Electric piano or acoustic?

New piano families often ask me whether they should buy an acoustic or an electric piano to start with lessons. As a general rule, I do not recommend electric pianos.  Having said that, sometimes a keyboard/electric piano is the right solution for a family just beginning piano studies. Here are some things to consider.

Even the nicest keyboards have limited expression compared to an acoustic piano. I have found that they hinder proper development of technique, and their limits can keep students from creating a personal musical experience.  This can lead to frustrating practice sessions (or avoidance of practice sessions).  I feel very strongly that after the beginning stages of study, an electric keyboard will hold a student back. Keyboards can go out of tune, lose their voicing, and break just like an acoustic piano – but when it happens you have to buy a new keyboard because there are no electric piano technicians to come to your house to fix it.  While no instrument is a financial investment in the way that a big block of gold would be, an electric piano loses its value for resale very quickly, and will not last as long as a well made acoustic piano. If you buy an electric piano, you should understand that you will likely need to either upgrade or replace it at some point in the future.

However, electric pianos are cheaper, lighter and easier to move, and require less maintenance. You can practice with headphones on if you need a little privacy or need to focus. They don’t go out of tune as quickly/regularly as an acoustic piano, and they often have fun bells and whistles like a sampling of orchestral sounds or rhythmic patterns. As a college student I practiced on electric pianos when I wanted to work late at night without bothering the neighbors. I found it very useful and it did me no harm, but the majority of my practicing was on an acoustic piano so I was not relying on the keyboard to develop my technique, expression, and musical imagination. When just out of graduate school I played all different makes and models of electric pianos in piano stores, trying to find an electric piano that could take the place of an acoustic instrument, but finally had to admit that the two are not interchangeable.

If you decide that an electric piano is the way to go for now,  I have been told that Roland and Yamaha are reputable brands. You definitely want to buy one with 88 keys (a full size keyboard) and one with weighted keys. Prices vary widely, but you should plan on spending something between $1,000 and $5,000 for a quality keyboard. (If you are looking at a $5,000 keyboard you should seriously think about looking for an acoustic upright piano).

Any piano is a big investment right up front, and buying one can be a daunting proposition. When I first started taking lessons myself, my family did not have a piano, and the solution that my mother came up with was a brilliant one.  Instead of buying a piano or a keyboard, I practiced at my elementary school before school started every day for the first year of my lessons. This was a fantastic situation because it set me up for success with built-in dedicated practice time each day. I can’t emphasize enough how important that built-in dedicated time is in the beginning, both for finding out if piano is an activity that is appropriate for your child and for setting up playing habits for the future. Nowadays elementary schools may not be as accessible as they were back then, but churches and community centers and even music schools may be willing to work out an arrangement with willing families.

If I can help with further questions to piano families-to-be, please feel free to contact me!

Barbara Lieurance, pianist