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

Discuss the digital alternatives to the acoustic piano

Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Fri Dec 09, 2005 5:41 pm

Stretto wrote:Dr. Zeigler: You stated, "With enough electronics, it's possible now to get arbitrarily close to the sound of the piano . . . " I was curious, do you feel that it is possible to duplicate very closely the touch response of an acoustic piano. I haven't gone around testing the latest and best digital pianos that come close to matching acoustical pianos. I tried out a grand digital piano at a dealer 10 yrs. ago, so I'm sure a lot of improvements have been made. Now my curiousity is sparked to go test some recent digitals out. On the other hand, there is something about an acoustic piano I can't explain, or put a finger on but to me there are such subtle nuances in sound and touch that perhaps only future technology if at all can exactly duplicate and even then I have my reservations if that will ever happen.

The touch response can be pretty much duplicated these days, though only in the more expensive keyboards, not the ones that students would be likely to buy - unless they would be willing to spend enough to get an acoustic piano with the same amount of money. The ability of modern keyboards to duplicate the sound of a piano is now well within the individual variation in the sound of acoustic pianos. For example, a Steinway is generally brighter than a Mason & Hamlin; these both differ slightly in sound from a Yamaha. When comparing a good digital keyboard's sound with that of a piano, it's very much like comparing a Yamaha to a Steinway - a matter of personal taste.

I'm not arguing here that you can go out and buy a digital keyboard that will sound exactly like the acoustic piano you're used to. Rather, I am saying that a good keyboard will sound virtually identical to some acoustic pianos. In the end, it's probably pointless to try to convince people that a keyboard is better than an acoustic piano or vice versa. It's simply important to recognize that the current quality and power of digital keyboards has opened up new vistas for learning, teaching and experiencing music.
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Fri Dec 09, 2005 8:12 pm

This whole discussion has shifted from my call to emphasize what the ear can hear ahead of what the fingers can do, to acoustic vs. digital pianos. I think I said that I was not trying to argue such a black and white issue--only that I think the pace of learning should be governed by considering sound first. I also said that I was speaking primarily about traditional piano music.

To carry John's point a bit further, it's a fact that the modern piano is not what Beethoven or Mozart or Haydn had anyway, far less J. S. Bach. A sizable school of purists today insist that Mozart should only be played on replicas of the Viennese pianos of the 18th century, and that Bach oratorios and cantatas should be sung only by boy sopranos and counter tenors and his keyboard works performed only on vintage harpsichords, clavichords and mechanical action pipe organs with no more than three inches of wind pressure. When we play Clementi or Haydn or Mozart on a modern piano we are in fact transcribing the music to a different medium, just the same as when we use an electronic keyboard. And surely a really good Yamaha Clavinova is better than a broken down, out-of-tune Betsy Ross spinet.

But when Bartolomeo Cristofori came up with the idea of putting hammers on a harpsichord, his goal was to make the instrument capable of controlling dynamics by varying the finger pressure--the harpsichord couldn't do that, the piano can. And ever since that time (about 1700), all pianos--Viennese, English, uprights, squares, grands and spinets of all makes and sizes--have had this feature, and, excepting for the pedals, it is essentially the only variation in sound the pianist has under his control. The digital keyboard is a departure from that mechanism and is not yet the equal of the piano.

It is not true that the digital keyboard has come very close to duplicating the acoustical touch. A good digital faithfully varies the volume in response to the rapidity of key descent, but the piano does that and a lot more: various touches produce different responses in the wippen/jack/hammer mechanism, especially in fast light passagework where the 'break' (the point where jack trips out from under hammer knuckle) is not completed, nor does the key goes all the way down. I have yet to hear anyone play fast and light at the same time on a digital piano--one of the most important effects in Romantic piano music.

So the only thing I'm trying to say is that students ought above all to be conscious of the sounds they are making, even as they work diligently to train their hands, their reading skills, their memories, and so forth. An acoustical instrument is still--elitist or not--far and away the best medium for that.

