Apple Valley Guitar and Piano Academy
Piano Buying Guide
KEYBOARD INSTRUMENT TYPES
There are two types of keyboard instruments used for piano lessons/study: ACOUSTIC and ELECTRONIC.
When acoustic piano keys are pressed down, they produce sound with felt-covered hammers that strike metal strings, causing a wooden soundboard to vibrate.
The soundboard of a vertical ("upright") piano is perpendicular to the floor; grand piano soundboards are horizontal, which is an acoustically superior configuration. Thus, grand pianos are preferred over verticals in all conceivable performance or recording applications, unless extremely limited space is a factor.
Acoustic pianos also have a damper pedal that allows many un-struck strings to vibrate along with notes played with the fingers. This produces a considerable enhancement in the richness and beauty of the piano's tone. In addition, the amount or intensity of this effect can be altered by how far the pedal is pressed downward (variable pedaling).
Electronic keyboards, sometimes called "digital pianos", usually produce sound by playing pre-recorded notes through speakers as each key is pressed. On the upside, the sound quality is quite good. On the downside, recordings are not made for every possible volume level. As a result, the circuitry inside the keyboard has to approximate the missing levels. This, unfortunately, is one of the main reasons why electronic keyboards sound fake, and lack the musically and emotionally expressive key touch response of an acoustic piano.
Also, since they have no strings, the damper pedal effect is, in our view, poorly simulated electronically. Given that the acoustic piano damper pedal is considered "the soul of the piano" because it makes the sound come alive, this is a HUGE deficiency on the part of electronic keyboards.
Furthermore, budget electronic keyboards usually don't allow for variable pedaling (described above). This is usually not a problem until the student reaches an intermediate level (about 2-3 years of lessons). At that point, lack of variable pedaling capability in their home piano will be a significant impediment to their musical development as pianists.
SHOULD YOU BUY AN ACOUSTIC PIANO OR AN ELECTRONIC KEYBOARD?
Parents of children taking piano lessons for the first time are logically hesitant to spend the minimum of $3000 required to get a decent acoustic piano. Therefore, below, we provide an extensive guide to buying electronic keyboards.
However, for reasons noted in detail above, an electronic keyboard is NOT A PIANO. It compares to a real piano the way a flight simulator compares to an actual airplane. Thus, calling the former a "digital piano" is highly misleading.
Fortunately, an electronic keyboard is adequate for early beginners, whose focus is on simplistic elements of key technique, note reading, rhythm, and other basics.
In the final analysis, however, the long-term goal of lessons is learning to play an acoustic piano.
Therefore, beyond the second or third year of lessons, we recommend buying a NEW acoustic vertical piano, such as the Paul A. Schmitt 46', available at Schmitt Music in Burnsville. (Low-priced used verticals generally have very poor tone and are less motivating of practice than quality electronic keyboards.)
IF YOU BUY AN ELECTRONIC KEYBOARD, AT MINIMUM, IT SHOULD HAVE THE FOLLOWING FEATURES:
Feature 1. 88 full-size keys
Feature 2. Velocity sensitive keys that can change volume from soft to loud
Feature 3. Weighted keys (not "springy" as found on toy/cheap keyboards)
To prepare students for playing an actual piano, we recommend hammer action keys that lift a metal flange at the far end when pressed. (The actual configuration of the artificial hammer may differ from one brand/model to another.)
This feature coincides with weighted keys, and often, the term "weighted hammer action" is used to describe it. Semi-weighted keys are still spring-driven, NOT the same as fully weighted, and should be avoided.
Feature 4. A damper pedal.
Even first-year music for young children occasionally requires use of the damper pedal. Therefore, please don't be persuaded to buy an electronic keyboard setup without one because a salesperson says it's fine for beginners.
If it doesn't have a damper pedal, it's not suitable for a student taking lessons from a professional teacher.
Keyboards with pedals built into the overall structure of the instrument or on optional "pedal boards" are ESSENTIAL because they are located in the same stable position as those on acoustic pianos. We do not recommend pedals attached with cables to the keyboard, as they easily move around the floor, causing problems with pedaling technique.
Feature 5. An attached music stand so the student can easily see their music
IMPORTANT NOTE TO PARENTS: After the first year of lessons, we will no longer teach a student who has an electronic keyboard without features 1-4 above.
ELECTRONIC KEYBOARD CONFIGURATION TYPES: CONSOLE VS. STAGE
Electronic keyboards manufactured with built-in legs or vertical supports are what we call "consoles". This is because they are similar in appearance to acoustic console pianos. Apart from a few exceptions, electronic console keyboards are the only type that have the preferred onboard damper pedal.
Typical "stage" pianos are just a keyboard with speakers, and sit on a separate "X" stand. They are easy to knock over, and can cause serious injury to babies and toddlers in the vicinity. Not recommended unless they have 88 velocity sensitive weighted keys, and can be upgraded by adding legs and a pedal board.
One example is the Casio PX-160. In the latter configuration, it's essentially a console type. However, its stability is far less than a true console.
ELECTRONIC KEYBOARDS ON THE INTERNET
We always recommend that you and/or your child play any electronic instrument before it is delivered to your home. The reason: each brand/model has a different tone quality to the notes, and a different feel when pressing the keys.
For example, in some cases, the tone of the notes in the middle of an electronic keyboard will be good, but those above or below sound obviously fake. Since the latter are eventually used by all piano students, this becomes a regrettable problem that can't be fixed without buying a different keyboard.
Also, some electronic keyboard keys may feel too heavy or too light. If the keyboard is for a child, this is an especially important factor since they vary widely in their finger strength.
You can't evaluate these and other factors if you order an electronic keyboard on the Internet.
Furthermore, consider what would happen if you had to make a warranty claim on an instrument bought out-of-state. In the case of Schmitt Music in Burnsville, electronic keyboard repairs are done locally, so there's no shipping fees or long delays. This assumes you are able to transport the piano back to the store and pick it up when it's fixed.
USED electronic keyboards purchased from a private party
Be advised that there is no warranty available for these instruments. For repairs, dealers of a given brand may or may not want to service them. If not, your only option is an independent repairperson or shop.
In terms of features and performance, they are usually significantly out-of-date.
Also, electronic keyboards can fail abruptly, or give no indication before purchase that a defect is developing. Non-warranty repairs may exceed the cost of the used instrument itself.
As a result, we don't evaluate used electronic keyboards for customers, or correspond with sellers of these instruments on various websites.
PIANO ACTION "WEIGHT"
No matter what type of piano you buy, avoid one whose keys are heavy or difficult to press. Usually, this is only a problem with acoustic pianos. As an example, a child in a family who recently ignored this advice developed chronic pain in their right arm.
The claim that heavy acoustic piano keys improve "control" is irrelevant if you can't play due to injuries or chronic discomfort. Also, this control claim usually refers to regulating volume/tone. In contrast, precise control of rhythm or timing on a heavy action is often quite difficult.
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