Meri’s Musical Musings

Keyboards are not pianos…why some piano teachers do not teach students with only a keyboard

Posted on: April 6, 2009

Besides the cost of lessons and the teacher’s location, one of the most frequent questions piano teachers are asked by prospective parents of students is if the student may start learning the piano on a keyboard. While there are some piano teachers who insist on using a piano from the very beginning, and do not accept students who want to start learning on a keyboard, many piano teachers will allow students to learn on a keyboard for the first few weeks to a year of lessons. Based on some of the issues and problems that can an do occur when students learn the piano on a keyboard, there are many reasons piano teachers may want to reconsider allowing students to learn the piano on electronic keyboards, even touch-sensitive ones at all, or, in the very least, greatly shorten the time frame, to the range of 2-4 weeks, maybe 6 weeks maximum from starting on a keyboard to getting a piano, especially if the keyboard is not touch sensitive.
One reason to say no to using a keyboard for piano lessons is that some of the beginning repetoire encourages students to use notes that go above and below a 61-key keyboard, the most common size of electronic keyboards. Student’s choices of pieces should not be limited due to an instrument whose range is limited. Many of the pieces that use the full range of the piano also tend to be student favourites, so it’s unfair to students who may like a particular piece but can’t play it due to a shortened range of notes.

A second reason to say no to keyboards for piano lessons is that some method books introduces the concept of pedaling relatively early, and some beginning repetoire uses it as well. Alfred’s piano method introduces and requires the pedal in the middle of Level 1B; Faber’s standard beginner method, Piano Adventures, introduces it in the Primer level, and requires it in some of the pieces in level 2A; and the Romantic and 20th century repetoire sometimes requires students to use the pedal. The first book of many piano methods encourage students to develop a solid spatial sense of the piano, by having students use the full range of the piano. Some teachers also have students play their pieces in different parts of the piano; sometimes certain pieces in piano methods encourage or require student to do this, which is true with some of the pieces in Faber’s Piano Adventures.

A third reason to say no to keyboards, is because the touch and dynamic range possible varies significantly between a keyboard (even a touch-sensitive one) and a piano. A touch sensitive keyboard typically has a dynamic range from p(soft) to f (loud)—and only when the volume is set quite loud. Some teachers will encourage beginners to explore the dynamic range between pp (very soft) and ff (very loud) by touching the keys at different speeds and use a range of dynamics in the pieces they are learning; most pianos are capable of a dynamic range of ppp (as soft as possible) to fff (as loud as possible).

A fourth reason for not agreeing to lessons on electronic keyboards is that there are differences in loudness and tone quality depending on whether the key is touched at the bottom, the center, or the top of the key, which is often used in balancing individual notes in chords; these differences on individual keys do not exist on electronic keyboards, because of the reliance of spring, not hammer, action on electronic keyboards. These issues start becoming a concern in the late beginner repetoire, and required in much late intermediate and advanced repetoire.

A fifth reason to not use keyboards is because the natural difference of weight and resistance resulting from the strings in different ranges of the acoustic piano does not exist in electronic keyboards. The difference of weight and resistance is used to develop lightness in the low range, and strength in the high range.

A sixth reason for not allowing students to learn piano on keyboards involves ensemble playing. To help develop student’s sense of rhythmic precision and musical style, some piano teachers like to use duets that are written for “four hands, one piano”, as early as possible (some piano methods even include a teacher part in some or most of the pieces in the method, especially in the earliest levels), which is impossible on a keyboard. It is impossible on a keyboard because the secondo part (the part that uses the lower section of the piano) lowest notes tend to go below the lowest note of keyboards, or the secondo part requires the pedal. Most pianos, too come with benches that can comfortably seat at least 2 people for this purpose. With keyboards, you have to supply your own chair or bench. Piano students, unless they play a band or string instrument, rarely learn to play as a member of an ensemble, and even if they won’t be starting one for a few years, they get a head start on it or at least learn part independence. This skill is something they may not get in band or orchestra, because there are often several students on one part. Many students develop an understanding of the importance of playing with good rhythm when they play duets.

