The pitfalls of digital pianos - Pedalling

Discuss the digital alternatives to the acoustic piano

Postby Christine » Fri Mar 31, 2006 8:48 am

I could certainly write a book on this topic, but I won't (just yet anyway :) ) I have been encountering problems with students and their digital keyboards or pianos. I truly wish everyone had an acoustic piano (I am a purist in this department) but I know that in some cases, "something" is better than "nothing" and many people cannot afford a decent acoustic. Often, the parents know nothing about music or playing any instrument themselves, and are very reluctant to spend the money up front for their child because they are not sure if the child will continue. I understand this completely (I ran into this same issue when my kids started the violin). So, I often get phoned by parents wanting information about lessons for their child, and this topic often comes up. I have a few students with digitals, or even "keyboards" (help!) and I do give my honest opinion up front that if this is the route they choose, then they will need to eventually "upgrade" to an acoustic. I have seen this most recently with a student I have that simply cannot "sink" to the bottom of the keys when she comes for lessons. She plays only on the "tops" of the keys, each time she hits a key, and can get barely any sound. She is also having tremendous difficulty pedalling. Her current piece needs and sounds beautiful when pedalled, but she is simply not capable of it, because she has told me that with her pedal at home, she can practically "hold" it down the entire time without even having to change (oh my). So I said for now, forget pedalling. She just cannot practice that at home until she gets a "real" piano. I know that some digitals are better than others, but she just cannot advance at this moment in time. Anyone else encountering these problems?
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Postby Stretto » Fri Mar 31, 2006 9:20 am

I had a couple students (siblings) with only an unweighted keyboard. At the lesson, they always had trouble playing on my piano as you said, they could barely get a sound out of a key and couldn't press the key down far enough. Also the worst was that they played at a musical recital their church offers for kids at the church to perform their instruments/voice. When they went to perform at the recital, they struggled to press a key down on the piano and quite a few if most of the notes never or barely sounded on the pieces they performed.

If anyone asks me again to teach them on an unweighted keyboard, I will probably give them their lesson on my unweighted keyboard rather than my piano. :)

I didn't have any pedaling problems because they quit after a couple years of lessons before we really got into use of the pedal. Again, since pedals can be hooked up to keyboards (I have one for mine), I would explain that I can give them keyboard/music lessons but not piano lessons unless they had a piano to practice on.

On the student with the pedaling problem with the keyboard, I would have her at least "pretend" to pedal the correct way in the right places with the music so she's at least getting in the habit of mimicking the movement.




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Postby Christine » Fri Mar 31, 2006 12:15 pm

Thanks Stretto for the insight.

With regards to the pedalling, I am thinking my student has more of what I call a "sewing machine" pedal, which of course is not even close to a real pedal. I will have to confirm this with her. I will still have her try to practice pedalling at home though. She does always comment, however, how "different" my pedal is compared to hers (as well as the piano in general!) You are right in the fact that students with only a keyboard would probably quit long before getting to the stage of pedalling...this student is certainly the exception. Her parents originally had the idea that they only wanted their children to be able "to know a few chords so they could sit down and play anything they want, wherever or whenever a pianist was needed, without the unneccesary scales and technical exercises, or exams". I was reluctant to even teach her and her sibling at first, because they wanted to learn to "play" without the "work". I believe I have since changed their minds on this and they now realize that simply "knowing a few chords" will not a pianist make. So, they still don't have a piano, but maybe one day...I think the kids now really want one, after playing on mine.

Thanks Stretto.
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Postby Cy Shuster » Fri Mar 31, 2006 6:46 pm

There are many differences in the physics of digital and acoustic keyboards, such as the leverage (based on the length of the key) and controlling the hammer.

Steinway concert grands have keys about two feet long. Typical acoustic keys are about a foot long. The keys on the smallest digital could be five inches long. With a digital, you're playing very close to the pivot point, which means less control.

Stick a finger out straight, and press on your fingernail. It's easy to move, right? Now press halfway up your finger, and keep moving up to your knuckle. The closer to the fulcrum, the less leverage you have. When you play between the black keys on the smallest digitals, you're probably less than an inch from the fulcrum, and so the pressure is high, and the angle of the key is steep.