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Postby Stretto » Sat Dec 10, 2005 7:35 am

Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Editor wrote:The question is not whether the digital keyboard can, or even should, be a better acoustic piano than an acoustic piano or whether the acoustic piano should be given all the capabilities of the digital keyboard, but rather, how best to utilize the unique qualities of each in piano training. I, for one, like both for different things.

I think, Dr. Zeigler, that I didn't see as clearly what you were getting at the first time around but if I understand you correctly in this and your other posts, we as teachers need to consider a broader spectrum beyond merely acoustic pianos and be open to the benefits and capabilities that electronic keyboards and such provide especially when used in conjunction with a computer. I also like the two for different things and see a lot of value in having both. After reading some articles about it on PEP previously, I realized if a person bought a keyboard for piano lessons with the intention of eventually getting an acoustic piano, the keyboard purchase would become an added benefit because of all the things one can do with it especially when hooked up to a computer.

___

My original question in starting this thread wasn't to debate which is better, an acoustic piano or a digital piano or keyboard but whether a teacher could effectively give piano lessons to a student who was primarly practicing on a keyboard. In regards to trying to avoid arguing about which is better, digital or acoustic, isn't that something people consider when making an instrument purchase, whether a keyboard will suffice for learning to play the piano? One has to almost determine which is better suited for piano lessons. I think people should be informed of the differences. Most people who are unfamilar with the differences, I'm sure don't see why an acoustic piano would be necessary in order to take piano lessons and don't see any reason why a keyboard shouldn't fill the bill.

I would still have to contend that although keyboards especially in conjunction with a computer have extraordinary capabilities, one can only justly learn how to play an acoustic piano if you have an acoustic piano to practice on. You can't practice producing and controlling the sound of an acoustic piano on a keyboard. I couldn't justify calling lessons piano lessons when teaching a student with a keyboard unless of course the student had access to a piano for a portion of their practice. That isn't to say, however, that I couldn't still teach a student with primarly a keyboard for practicing a great deal about music. Or that a student couldn't easily adapt to learning to play on an acoustic piano if they acquired access to one for regular practice after starting on a keyboard. Until then the student would essentially be learning to play music on a keyboard and may not sound as good at lessons trying to play their pieces on the teachers piano. That's why I would consider having such students play their pieces at lessons on a keyboard at least part of the lesson. I do think, however, it is still greatly worthwhile to take lessons.


So as teachers or if one was a teacher: What would one say to a student coming to you wanting to take piano lessons wondering if they would be able to learn to play the piano with a keyboard for their primary practice instrument?




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Postby 108-1121887355 » Sat Dec 10, 2005 9:08 am

I always ask if the family has a piano. In the few instances where they only have a keyboard, I explain that it may be alright for a start but they should consider purchasing a piano. I explain the differences. Sometimes there is a neighbor with a piano the student can use, and some parents are willling to explore options for using a piano at school, short term.
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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Sat Dec 10, 2005 10:03 am

Stretto wrote:My original question in starting this thread wasn't to debate which is better, an acoustic piano or a digital piano or keyboard but whether a teacher could effectively give piano lessons to a student who was primarly practicing on a keyboard. In regards to trying to avoid arguing about which is better, digital or acoustic, isn't that something people consider when making an instrument purchase, whether a keyboard will suffice for learning to play the piano? One has to almost determine which is better suited for piano lessons. I think people should be informed of the differences. Most people who are unfamilar with the differences, I'm sure don't see why an acoustic piano would be necessary in order to take piano lessons and don't see any reason why a keyboard shouldn't fill the bill.

Yes, my whole point, for a long time, has been that it's far better to have people take lessons, even on a keyboard, than not to have them take them at all for lack of an acoustic piano. I think you're right that learning to play piano requires, ultimately a piano, but I think it might be elitist or misguided to pretend that an acoustic piano, especially a poor one, is a better choice all the time and in every case. Although I have an excellent piano and several keyboards, I wouldn't want to part with any of them, because I use them in different ways.

One concern I have is that teachers who insist that only a piano will do may effectively turn off those people who want the capabilities and sounds of a good digital keyboard. Since most of us learned to play on an acoustic piano, it's easy to say that is the only way to learn the instrument, through unfamiliarity with keyboards. I often hear teachers pooh-pooh keyboards, even though kids love them. I think that's counterproductive.

