Keyboards and piano lessons - Merit of  keyboard use for piano lessons

Discuss the digital alternatives to the acoustic piano

Postby Stretto » Mon Dec 12, 2005 5:04 pm

Beckywy wrote:. . . a determined and talented student will make due with whatever is offered and still thrive in piano instruction. All a teacher can do in this situation is make sure the student does have opportunities to play on acoustic pianos for lessons and recitals.

I thought Beckywy's comment above is one of the best points in the the thread. It reminded me that determination to learn is the deciding factor in how far one can go and what one can do in music regardless of the available instrument. A determined student will find a way to do what it takes to learn what they desire in music. It's a teacher's job to facilitate those who have a desire to learn. I'm sure none of us got to where we are today musically without a lot of determination.
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Postby Stretto » Tue Jul 31, 2007 3:38 pm

I brought this thread back up rather than try to start a new topic as my question is related to keyboards and lessons. I'll have to re-read the thread as perhaps my question has already been answered somewhere in it. I think my thoughts on this subject may have swayed slightly (but not necessarily to either extreme) since the topic was first started.

I recently have done more advertising to gain more students. So far, I've gotten 3 calls and 2 of the 3 asking if I took students that had unweighted keyboards at home for practice, one parent calling about lessons for a 6 yr. old student, one person in their 60's with an unweighted keyboard purchased at a garage sale wanting to learn. So how would you handle this? What would you explain to people - that is was o.k. or that it was o.k. for the beginning only and they will need to consider eventually upgrading? Would you take students with unweighted keyboards? Would you let them use them only for the short-term and encourage them to get a piano or weighted digital over time? Would you teach a student with an unweighted keyboard for an indefinite period not ever requiring they switch to an acoustic piano or digital? What if you taught a student for 3 or 4 years who practiced that whole time with an unweighted keyboard, then moved or for other reasons transferred teachers, if not every teacher will accept and teach students with unweighted keyboards, then how does this play out for the student and all the money parents have put into lessons for that long? How would it reflect on a teacher who'd taught a student for 3 or 4 years on an uweighted keyboard whent a student transfers to another teacher? I remember reading an article on PEP that as I recalled suggested unweighted keyboards fine to get started but also as I recall suggested eventually trying to acquire an acoustic piano or weighted digital - if my memory serves me right. What about as I mentioned teaching a student longer term on an unweighted keyboard? Should all students with unweighted keyboards be encouraged to eventually acquire an acoustic piano or better digital piano?




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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Tue Jul 31, 2007 7:03 pm

When I was in military service and stationed in northern Virginia, I had the privilege of studying organ at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Every week I returned from a lesson on the magnificent four-manual Skinner organ there to the army chapel where I worked, and practiced on a well-worn Hammond that lacked full compass in both keyboards and pedals. So I'm sure that experience scarred me for life and made me that much more intolerant of inadequate instruments.

But, as I remarked on this thread back in December, a good digital might be better than a bad acoustic. I would not encourage anyone to trade in a good Yamaha Clavinova for a broken down Kohler and Campbell spinet that won't even hold a tuning. So I think the choice between types of instrument is not a simple either/or--the question of quality brings in a lot of overlap here as well.

In addition to quality, I think you have to consider repertoire. Traditionally, piano lessons have aimed at eventual performance of so-called 'classical' music, composed by long-gone people who have little statues made of them from the waist up. But from about the mid-twentieth century on (I suddenly feel old!), more and more teachers have broadened the teaching literature to include pop tunes, jazz, movie and TV themes, and even rock, and the fine points of phrasing, agogics, dynamics, voicing, and so on tend to diminish in importance.

As far as I can recall, no one has made much of the fact that digital keyboards are not only piano imitators, but can be made to produce a great variety of different tones and effects--their use and importance extends far beyond trying to imitate a Steinway grand. This may not seem relevant here, but I've wondered: how many teachers have encountered students who have as their goal being keyboard members of rock groups? How and what do you teach them? Has anyone had this experience?

