I’d like to start out with a story.
One of my piano students had an unusual habit. Every time she hit a certain key, her finger would dip down below the key and push up. When I asked her why she did this, she said that on her piano at home that key would always get stuck. I was surprised that for my student the habit had become so completely ingrained in her playing she would do it even on my piano.
I spoke with this student’s parents and recommended that they contact a piano technician. Pretty soon their piano was back in working order, and that little extra finger motion was gone from the student’s playing. Fortunately, things like stuck keys are easy to repair. What might be hard to repair is years of playing on an instrument that doesn’t work properly, or is not providing your child the range of notes, dynamics, or finger strength they need.
Give Your Piano a Tune-Up
We have two main goals when providing piano students with an instrument. We want them to establish good playing habits, and we want them to have a positive musical experience. The instrument your child practices on every day should have keys that respond properly and have the right amount of resistance to develop agility and proper finger strength. The piano should be in tune so that your child can develop an accurate sense of pitch. More importantly, if a piano is in poor repair, out of tune, with keys that stick or won’t sound at all, it is not going to be a very enjoyable experience to play it.
As I mentioned before, most problems with acoustic pianos, like keys that get stuck, can be repaired. A qualified piano technician can come to your home and give you an assessment. Some older pianos may be too costly to repair, or are no longer able to stay in tune. If that’s the case with your current piano, consider getting a new or gently used piano, or even a good quality digital piano. A good quality digital piano will provide a better playing experience than an acoustic piano in poor condition.
If your child is practicing on an electronic instrument, I highly recommend one with 88 weighted keys. Many electronic keyboards only have 61 keys, while a standard acoustic piano and most digital pianos will have 88 keys. While it is okay to get started on piano lessons using a keyboard with only 61 keys, this should be a temporary situation. It is true that you can play most beginner level pieces on a smaller electronic keyboard, but as your child learns more advanced pieces there simply won’t be enough notes. Also, a child who is used to 61 keys often feels disoriented when sitting down to a piano with the full 88 keys.
Even more important than the number of keys is the weight of the keys, in other words the resistance your finger feels when you press down on the key. To play an acoustic piano, your fingers need to be strong enough to launch a hammer that will swing up and strike a piano string. Most of the 61-key electronic keyboards have no weight to the keys, since all you need to do when pressing a key is make an electrical connection. I’ve noticed in my own students that the ones who only have a small electronic keyboard to practice on at home will struggle when trying to play an acoustic piano because their fingers simply aren’t strong enough.
Another thing about the smaller electronic keyboards is that they have a limited dynamic range, or none at all. Pressing the key results in only one volume level of sound. One amazing thing about the acoustic piano is the incredible range of loud and soft sounds it can make. Kids who only practice on a keyboard without dynamic capabilities will miss out on learning to play expressively and beautifully. If your instrument at home is a 61-key or smaller electronic keyboard, look into an upgrade. Many good digital pianos are very affordable, and don’t take up much more space than an electronic keyboard. Or you may even decide it is time for an acoustic piano.
If you are using a digital piano with 88 keys that are properly weighted, you are in good shape. Still, if you have a student who is progressing in piano, there is no question that they will develop their piano playing skills faster on an acoustic piano. Digital pianos are very good imitations of acoustic pianos, but they are still imitations. With a digital piano the sound comes out of a speaker according to a program that detects how hard a key is pressed and then plays back a pre-recorded sound at a calculated volume. With an acoustic piano, the sound is produced by real metal strings and a wood soundboard. An acoustic piano has infinite sensitivity to a piano player’s touch. It responds exactly to pressure and velocity, which gets transferred directly into sound. A good acoustic piano gives you a richer tone, a greater dynamic range, and better control than any digital piano.
There are some advantages digital pianos have over acoustic pianos. I have both and I’m grateful for both in my home. For one thing, with a digital piano you can plug in headphones and practice without disturbing others. I also like having a digital piano in my home because my boys enjoy playing with the different instrument sounds. If you have multiple children learning piano it can help to have a second keyboard so that practice times can overlap.
Time for a New Instrument?
If your acoustic piano needs tuning or repair, then get it fixed up as soon as you can. If your older acoustic piano can’t be fixed, it is time to consider a new instrument. Also, if you’re using a keyboard with less than 88 keys, look into getting something full-sized. If you have space in your home and in your budget, go ahead and go for an acoustic piano, but a good quality digital piano is also a great choice. If you’re in the market for a keyboard instrument, be sure to check out our guide to buying a piano or keyboard.