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  • by Mary Barton

Piano, Piano, Wherefore Art Thou?

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

Piano lovers everywhere dream of romancing the river of rich, textured voices and haunting tones of an acoustic piano. However, not everyone has the budget for one when starting to learn, has room for one, or wants to invest in one if the level of commitment to learning is uncertain.

Many aspiring pianists have old electric keyboards kicking around and wonder: Can I learn piano on an electric keyboard?

The short answer is: temporarily.

But let’s first differentiate between an electronic keyboard and a digital piano.

A good digital piano is designed to mimic the touch, feel, sound and experience of playing an acoustic piano and is a money and space-saving viable alternative with some perks of its own:

  • Typically full-key (88) with weighted and/or hammer action and capacity to control volume by how forcefully the key is struck, similar to an acoustic.

  • Most include sustain pedal

  • Headphone capability

  • Lightweight and often portable

  • Take up less space

  • Quieter than an acoustic, so may be more conducive to apartment/condo life

  • Often has at least one recording track

  • Usually equipped with various digitized sounds (violin, harpsichord etc.) and other features

  • Can be hooked up to your computer for notation, recording etc.

A good quality digital piano is an effective instrument to learn on for many years, especially at the elementary levels.

But, eventually, as you fall more in love with the piano and greater artistic expressivity beckons, you will want to upgrade to an acoustic piano, and when you do, there will be an adjustment period as you learn to master the touch and sound of it.

It’s well worth mentioning here that for those who are ready to make the investment in an acoustic piano, Yamaha now produces a line of truly acoustic pianos that may also be used with headphones, called Silent Pianos. These are remarkable instruments with technology that, when in silent mode, gently blocks the hammers from striking the strings and produces sound by sensing the vibrations and motion of the keys, without sacrificing the acoustic construction of the piano. Some models incorporate even more digital features and versatility. As a composer, this is a dream come true! The cost is, of course, greater than a regular acoustic, but much more economical than one might expect.

Electronic keyboards, however, though often the very catalyst to inspiring us to want to learn (most of us have played around on one at some point in our lives, even if only at the music store), are not suitable for a long term, serious course of study for a number of reasons:

  • Springboard-action keys are not the best for developing muscle tone in the fingers and can be hard on the fingers. Similar to the difference between a manual typewriter and a computer keyboard, the deficiency in resistance and give can contribute to injury over time.

  • Many do not have touch-sensitivity volume control

  • Usually deficient at least one octave of keys. This is okay at the very beginning levels, but as repertoire advances in note range, these instruments become unsuitable

  • Most importantly, the student doesn’t learn to control and shape the rich layers of sound that an acoustic or even a good digital piano produces, and therefore artistic expression cannot be adequately developed

Despite these shortcomings, electronic keyboards can be a great introduction to piano for very minimal investment. They are effective for early note learning, basic rhythm, and early beginner repertoire. I myself borrowed a friend’s electronic keyboard for many months when first leaning before investing in a good quality digital piano, which I used for years.

When I was in the intermediate level and had the pleasure of acquiring an acoustic piano, I would stand in the entranceway of my living room and just stare at it. I couldn’t believe my lifelong dream of owning a real piano had finally come true!

Whether you are just beginning your musical journey on an electronic keyboard or transitioning to a digital or acoustic piano, learning to play is fun, rewarding and worth all the effort at every stage. And waiting for the right piano to come along ... makes you appreciate it all the more when it finally does.

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