Bill L.




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Postby 112-1182392787 » Tue Jul 31, 2007 8:06 pm

Somewhere in this thread I saw a quest for student input. I came back to "piano" after a 30 year absence as a self-taught student. I inherited a keyboard with shallow light keys, no touch sensitivity. I took the occasional piano lesson with my violin teacher. To answer your question, Stretto, having played a lot when young, I could make the transition, but I would have to get the feeling of the piano keys under my fingers for half a minute. I would notice which fingers were heavier than other fingers, and could do nothing about it once I got home. I centred my learning on tempo, keys, transposing, because that's all that I could do. I tried playing at a student concert, practising on a rented piano two days before and my first quiet notes came out senza voce, total silence to the sight of softly gliding fingers. I would think that practicing on a keyboard teaches you how to play the keyboard. It is a different instrument, is it not?

Since half a year I have a used touch sensitive electric piano of good quality. I could afford it, and I can finally do something about dynamics, pedal, and keys that are deep enough, heavy enough, and show some response. When I tried it out, it stood next to a real piano which was not for sale. I went back and forth for an hour. The sound is audience-impressing: grand piano reverberations. I found it disturbing because there was something false about the digital adjustments. There is an after-echo happening at the back of the sound board of a real piano, and that after-echo was programmed into my piano, but it happened two dimensionally and this bothered me too. Just at a time when as a violin student I am becoming sensitive and aware of nuances of sound, I had to close myself off from the full spectrum of sounds of this instrument. This also goes for touch and responsiveness. Yet it is a good instrument - it gives that "instant impressive sound" which overwhelms, grand piano and all. It is part of our new world that knows no subtleties and shades, where the senses have been dulled and people want to sound instantaneously good.

Dr. Leland writes about touch, and I think I know what he means. I was feeling for the shades of sound, the interaction and balances of keys that would allow the hammers to strike in a thousand ways. It's not there in the digital. There is no physical interaction - again, if you are already sensitive to instruments, you become desensitized because there is nothing to respond to or that responds. Analogue is infinite: digital is finite. Besides, some pianist's touch has been recorded into this piano. His sound comes out, not mine. His touch, on an acoustic piano, has been recorded, tweaked, and put into my piano. That bothers me. I'm jealous. I want my sound to be my own sound, not someone else's.

I came on this board asking for help before a student performance. In that performance, on a real piano, I was able to do something fantastic with the final chord, which was played pianissimo and was meant to die to nothingness. I could raise the pedal for a dramatic brief pause, descend the pedal, gently press my five keys "just so" while feeling out the balances (as Dr. Leland describes) "just so", then keep the pedal depressed. The other strings would have their various sympathetic rings. The digital piano could mimic that part, and the annoying "backboard mimic" isn't there for quiet notes. But the last part could not be imitated by the digital. In this I released the pedal, kept the keys depressed, and now only those five sets of strings kept up their vibrations, sympathetic and all (since they were chords) and interacted according to physics. The effect was a fading away that changed colour as the pedal was released but the keys held down. Doing the same thing with the digital did one thing. The sound stops immediately. There is no colour and there are no shades.

I find the lack of interaction and shades on a physical, sensual level between the instrument and the sound to be dulling to the senses and imagination, and even creating some tension. I think this is because when we interact with something, our bodies respond more automatically or naturally. And I don't like instant nice sounds. I want to work for my sound, and create it myself.

But I'm not a child though I am a student. What about children? I remember exploring textures of instruments. One of my children is en route toward becoming a professional musician, and as a child he was exploring textures and sounds in all their nuances, imitating what he heard, seeing what kinds of sounds could be produced - forever banging, listening, trying. Are these explorations and discoveries lost on digital instruments? Is it about producing a melody and the right notes, and only that? What is music? My earliest memory of musical instruments is about melody, of course, but also the tones and sounds themselves. They spoke to me personally. And everywhere there is physical touch, responsiveness, even the quirks of an acoustic instrument giving it personality. If children's senses are more alive than those of an adult, do these sensations matter?