By the way, I think this would have been a good topic for Topic of Note. Wish I had thought of it! :)
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Postby Stretto » Sat Dec 10, 2005 1:49 pm

I don't really think less of keyboards as inferior instruments to pianos. I would gladly give a student lessons who owned a small, inexpensive keyboard and nothing else. I could teach them a lot! I don't think not having a piano should deter someone from taking lessons. I would advise someone to try not to just get by with a keyboard long-term for piano lessons to save money unless that's all they could afford. If I didn't own a piano, and my kids wanted to learn, I would most likely be one to buy an inexpensive keyboard at least to start or even long term if that's all I had the money for which would definitely be the case right now. I would just want them to learn everything they possibly could with the instrument they had.

I would like to know more and be able to explore all the capabilities of digital keyboards and synthesizers especially in conjunction with a computer. I would love to have a sound system and sophisticated recording equipment. When it comes to keyboards I admit I know very little about using them to their full capability. As a teacher, in order to teach someone to use a keyboard to it's full potential, I would need to learn how myself. I've seen music books designed for learning to play the keyboard. I think it may be more effective to take specifically keyboard lessons or at least a little of each piano lessons and keyboard lessons to learn the full capacity of one's instrument. As fewer and fewer people I wonder will be able to afford pianos or simply desire a keyboard over a piano, I guess a teacher is left with the decision to teach soley acoustic piano or gain enough knowledge to teach keyboard effectively. Although as I said, I would love to be able to explore the capabilities of electronic music for myself personally. I don't really have a desire to teach keyboard or electronic music (unless it were in conjunction with composition lessons) because I love teaching kids how to play the instrument we call an acoustic piano. There's just something I prefer personally about it and the sounds that can be produced on that instrument specifically. I might add that there is something I can't stand about personally trying to mimic those same sounds on a keyboard or digital piano. I get a feeling of frustration because the sounds I enjoy producing on a piano aren't there. That's not to say I wouldn't enjoy producing the wonderful sounds that a keyboard is capable of. I might have to change my tune if I can't get students who have access to pianos for practice and as I said I would gladly and enthusiastically teach a student with a keyboard a lot of wonderful and extremely worthwhile and fullfilling things about music. I think it would be unfair to mislead a student with a keyboard into thinking they are learning how to play the piano effectively, just so they are aware of the differences. Call me an elitist if you like (it sound like a compliment to me), but that's just me!

P.S. It's a little scary if Dr. Leland already feels in the minority, where that will leave me 30 years from now!




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Postby 108-1121887355 » Sat Dec 10, 2005 3:43 pm

P.S. It's a little scary if Dr. Leland already feels in the minority, where that will leave me 30 years from now!

Join the minority club!

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Postby Stretto » Sat Dec 10, 2005 4:45 pm

There may not be a club by then! :laugh:
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Postby 108-1121887355 » Sat Dec 10, 2005 4:55 pm

Surely not for me! :laugh:
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Sat Dec 10, 2005 5:31 pm

I think we're beginning to come around to a consensus on this, namely that digital keyboards and acoustical pianos both have their places, with each being suitable for certain kinds of music.

Many private teachers today will have to branch out and consider giving lessons to students who wish to learn pop literature, movie and TV themes and the like, if they wish to build a studio. These students will probably prefer a digital instrument and the teacher should be familiar with them.

On the other hand, if the teacher sets up shop with the understanding that training will be done in the traditional way, emphasizing 'classical' literature and the technique needed to play it, then I don't think it's elitist at all to tell people that the absence of a suitable acoustic piano will be a serious handicap, anymore than it's elitist for a soccer coach to tell people they can't practice with a balloon. I had personal experience with this myself at age 9: when I first started lessons all we had was an old pump organ, and after a few months my teacher said we absolutely HAD to have a piano. I wasn't getting anywhere because I couldn't do anything with dynamics, voicing and phrasing. (Our church loaned us the money for a used upright.)

