound.

      The digitals require no service until they break. Then, the only option is generally to throw it away and get another. In the meantime, they have only produced “realistic” sound. (The definition of “realistic” is “fake”). At the end of the day, the total cost of ownership for a very good digital keyboard may not be much less than the cost of a real piano. When they fail, it is generally not only past the warranty period, but also long past when the specific components for that particular instrument were produced. And even if the components can be located, good luck finding someone who can fix it.

      There are good reasons for people to purchase digital keyboards. Lower service costs may not be one of those reasons.

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