I still have my keyboard and it has its uses. Switching from piano to organ or flute is a fast way of catching uneven notes, and hearing a melody from a different angle. I think it can hook up to the computer for composition. It is portable for practising away from home anywhere that has electricity.

The big advantage of the electric piano is that I can plug in ear phones and practice in the dead of night.

I suppose the best of all worlds would be to have both. I would not want to stay forever with only a digital piano. I have already heard the comment of one pianist hearing me play say instantly, "I can hear that you don't have an acoustic piano. It is limiting your playing." and I could hear that myself.
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Postby Stretto » Thu Aug 02, 2007 12:55 pm

pianissimo, you explain producing sound on the instruments and such so eloquently. You're explanation of the differences you find in the instruments is excellent. The differences you explain are my sentiments exactly - you do a good job of putting it into words. I find your comments interesting about children and their testing and trying things out to see how they can produce different sounds. I know I have an ear for certain sounds I want to come out on a piano that I am looking for somewhere in the recesses of my mind but I'm not quite sure where all those ideas of sound I hear in my head and want to bring out came from. Surely I must have absorbed those ideas from music and instruments along the lines since childhood all intermingled floating around in the storehouses of my mind because I often ask where did I get the idea of what sounds I wish to bring out when working on a piece? That's what frustrates me on an unweighted keyboard as well, the sound and touch I'm wanting can't be produced on it. I never thought too much about it but I suppose I should ask myself regarding my unweighted keyboard, "what can it do?" rather than getting frustrated with what it won't do. Trying to play on it does drive me bazurk. Except in college, when I was getting a music degree, I didn't have a piano at home to practice on except my little unweighted keyboard. I practiced a couple hours a day on the acoustics at the university and then practiced the rest of my time at home on the unweighted keyboard, "pretending" it was doing all those things of an acoustic and trying to "pretend" the weight and sound was there. I don't remember being so frustrated playing on it then and didn't seem bothered doing some of my practice on it. I suppose I got used to the difference since I used it more often. It came in handy primarily for memorizing and playing to keep up something from memory.

I suppose the main thing is to know the differences between good pianos, bad pianos, unweighted keyboards, various digital pianos, and understand their limations and capabilities and inform those wishing to take lessons of differences. I'm not saying I'm for or against keyboards in their use in taking piano lessons. I just feel that a lot of "consumers" are unaware of the differences and think they're basically one in the same and if you can play an unweighted keyboard, you'll be fine on a piano.

pianissimo, Your story about the "quiet" notes that came out in the beginning at your performance is exactly what happened to a couple students I had who had unweighted keyboards to practice on and played on a grand at a recital their church held for kids that played instruments or sang. I felt badly for them as it showed they weren't pleased with their performance and I don't think they or their mom ever equated it to playing primarly on an unweighted keyboard.

As a teacher, I will accept students with unweighted keyboards to practice on and focus on any and all possible musical elements that can be taught and learned regardless. There is soooo much a person can learn about music that I don't feel anyone should be deprived of the joy in learning and producing music because they don't have a piano. There is sooo much that I could teach about music even with using an unweighted keyboard.

Outside of the differences in sound, the main problems I foresee with students who have unweighted keyboards is do you give them their lesson on the piano or give them their lesson on an unweighted keyboard? I had a couple students years back that practiced at home on unweighted keyboards but at lesson struggled tremendouly to press the notes down on the piano because of the weight difference in the keys and as a result their playing at lessons was very poor. I attributed that not to not having practiced but they were used to the keyboard and even if they did well on a piece at home, couldn't play it evenly on the weighted piano mainly many notes not sounding. Also, would you bring an unweighted keyboard to a recital so students who practiced primarily on unweighted keyboards at home could do thier performance at the recital on a keyboard to avoid having trouble pressing piano keys down? How would a student feel about playing at a recital on a keyboard when peers are playing on a piano - would it make a difference? If some students were playing in competitions, festivals, Guild, or similar then could students who had practiced and primarily played on unweighted keyboards still participate in these? Outside of these issues I have no quams about teaching students with keyboards. It does concern me, however, if a student struggled at a performance over peers soley because of the difference in weight on a piano.

