Your kid is about to start piano lessons, and now you need a piano. The frowning piano teacher and the smiley guy at the piano store both agree, you definitely need something that weighs at least 800 pounds, costs at least four thousand dollars, and looks like a real piano. But do you? Really? No!
Fifteen years ago one could be forgiven for believing there’s no good substitute for a real acoustic piano, to meet the needs of a serious practicing piano student. But this wasn’t exactly true even back then.
A typical piano student reads and memorizes music, plays scales, and practices technique at home on whatever piano happens to be there, and concurrently spends as much time as possible rehearsing on a much more expensive instrument elsewhere, more like the one he or she will play at their next recital.
This is because even if the piano at home is a perfectly good one, you can assume that its sound and feel will be significantly different from that of another brand, size, or price range. Even the room-acoustics of the performance space will take some adjusting and getting used to, in preparation for recital day.
Contrary to what a few seriously behind-the-times acoustic piano snobs might assert, the sound quality, feel, responsiveness, and all around usability of many electronic (aka “digital”) pianos is well within the range of what a good quality acoustic piano might provide, in terms of similarity to, and transferability of practiced technique to a really nice concert grand piano.
Yet sadly, there are countless piano students practicing at home at this moment on clunky uprights and under-maintained or sub-par quality, sour sounding baby grand pianos, who would actually be better off, all things considered, with electronic instruments costing half what their “real” pianos are worth.
Keyboard actions on many electronic pianos – the all-important mechanical workings that determine how the piano’s keyboard responds and feels – are very close in feel to those of expensive acoustic pianos, and the responsiveness and sound quality that’s possible with digital technology is likewise much more than adequate for practice purposes – potentially better in some respects. For many students the value of being able to practice at a reduced volume, or in complete privacy using headphones, is hard to overstate. For all students, having an instrument that’s always perfectly in tune is a huge bonus.
Choosing a satisfactory electronic option can be a daunting project, though in reality it’s not that different from choosing an acoustic piano, and if anything there’s less investment, risk, and commitment involved.
One hard-to-go-wrong strategy is simple: Just choose from among the following safe-bet brands: Yamaha, Kawai, and Casio, and select an 88-key model whose keyboard action (and to a somewhat lesser degree its sound quality) is highly rated among pianists, which is fairly easy to determine online. I suggest avoiding the “furniture style” digital pianos that are built into a grand piano styled cabinet unless you know exactly what you’re doing.
These top companies each offer a range of different levels of overall quality, but their lower end stuff is good and their higher-priced products are really, really good. Lower-end models that sell for 500 dollars or less today often will outperform products that cost several thousands of dollars not that long ago. A few other companies offer good choices as well, but for most at-home pianists there’s little reason to look any further than the three I’ve named, at least if you’re aiming for an instrument costing less than one or two thousand dollars.
The most simple and convenient-to-use instruments will have built-in sounds and speakers, but be aware that higher quality sounds account for a large portion of the price you’ll pay for certain instruments, and the vastly expanded sonic possibilities of separate, external amplification systems and pc-software-based sounds are well worth considering, even if you don’t incorporate those things right away.
Here’s an example: You could get a Casio Privia for about 500 bucks. It will have a mechanical keyboard action that’s been compared favorably with the best (Kawai), simulated “ivory-feel” key surfaces, and its built in piano sound and amplification system will be quite comfortable and enjoyable to use, and more than satisfactory for even advanced-level practice purposes. Then later on, you could install a very good software-based piano sound generator into a laptop computer for around 300 bucks (I recommend the Pianoteq physically-modeled instrument), get a good set of powered speakers for another couple of hundred, hook all this together and now you have a piano that’s just as powerful as any acoustic, plus access to a great selection of beautiful piano sounds that can be upgraded very inexpensively over time without ever having to replace the trusty old Casio keyboard.
Having said all this, I have to admit there’s a certain kind of warmth and simplicity that’s impossible to get without a good old fashioned 800 lb wooden piano, and no unsightly power cord is required. Even so, there’s really nothing that makes an acoustic piano better than a digital, overall. It’s just different, and not necessarily that much different. If you’re able to own and maintain a really nice, full sized acoustic piano, great. But whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of settling for some stuffy-sounding, poorly maintained acoustic piano, or heaven forbid, a crappy little (500 lb) spinet, based on the false notion that it’s inherently superior to a modern, affordable, compact electronic piano. Digital pianos are the future, and for at least fifteen years now they have proven themselves to be a superior bang for the buck in a number of respects, at meeting the needs of the modern piano student.