Seventh, keyboards are almost always placed at the wrong height, which usually leads to problems with head, back, neck, hand, wrist, and shoulder position. Students learning piano on a keyboard frequently hunch their shoulders or place their wrists below the keyboard. The distance from the floor to the tops of the white keys of most pianos ranges from 26-28 inches, while the distance from the floor to the tops of the white keys of most keyboards ranges from 28-32 inches. A couple of inches difference in the height of the keys sometimes may not affect an adult or an older teenager, but imagine a 7-, 8- or 9- year-old piano student, who is likely going to have to raise their shoulders to keep their wrists about level with the keys. Or they will bend their forearm downwards when they cannot keep their forearm level if they are learning on a keyboard. The music tends to be somewhat farther from their eyes when students learn on a keyboard as opposed to a piano, forcing some students to slump their neck or back forward.

Eighth, keyboards tend to move around or shake. Those expensive keyboard stands don’t do their job. This limits the dynamic range that touch-sensitive keyboards are capable of, because students cannot achieve a ff (that involves touching the keys with a fast downward finger speed), because the keyboard will move or shake. Electronic keyboards, too, have been known to fall off the keyboard stand. The fact that many keyboards move around or shake, especially when combined with the fact that most keyboards are placed at the wrong height (which means often the forearm is going up to the keys, not down to them as on a piano), also impairs the development of good playing technique, particularly when it comes to fast playing or staccato.

A ninth reason to avoid using keyboards for piano lessons is that examiners and adjudicators can often pick out the students learning to play the  piano on electronic keyboards: often their playing shows a lack of sufficient finger pressure. It is very difficult to play lots of fast, short notes in one hand; the problems are multiplied when there are multiple short notes in one or both hands. A few examples of pieces that illustrate these problems include Grigori Frid’s The Jolly Fiddler, op. 41, no. 5, Dmitri Kabalevsky’s A Porcupine Dance, op. 89, no. 8, both on the Royal Conservatory of Music Grade 1 list, and Jean-Baptiste Duvernoy’s Study in C major, op. 176, no. 24, which is on the Grade 4 list. The way pianos are designed allows the player to play loud with cleanly-played staccato without the instrument shifting around.

Tenth, many electronic keyboards either don’t contain a music stand, or it often falls off and sometimes breaks. The stands on pianos are usually built into the construction of the instrument, or, if it’s a removable one, designed to not fall off. Not only that, ask any teacher who has taught piano students on keyboards about the occurence of falling keyboard stands—with some students, it happens almost every lesson.

Eleventh, there are plenty of good used pianos in the market as well, often in the same price range as a good mid-high end keyboard. High-end keyboards are typically priced in the $1000-2000 range. A new digital piano, with two, sometimes three, pedals, sells for $1200-1800, and you may be able to get a used top-of-the-line acoustic upright for about $1500-2000. The used top-of-the-line upright, however, will hold its value for many years if it well-maintained, while the keyboards will depreciate rapidly. Who wants to spend a lot of money twice in a short period of time for an instrument? This is what some students and parents would be doing if they started with a keyboards. It is also a lot easier to sell a used quality upright than a used electronic keyboard; the demand for quality used pianos is quite high, while few people will buy a used electronic keyboard.

Twelfth, electronic keyboards have other deficiencies. Some keyboards start to break down after two or three years. Repairs on electronic keyboards are more common and more expensive. Then there is the need of batteries or electricity. In contrast, most acoustic pianos are designed to last at least 10 years, many at least 20 with proper maintenance. Good-quality pianos when properly maintained have a lifetime of approximately 50 years; there exist some high-quality grand pianos are 60-80 years old that are in excellent playing condition. The sound quality on many keyboards is sometimes poor to begin with and gets worse over time. Keyboards can be damaged much more easily than acoustic pianos, especially if the damage involves liquid or dust.

Thirteenth, many students, especially young ones, will be motivated to practice regularly due to the “new” factor. But many students have an electronic keyboard well before they start lessons, and, the keyboard being more like an old toy, they may not be as motivated to practice, or the quality of practicing suffers.