I do feel people shouldn't be deprived of all the enjoyment making music can offer simply because they have an unweighted keyboard rather than a piano. If I wanted to learn piano or have my kids take lessons, I'd be hesitant to rush out and buy an acoustic piano right away too and I might not even want space taken up with one!

But when thinking about how much it costs for piano lessons, one could postpone starting lessons anywhere from 1 to a few years and save the money that would be spent during that time on lessons and apply it toward a good digital piano or acoustic piano, perhaps start learning music on another instrument in the meantime.

Whether to take students with unweighted keyboards especially if they are going to use them soley long-term is a catch 22. I feel we are in a day and age where not as many people will own decent acoustic pianos but more and more people will own digitals and unweighted keyboards. So there may come a point where it may be more and more difficult to aquire students who own or are willing to buy a decent acoustic piano for lessons while at the same time more people wishing to be taught to play who own keyboards and digital pianos. Should these be penalized from quality lessons because they don't have an acoustic piano? On the flipside, my husband was working in a neighborhood the other day where he said, every single house on the street had a big grand piano sitting in the window of their front living room.




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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Thu Aug 02, 2007 6:14 pm

One very important reason why many pianists shy away from digitals is that our instrument is mechanical enough already. A violinist, violist or cellist has direct contact with the string; a wind player makes the sound with his own mouth, lungs, and breath; a singer's instrument is part of his or her own body. All three can do things with the sound after it begins.

Us? We have a complicated and sometimes disfunctional mechanism sitting between us and the sound, and not only that, but once we strike it we're no longer a pilot, only a passenger; other than holding the damper pedal to open the other strings to sympathetic vibration, we've done all there is to do. Is it any wonder it's so important to form a vivid mental concept of the sound we want beforehand? Afterwards is too late!

So, just for myself, I don't want any more distance between me and the sound--things are hard enough already. Electronic circuitry takes it that much farther away.

But this weakness can also be the piano's strength. A great artist can make you believe the piano is doing things it can't do, by making your imagination fill in the gaps, hear sounds singing and sustaining, and making all kinds of colors. I think that's the secret of the piano's centuries-old hold on the music world. (It's like radio: we had to make mental pictures ourselves to go with the program we were hearing--TV has taken all that away.)

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Postby pianogal » Fri Aug 03, 2007 4:56 pm

I'll talk about my experience again.

I live in an appartment, 2nd floor, the hallway's really narrow and with too many zigzags. There's no way for a real spinet piano to go through it. So I got a Casio XP-700 Digital piano.

I'm an advanced student who took about 2.5 years of lessons. For the past year, I was always using this digital piano. It doesn't bother me at all. Although the weighted keys do feel a little different from real piano keys, but I still do pretty good at lessons. So to me, what kind of piano doesn't matter. BUT, I don't think regular keyboard should be used. There are too much differences. I remember I used to have a keyboard, with 60 something very light keys. One day in my friend's house, I performed on her piano, I was having so much trouble pressing down the keys, they seemed so heavy.

So keyboard, not a good idea. Digital piano's fine. :;):
Don't ever give up piano, because you will like it someday
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Fri Aug 03, 2007 7:48 pm

You were used to a key dip that was was way too shallow, too. That's the depth that the key goes down to the bottom from its rest position. This was a large part of your problem on your friend's piano, not only the weight--your fingers had to travel farther.