Now let's think about the action and the hammer. On an acoustic, it's possible to press the key down slowly without any sound; not so on a digital. An acoustic requires that you generate enough force, through a series of levers, to sling the hammer all the way to the string. You need to get calibrated to the amount of force required for soft, medium, and loud blows. It's like shooting a basketball: you feel the weight of the ball and its inertia, and give just enough force to hit the basket. There's a difference in inertia between soft and loud.

With a digital (most, anyway), any amount of force gives some sound. The inertia is almost zero in either case. Many of them work like a light switch: either on or off, with no variation in volume.

An old, worn-out acoustic piano that needs a different amount of force on every key is a bad choice for a beginner, in my opinion (stack some nickels on each key, and see how much force it takes), because of the need to learn how to calibrate the force used. There's also often side play and lost motion in the keys, which also adds difficulty.

There are benefits to digitals, such as headphones, and the ability to record, and some have full-size, weighted keyboards. Some even have escapement actions. And if the student intends to play only a digital keyboard, then the instrument isn't hindering their progress.

But if acoustic pianos are the intended target, at some point digitals will hold them back.

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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Sat Apr 01, 2006 1:41 pm

Another thing that makes a difference is key dip. Most acoustic pianos have a dip of 3/8+ (10mm) or so. A lot of digitals don't go down nearly that far.

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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Mon Apr 03, 2006 7:34 am

(Sigh) We have discussed this topic rather extensively in another thread in this same forum, Keyboards and Piano Lessons. As I said there, it makes no sense to argue about whether a $200 digital keyboard is as "good" (for learning or playing) as a $20,000 grand piano. They are different instruments which happen to share enough attributes that they can, in principle, be taught to some degree in the same lessons.

The piano is an entirely mechanical device, developed to overcome the limitations of the harpsichord. Although I suppose some might argue this point, there have been no major changes in the workings of the piano in probably a 100 years or more - refinements, yes, changes, no. The digital keyboard is a product of the integrated circuit revolution, less than twenty years old, and has been developing rapidly over that period. Today, if I had to make a decision about whether I would spend $2000 on a digital piano or $2000 on an acoustic piano, I think I might choose the digital piano, just because, for the same price, it has a greater number of capabilities (note that I did not use the word "qualities", which is a different, and more complex, issue). I'm sure I'd choose the keyboard if all I had was $200 and really wanted to start piano lessons.

I think the points made in this thread that a keyboard or digital piano may not provide the perfect environment for learning the acoustic piano are completely valid. However, the digital piano is not going to go away. In fact, I can see a day, not too far in the future, when the number of people who routinely play digital pianos will exceed that of those who play acoustic piano. I don't think the acoustic piano will go away either - anymore than the harpsichord went away - but there is a possibility that, as digitals develop further, the acoustic piano may be relegated to a secondary role, much as the piano largely supplanted the harpsichord.

I don't really wish to dispute the points made here in this thread, but merely want to point out the opportunity that digitals provide for the teacher to encourage practice, get more people in lessons, provide opportunities for composing and much more. Ideally, teachers will teach elements of both to students. Indeed, many teachers do just that. If the teacher takes into account both the differences and similarities in her teaching, she can help herself and her students.
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Mon Apr 03, 2006 10:00 am

It seems to me that the ideal criterion for choosing a keyboard instrument should be repertoire. No one plays Rachmaninoff on a harpsichord, but since the big period instrument revival of the 20th century there has been a world-wide movement to perform Bach and other earlier composers on the harpsichord and clavichord, which are now being not only restored but manufactured new. There are shawms, viol de gambas, recorders and other early instruments in vogue as well, and you can hear performances of Handel's "Messiah" with smaller choirs and orchestras, etc.
At the same time, music from Beethoven to Ravel and Prokofieff can only be done full justice on a good acoustic piano (but we still play Bach, Haydn and Mozart on 9-foot Steinways instead of 18th century Viennese pianos!), while contemporary Rock needs the capabilities of sophisticated electronic technology.

The problem in this Forum, and the reason this keeps coming up, is that piano teachers still usually teach traditional repertoire on acoustic pianos, while many of their students' families own--and perhaps can only afford--a small digital instrument which does not have the refinements of touch control, weighted and balanced keys, or perhaps even a pedal.