Fourteenth, there is the aesthetic issue. A good-quality piano simply looks a lot better than an electronic keyboard in matching home decors. An acoustic piano is often considered a sign of status, so even if someone only makes a modest income, they will likely be perceived of higher status when they own a good-quality piano. In contrast, the person using an electronic keyboard for piano lessons is likely to be perceived as “cheap”, even if other factors indicate high status in society. Some people, both children and adults, may enjoy coming to your home, to play a few tunes on your piano. Having a piano in your home is potentially a great form of entertaining guests, something that rarely happens with electronic keyboards. Notice that many people place their pianos in living rooms, while electronic keyboards are typically hidden in a basement or bedroom. Many people have pride in owning a piano, which is not the case with electronic keyboards, hence they will “show off” the piano, but not the electronic keyboard. You can also go to a piano store that sells electronic keyboards as well as pianos: if you go at a busy time, such as a Saturday afternoon, almost all the people are playing on the pianos, very rarely the electronic keyboards. If the beginning piano student also has friends who study the piano who are slightly more advanced in their playing skills, the student may be inspired to play music like their friends, which may motivate them to practice, which often leads to excellent progress; within a few months, they might be inspiring other beginning piano students. If the student plays well, you may even be asked who the student is studying with, which means you can give referrals to the student’s teacher, which, assuming all other factors are well, will enhance your relationship with the teacher. None of these things are likely to happen when students are learning to play the piano on an electronic keyboard.

The last reason to say no to keyboards for piano lessons is that students and parents who ask about that often will ask you for other breaks too. Who wants to be taken advantage of, while at the same time, not being able to give a student a comprehensive musical education? It is easy, and simple, if the family does not own a piano, to ask before the student starts lessons if they are willing to at least rent a piano for 6-12 months until they are sure the student will stick with the piano. Another possibility is that a friend or family member who is no longer using their piano may be willing to sell, loan, or give their piano away to the family of the new piano student. If they are not, chances are, that family is not really serious about their child’s musical education, and the student often drops out within a year or two of lessons, as many children will quickly discover the limitations of electronic keyboards. A few students who learn on electronic keyboards have been known to ask why they cannot learn certain pieces like someone they know who is playing at a similar level; the answer is always because those pieces cannot be played on an electronic keyboard, since they require the pedals or they go beyond the range of their keyboard. Therefore, the electronic keyboard reduces the potential level the student can reach on the piano. Some families will also ask to further put off the purchase, even when the student is past the stage where an electronic keyboard will suffice, when the student clearly needs to learn repetoire that is impossible to play on a keyboard. Teachers on a full- or nearly-full teaching schedule tend to be good ones, and should have the luxury of being able to pick-and-choose the students they teach.

There are many advantages to having students and parents use a piano from the very beginning as opposed to starting piano lessons with a keyboard. Almost noone would think of using a typewriter for learning computer skills, because of the limitations of the typewriter: there are a lot of skills that can be learned which are possible on a computer that are not possible on a typewriter. The same is true with using a piano versus using an electronic keyboard for learning to play the piano. There are other good uses for having an electronic keyboard, such as composition, to provide a rhythm part (useful for students doing popular selections), or as a practice instrument if the student is travelling out of town for a few days and needs or wants to keep up their practicing, and won’t have access to a piano. There is no good reason to not use a piano for piano lessons.


2 Responses to "Keyboards are not pianos…why some piano teachers do not teach students with only a keyboard"

Maybe I’ll send this blog to parents who call me for lessons and don’t have a piano. I am always shocked that they think a keyboard is a substitute. Even the school in which I teach has only a keyboard in the high school auditorium!!! Yikes.

Thanks for posting this article. I get this question all of the time. I’m not for students learning to play the piano with a keyboard but if that’s what the parent can afford then I say use it for awhile. but I do inform the parent that the student will out grow a keyboard soon. Electric pianos/keyboards are everywhere now. Schools pianos are stored away because so it is said there’s no money to tune the piano. So a cheap keyboard is purchased. This is really interesting and will pass this article on.

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  • V V: Wish I had read this before I fell for their scheme ! Oh well - have posted my experience on Yelp and N49 and hoping others can avoid the pain of fal
  • clariniano: Thanks for the additional information. It was actually Yelp that deleted my reviews, because of so-called bias. I too have seen the horrible technique
  • No Thanks: Former Teacher at the Ontario Conservatory of Music I took lessons at the Ontario Conservatory and when I left for private lessons from another tea
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