A good digital piano will be regulated pretty much like an acoustic--the dip should be about 3/8 inch. The smaller keyboards only go down about half that much.

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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Wed Oct 17, 2007 7:24 am

Stretto wrote:In general, it seems that piano teacher's are going to have to come up with creative ways to "keep up with the times" and perhaps one solution would be for teacher's to keep up with the latest in technology on digital instruments and provide lessons on these even teaching students the capabilities that these instruments provide. I agree with Dr. Zeigler on this count that I too like certain capabilites about both acoustic and digital technology. That's why I posted earlier, they are not one in the same.

I missed this comment earlier when Stretto made it, but I think this is exactly what I would advocate. I doubt that most students who have digital pianos or keyboards at home use even a small fraction of their capabilities, mostly from lack of knowledge of what the keyboard or digital piano can do. Teachers can't simply ignore the "digital revolution," in light of the fact that digital pianos now outsell acoustic pianos by a large margin in the U.S. and world. Training students on acoustic piano to develop strength and touch, and then devoting a few lessons to exploring the capabilities and differences of digital pianos and keyboards, seems like the best of both worlds (if they are different worlds) to me. :D




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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Tue May 06, 2008 7:59 am

Here's a partial list of some of the potential advantages of digital pianos and keyboards over the acoustic piano (copied from another post of mine in another thread):

1) availability of multiple instrument voices in one instrument
2) lower space and floor strength requirements
3) computer connectivity for use of learning software
4) direct composing on the computer from the keyboard
5) kids like 'em and are more likely to practice (in at least some cases)
6) less costly new than a comparable new acoustic piano
7) no maintenance (tuning, reconditioning, etc.)
8) no pitch changes with varying room humidity and temperature
9) a larger community of current buyers
10) more rugged than an acoustic piano (most models)
11) ability to adjust the touch more easily (some models)
12) upgradability by simply flashing new software into the on-board ROM (most models)
13) more amenable to experimentation and creativity (mixing voices and sound effects)
14) lower "white elephant factor" if the student doesn't continue with the instrument
15) differences in sound with the acoustic piano can give us a different view of works written for the acoustic piano
16) greater usability in apartments and other places where one has to be concerned with neighbors hearing the sound
17) easy transportability

I thought it might be worthwhile reproducing the list here, since this is a thread in which we've discussed the topic thoroughly.
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Postby 112-1182392787 » Wed May 07, 2008 1:22 pm

Thank you, Dr. Zeigler. One can easily extrapolate some of the things a teacher might wish to teach, and why it might be useful to do so. These kinds of pianos seem to also be tools toward exploring music in various ways - free composition because of their recording capabilities for one.
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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Fri Mar 13, 2009 7:16 am

Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Editor wrote:Here's a partial list of some of the potential advantages of digital pianos and keyboards over the acoustic piano

A note from a frustrated visitor seeking keyboard lessons (NOT piano) and having problems finding any, suggested that I should comment further here. As I've said many times, piano and keyboards are NOT identical instruments, though they share enough similarities that they can be taught together; a trained pianist will have to learn something about the additional capabilities of the keyboard, while a keyboardist will have to stress developing finger strength if the student is to also play piano, among other differences. This person's frustrations also support what I've said several times in the past: there is an opportunity for piano teachers to broaden their student base here for a small amount of extra effort expended in learning the capabilities of keyboards.

By the way, when I talk about the "advantages of digital pianos and keyboards over the acoustic piano", I'm not implying that the acoustic piano doesn't have its own advantages. Chief among these might be: history, familiarity, a huge literature of music written for the acoustic piano, many people trained and training in it and a special sound and feel which at least some keyboards may not be able to duplicate fully. I hope the acoustic piano doesn't go the way of the harpsichord, becoming a footnote to the history of keyboard instruments. I also hope that we will recognize both the differences and relative advantages of both acoustic pianos and digital instruments and fully utilize the capabilities of each in teaching and learning.
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