But, really, this is only an extreme case of an old problem: as Cy pointed out, there are an awful lot of acoustic pianos in students' homes that are far worse than a reasonably priced digital (and by the way, the great curse of performing is that of having to play on whatever happens to be there--we can't carry our instrument around with us like singers, flutists or violinists). So the student is changing instruments for the lesson or recital anyway. Teachers are going to have to simply learn to deal with this unless the situation is so impossible that the student isn't learning. It's really an old problem, you know, with a new electronic face.

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Postby Stretto » Mon Apr 03, 2006 1:12 pm

Perhaps an ideal would be for a teacher to have a decent digital piano (if one can afford it) in addition to an acoustic. The students and even the parents could stand to be educated on the advantages of both (which Dr. Zeigler pointed out many teachers are utilizing both).

I just have a cheap, unweighted keyboard I actually bought in the late 80's at a wholesale club for $200. I bought it when I had to sell my piano moving from apt. to apt. (which I regret some that I didn't try to keep my piano perhaps store it at my parents house or something. I sold it dirt cheap :( - a long story that side tracks from the thread). I was able to keep up my skill better than if I had nothing. I think everyone even if one cannot afford anything but a digital piano deserves a chance to learn music. I wouldn't want to deny someone a chance to learn all that's possible about music just because all they had was an unweighted keyboard. I mentioned in the other thread, a ton can be learned about music on an unweighted keyboard - just about everything related to music perhaps except learning the technique one needs to play an acoustic piano. Also, perhaps missing out on some of the ability for subtle expression that an acoustic piano is capable of (which is a lot of what makes it so addicting to me!).

I would like to get a decent digital piano, however. One can hook up headphones (I've discovered it's a good way to block out noisy kids and play to your hearts content - very useful if you're a mom!) and practice, play, or compose, improvise without disturbing others in the house (say if everyone else is in bed). Although I haven't gotten too heavily into all the possibilities of hooking a digital up to a computer, I have an idea that it is probably less problematic to make recordings on computer with a digital than an acoustic. I tried a $500 Casio just a teeny bit at an electronics store and I have to admit, the touch was more impressive than I would have expected since it was touch sensitive. If I were to go the route of digital, I would try to get weighted keys and the full number of keys an acoustic piano has even if having to spend a little more initially (or at least shortly after starting on an unweighted keyboard and determining if one likes it). I think one would be much happier in the long run than with an unweighted keyboard/and or insufficient number of keys to play some music. (During my keyboard only days, I had to pretend I was hitting and hearing the "invisible" notes that the keyboard was lacking (notes in the music that went above or below the keys in my keyboard).

I believe for composing, technology is getting increasingly to the point, one can easily compose and include instrument sounds without even needing a keyboard at all, unless one wants to enter the notes via a keyboard.

The only experience I can say from is the story I mentioned above where the students had an unweighted keyboard and had great difficulty pressing the keys down on an acoustic to even make a sound. This meant that at the lesson, I couldn't really tell how well they were doing technically since they could have been playing perfectly at home but falling apart at the seams at the lesson. I couldn't get a good idea of their progress due to this. I'm sure it was more frustrating for them at the lesson as well not being able to play well for me and I know they didn't equate the fact that it was the difference in touch between the acoustic piano and they keyboard that was causing the problem. I really felt badly for them about the recital experience also. (Imagine playing an acoustic piano in front of a crowd at your first recital and not being able to press down a key and not be able to give the performance you desired or even realize it was practicing on an unweighted keyboard that caused the trouble). If the student would have had an opportunity to try the piano out ahead of the recital, this may have helped some.

I guess a lot of whether one needs or chooses an acoustic vs. digital depends on what one's goal is in learning to play. *To play an acoustic piano, one needs an acoustic piano to learn on.* But one could and should still sieze the opportunity to learn as much about music as possible rather than not learning at all just because hindered by not having an acoustic piano. The most important thing, I think, is that students/parents should be educated on the differences between these instruments, not to say one or the other is inferior. I think that's the biggest problem is that many are not aware there is a difference. PEP is a great place to gain an education on the differences between acoustics, digitals, keyboards and their capabilities!
:)

One could say, "here we go again" on this discussion. I didn't mean to get into a debate again but I think the thread was started to ask for specific experiences teachers have had in teaching kids who have something other than an acoustic to practice on and how to go about teaching these students most effectively.