So I'm not unfamiliar with the fact that economics is a major consideration for families, and that a small digital is a lot less expensive than a piano. Many people who sincerely want good training for their kids and are willing to oversee their effort can't understand why one isn't as good as the other, and maybe we just have to make compromises sometimes. I don't know what else we can do except do our best to accommodate these folks, trying to encourage them to perhaps find a piano somewhere outside the home for the time being. Don't forget that they can rent one, too.

But sometimes it also depends on what people want to do, and how high a priority they place on music training. After all, many of the families who say they can't afford a piano think nothing of maxing out their credit cards on camcorders, HDTVs and $40,000 SUVs--each case has to be negotiated with by the teacher on its own merits.

Nevertheless, I believe it is a mistake to think that really good training in classical piano playing can get very far without an adequate acoustical instrument. At the risk of boring everybody with technical jargon, I would like to spell out precisely why the touch of the piano is so unique. (I will describe a grand action, but the vertical action works essentially the same except that springs are substituted for gravity).

When the key is pressed, a system of levers begins to raise the hammer, contacting a point on the hammer shank called the knuckle.

When the key is about halfway down, the back end of it contacts the damper lever and pushes up the damper assembly; so at this point an extra amount of weight is added to the stroke.

When the key nears the bottom, the repetition lever is intercepted, causing the repetition lever spring to compress and add more tension to the stroke.

Just before the key hits the keybed, the jack (the vertical piece in contact with the hammer knuckle) trips forward and out of the way of the knuckle, allowing the hammer to fall back and catch on the backcheck, which is on the end of the key. The finger feels a very definite slight impulse and release at this point (called the 'letoff'), which is one of the most important events in the 'feel' of touch control.

Some variations: (1) If the pedal is held down while the key is pressed, the effort of raising the damper is absent because all of the dampers are already up. (2) In fast, light playing the key may depress only enough to raise the damper but not enough to cycle through the letoff. (3) In slow playing the key will descend at different speeds during the same stroke--typically starting slowly and flipping through the letoff point more quickly. (4) In rapid repeated notes the key does not have time to come all the way up, nor does it need to, thanks to the ingeniousness of the action design.

OK, everybody, wake up! All this jargon is meant only to explain that an acoustical piano action is far more than a certain key weight, or having volume geared to the speed of the key descent. Different things happen during the stroke which change the feel of it in very subtle ways that permit the player to exercise a kind of control that the great piano composers (especially Debussy and Ravel) have exploited to the full. I don't know of any digital piano on the market that can simulate all these things.

I can already hear everybody yelling at me, "What difference does all that make to a 6-year-old trying to play 'Three Blind Mice'??!!" The answer is, "More than you think." Maybe not a whole lot right now, but if you're working with her on musical expression it will soon make a whole lot of difference. Of course we're not conscious of all the little sensations our nervous system is adjusting to; even skilled pianists may not ever think about it--it's automatic. But it's there, and it does make a major difference over time, if one is trying to play the classics.

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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Sat Dec 10, 2005 6:10 pm

Dr. Bill Leland wrote:I think we're beginning to come around to a consensus on this, namely that digital keyboards and acoustical pianos both have their places, with each being suitable for certain kinds of music.

Many private teachers today will have to branch out and consider giving lessons to students who wish to learn pop literature, movie and TV themes and the like, if they wish to build a studio. These students will probably prefer a digital instrument and the teacher should be familiar with them.

On the other hand, if the teacher sets up shop with the understanding that training will be done in the traditional way, emphasizing 'classical' literature and the technique needed to play it, then I don't think it's elitist at all to tell people that the absence of a suitable acoustic piano will be a serious handicap, anymore than it's elitist for a soccer coach to tell people they can't practice with a balloon.

This is not the first time that Dr. Leland and I have disagreed, respectfully and with consideration for one another's views, and won't be the last, I'm sure. I look forward to these discussions, because they're illuminating in many ways.

