Buying a Piano or Keyboard?

How do we buy a piano? Is a keyboard ok?piano keyboard

I field this question at least once a week, so here’s an explanation of the considerations when purchasing a piano (or keyboard).

The first thing you need to keep in mind is that resale of a piano or keyboard is nearly impossible. So buy what you plan to keep for the long, long haul or buy cheaply enough so that you feel you get your money’s worth out of it. But go into a purchase knowing that most every piano is difficult to re-home and keyboards quickly become obsolete so consider your purchase carefully.

A common concern I hear from beginning piano families: “Can we start with a keyboard because…”

  • we don’t know if our child will like piano (non-issue, read ’til the end please)
  • we don’t have space for a piano (be creative!)
  • a keyboard would be quieter/more fun/more portable/more bells and whistles (yes, if that’s what you want for your child).

Yes, a beginner can learn on a keyboard the first 1-2 years at home as long as the child has lessons on an acoustic piano. Even if a keyboard’s keys are weighted, they will never be responsive in a way an acoustic piano is and every pianist needs to experience the differences. That’s not critical early-on because a beginner is just finding which fingers are where, and learning notes and rhythms, but soon enough, you want an instrument that is alive and a keyboard is not (more on this below).

So yes, a keyboard is fine for a short while. A keyboard is also great if you have plans for composing or improvising with the assistance of technology. However, if you’re considering a keyboard because it’s appealing as a sort of toy, I would discourage that. In my mind, there is no better toy in a home than a piano!

Children have all the electronic gadgets they need, do we really need an instrument to add to the world of things that beep and buzz and light up? Yes, many of our screens now can sense the touch of a human fingertip, but they don’t respond to us the way only an acoustic instrument can.

A “real piano” can respond to our nuances and feelings and subtleties. I offer this poor analogy: compare a massage from a therapist to a chair massager. Sure, a chair can deliver an excellent, relaxing experience, no doubt, but a therapist can feel tiny nuances and respond accordingly.

Further, any musician will tell you that an acoustic instrument will actually nurture it’s own player via the sound vibrations it produces. When you play an acoustic instrument (think especially of something you actually hold like a violin or horn), that instrument becomes an extension of one’s own body. Player and instrument join sympathetically in resonance, vibrating at the same frequencies. This certainly can happen even with touching piano keys and most definitely vocally or singing in a group.

So in practical matters, a keyboard can be purchased inexpensively from a local or online retailer. (And I often have used keyboards for sale very affordably.) A piano is a little trickier. While you can purchase from an individual, paying a bit more from a piano store will likely include a qualified appraisal and perhaps delivery, tuning, and expert advice.

If you decide to go it independently, please consult a piano technician and/or appraiser to help guide you. But just as the body of a car doesn’t tell you how reliable it is, the exterior of a piano may not be an accurate indicator of how it sounds and functions. There are professionals to help with this so don’t try to save a few bucks and end up with something that won’t serve your family for years to come.

Is it a toy?

As an educator, my definition of a toy is pretty specific. It is something that doesn’t do anything for a child (except invite free play) and requires a child to think, manipulate and experiment. Certainly you get that from a keyboard or piano in different ways, but you can learn so much more about physics and spatial relationships, among other things, from an acoustic piano.piano_and_guitar

Finally, with regard to all things music education: I’m often asked how long a child should continue lessons if interest wanes or if other interests grow stronger. I’ve met ONE child in 20 years of teaching that really truly wanted to play piano for the love of it year after year. Every other child has natural cycles of love and dread, as we all do with all areas in life that take discipline and stick-to-itiveness (i.e., exercise, diet, continuing education).

So my simple answer to the question of how long a child should take lessons is that this is a parenting decision and not up to a child. As a parent, it’s up to you to prioritize the educational choices you will give your child and how long you will continue on that course. My personal recommendation is to commit to music lessons through at least 9th grade (into high school).

Almost daily, I meet someone who says, “I wish I would have kept up with my piano lessons.” In my years, I have met no one who says “I regret the discipline, perseverance, spatial awareness and musical skills my parents forced on me.” No one says that. Ever.