I don't think that it's particularly true that a keyboard is suitable for one kind of music and a piano for another. I agree with Dr. Leland that certain aspects of the literature (written for piano!) are best interpreted on the piano. There are certainly things in other parts of the literature that only a keyboard can do. Where I take exception is the idea that you can only play classical literature on a piano and only play "modern" literature on a keyboard. I personally wouldn't have the temerity to tell a student that he couldn't attempt the Romantic literature on a keyboard, anymore than I would tell someone interested in "new age" or "electronic" music that they couldn't try them on an acoustic piano. For me, the important thing is that the student is learning and stretching his mind to new areas. To the extent that the teacher can help that process by being familiar with the full breadth of musical expression available, I think that's only to the good.

I don't think the sports analogy is a particularly good one. All sports have organizations which set rigid rules as to the nature of equipment used and the ways in which it can be legally used. The coach is merely assuring that the player plays according to accepted rules. The last time I looked, the arts were supposed to be areas of expression where personal exploration is encouraged. Of course, if you're a professional recording artist, you may have to pay attention to the unwritten rules of the expectations of critics, in order to be able to sell CD's, but I don't think many students have to worry about that.

As I've said, the important thing is that the piano and the keyboard have some things in common and some differences which can enrich our musical experiences. I think we'd be foolish to throw that away, for ourselves and our students.
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Postby Stretto » Mon Dec 12, 2005 7:58 am

I think we would all agree that keyboards are a valuable tool in enhancing the learning process of creating music. I think it is important for teachers to utilize keyboards and computers and even other electronic music in their studios as an educational tool in order to teach students what is possible, what can be created musically, to spark creativity, and aid in learning music. I think it is important for students considering a career in music to be knowledgable on the use of this equipment to compete in the music world and aid in their careers. Colleges are utilizing this equipment in training students in theory, ear-training, composition, etc. A student would benefit from knowing how to use this equipment before they got there.

In my original question, however, I was targeting those who are unaware of the differences between keyboards, digital pianos, and acoustic pianos. I was targeting those who want to sign up for piano lessons or sign their child up for piano lessons who think that there is no difference between playing a keyboard and playing a piano. Some people think that a student can practice and learn just fine with a keyboard or even a digital piano and then turn around and automatically be able to play a piano. I would like to hear some experiences from students who have been able learn on a keyboard or even a digital piano and when presented the opportunity to play on a piano are able to play it with no problems. What if as a teacher I only had a keyboard or digital piano to teach piano lessons with and my students owned keyboards? Let's say in my studio that my students had an opportunity to perform on a piano for family and friends, or for a recital, or a piano competition. Would my students who took lessons from me on a keyboard and practiced at home on a keyboard be able to perform just fine on a piano in these instances? The sound produced and the touch are so different between keyboards/digital pianos and acoustic pianos that I don't think a student can automatically play fluently on an acoustic piano having primarly or only practiced on a keyboard (or a digital piano). I had 2 sisters taking lessons I mentioned earlier who practiced at home on a keyboard and came to lessons and "flubbed up" a lot because on my piano the keys respond differently, the most obvious being more difficult to press. As one encounters differences in the sound and touch of different pianos themselves, the difference would be even more extreme between keyboards and acoustic pianos.

Dr. Leland, Thank you for taking the time to explain some of the details of the interworkings of an acoustic piano. I also do like your point about trying to play soccer with a balloon. That gave me a good laugh. I can understand that you mean one cannot "play the game" effectively without the correct equipment. Here's an analogy that explains what the difference "feels like" for me personally between playing on a keyboard/digital piano and an acoustic piano: Say I had a basketball. If I had a plan in mind of how high and far I wanted to see it go, bounced it and it went according to plan, the results would be a feeling of reward and satisfaction that it did what I had in mind. If the basketball were flat and I bounced it with the same plan in mind, it would land on the ground with a thud. Real satisfying and rewarding, right? That's how I feel when playing a keyboard, like the keys are just landing with a thud. It doesn't give me the satisfaction and reward that playing on an acoustic piano does. That's not to say that producing sounds on a keyboard aren't rewarding in other ways, just completely different. On a keyboard I have to see the reward in the sounds it can produce or the other great capabilities it has that a piano doesn't have. I don't get the SAME reward in sound and touch, however, as on an acoustic piano.

In this thread the point I am trying to make is I think it is a teacher's responsibility to make people aware of the differences between keyboards, digital pianos, and acoustic pianos. Teacher's need to educate people wishing to take lessons or wanting to sign their child up for lessons of all the wonderful capabilities of acoustic pianos, keyboards, and digital pianos and the advantages of each. I could see where teachers maybe need to stop putting down keyboards as inferior but rather excite and enthuse students and parents of all the wonderful uses they have in learning music and creating music. Dr. Ziegler mentioned that owning both and acoustic piano and a keyboard would be the ideal. Perhaps teachers need to encourage students and parents to do so. My main point in this whole thread is that people need to be educated on the differences between keyboards, digital pianos, and acoustic pianos so they can make an informed choice.




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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Mon Dec 12, 2005 8:28 am

Stretto wrote:In this thread the point I am trying to make is I think it is a teacher's responsibility to make people aware of the differences between keyboards, digital pianos, and acoustic pianos. Teacher's need to educate people wishing to take lessons or wanting to sign their child up for lessons of all the wonderful capabilities of acoustic pianos, keyboards, and digital pianos and the advantages of each. I could see where teachers maybe need to stop putting down keyboards as inferior but rather excite and enthuse students and parents of all the wonderful uses they have in learning music and creating music. Dr. Ziegler mentioned that owning both and acoustic piano and a keyboard would be the ideal. Perhaps teachers need to encourage students and parents to do so. My main point in this whole thread is that people need to be educated on the differences between keyboards, digital pianos, and acoustic pianos so they can make an informed choice.

This is an excellent summary of my position on this matter, too. I have been "advocating" the use of keyboards in the learning process not because I believe they are "superior" (or, for that matter "inferior") to an acoustic piano, but because they open up new vistas for expression and learning. I have said as much in previous posts. I don't believe that keyboards will replace the acoustic piano anytime soon, nor do I believe they should, necessarily. As I've also said, I don't believe keyboards should be judged by the standards of an acoustic piano - any more than anybody here would say that acoustic pianos should be expected to meet the same standards that a keyboard satisfies. They are different instruments which happen to have a synergistic overlap that allows them to be taught, at least at the beginning levels, in much the same way.

I think those teachers who take the position that one can only learn piano "properly" on an acoustic piano and refuse to teach keyboards (perhaps from lack of personal experience) are doing themselves and potential students a disservice. Such an insistence could well cost them good students. I'm sure that many visitors to this board would disagree with me on that view and can offer good arguments in support of their position. I'm just hoping that this very good discussion has helped clarify some of the options available for teaching.
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Postby Stretto » Mon Dec 12, 2005 9:14 am

Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Editor wrote:I'm just hoping that this very good discussion has helped clarify some of the options available for teaching.



. . . and learning!


:)




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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Mon Dec 12, 2005 4:18 pm

As John pointed out, I have to admit that my balloon analogy was a little extreme. But, Stretto, your point is one of the most valuable of all, namely that whatever the teacher's attitude and preference, all have the duty to understand and point out the differences between the two types of instruments.

One of the major differences between the piano and the cheaper keyboards is key dip, i.e., the distance the key travels from its rest point to the keybed. The standard dip on an acoustic piano is a little over 3/8", and some of the smaller keyboards travel about half of that. Differences in key dip can do more than anything else to change the feel of the keys.

But this is not only a difference between acoustic and digital pianos; it very frequently causes major problems between different standard pianos as well: one of the commonest changes in touch that occurs when an action goes out of proper regulation is shallow key dip, due to compression of the felt punchings under the balance point of the keys which allows them to sink. (This is why I recommended sighting down the keyboard for dips in the level of the keys, in my article on checking regulation.) It's often the major thing at fault when the action feels heavy--it's not really heavier, but it feels clumsy because you can't make the key go down far enough.

It's also one of the reasons I try to steer people away from small spinets: the keys are so short and stubby that the loss of proper leverage is sometimes compensated by a key dip of half an inch or even more.

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