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Postby Christine » Mon Apr 03, 2006 5:46 pm

Thank-you Stretto,

I certainly did not mean to "kick a dead horse" on this issue, but I just wanted to know if other teachers face this situation with their students (maybe I missed the purpose of this forum). I certainly feel like digitals do have their place, but I was actually wanting to know if other teachers face this situation with their students and how best to deal with it. That's all.
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Postby Stretto » Mon Apr 03, 2006 7:36 pm

Christine,

The discussion on "Keyboards and Piano Lessons" that Dr. Zeigler provided a link for (which has been one of the best discussions on the board since I've been a member at least) had a wide range of good points about the values of digital and acoustic pianos in lessons. My own thinking on the subject actually was bent more in the direction of digitals having their own value and place and the discussion made me more accepting and changed my thinking about calling keyboards and digitals an inferior instrument. You can read some of what I and others wrote on that thread (lots of reading!) if interested. I'm sure you have. The reason I made the comment about how one could say "here we go again" was I think those of us who participated in the other thread on the subject were maybe trying to avoid going over the same debate again, which I might add again was an excellent discussion I would encourage everyone to read!

My last post was trying to help direct everyone back to the original reason for the thread which I intrepreted to mean that you were wanting to compare actual experiences other teachers have had in teaching students with keyboards and digital pianos and specifically how to help a student learn to pedal when practicing on a keyboard pedal at home.

I am pretty certain we haven't really had a thread consisting primarly of replies with specific examples teachers have had with students who have keyboards and digitals in trying to teach them although there's been some mention of a few examples scattered throughout the other thread, it was more of a general discussion of the values of digitals and acoustics rather than a "list" of experiences teachers have had with students. One of the main reasons I became a member on PEP was to compare "notes" with other piano teachers and compare things like, "anyone else have the same experience?" I am glad you joined on and look forward to some good threads "comparing notes". I hope other teachers would add any experiences and tips of the best way to teach students who have keyboards and digitals so we can help those students who do reach the fullest musical potential. :)




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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Tue Apr 04, 2006 8:27 am

Dr. Bill Leland wrote:It seems to me that the ideal criterion for choosing a keyboard instrument should be repertoire. No one plays Rachmaninoff on a harpsichord, but since the big period instrument revival of the 20th century there has been a world-wide movement to perform Bach and other earlier composers on the harpsichord and clavichord, which are now being not only restored but manufactured new.

At the same time, music from Beethoven to Ravel and Prokofieff can only be done full justice on a good acoustic piano (but we still play Bach, Haydn and Mozart on 9-foot Steinways instead of 18th century Viennese pianos!), while contemporary Rock needs the capabilities of sophisticated electronic technology.

While I agree in certain senses with Dr. Leland's points here, let me reiterate what I said in the Keyboards and Piano Lessons thread. I disagree with the idea that, because Bach works were written for harpsichord or Rachmaninov works for the acoustic piano, that they should only be played on those instruments. As Dr. Leland points out, we play Bach mostly on modern pianos, not Viennese pianos or the harpsichord. We do this not because it is "right" or "wrong", but because renditions of these works on the piano speak to us in important, but different, ways than renditions on the instruments for which these works were written.

Many of us still remember the remarkable recordings of Bach works by Wendy Carlos, done on one of the first crude "synthesizers" (the predecessor of the digital piano). The album, "Switched On Bach", which appeared in the early 1970's, shows Carlos on the cover in a Bach-era powdered wig standing in front of a massive "home-built" synthesizer with patch cords running everywhere. When it appeared, critics characterized "Switched On Bach" with words like "brilliant", "revelatory", and "awe-inspiring". My point here is that this album showed us things in Bach works that recordings on the piano or harpsichord didn't. And, this was all done on a synthesizer with a tiny fraction of the power present in even the simplest digital keyboard of today. It's not the instrument that makes notes on paper music, it's the performer and what he does with the resources of the instrument available to him. Each performer and each instrument can speak to us in different ways.

Digital pianos are used in a lot more than contemporary rock. Most music in contemporary, modern, new age, easy listening and several other genres embody and embrace the digital piano. These works can be played to excellent effect on the acoustic piano as well.

Although I'm an unabashed lover of acoustic piano music, I keep "beating this dead horse" because I think teachers who take the view that only an acoustic piano will do are both missing the boat and a great opportunity. It is particularly disconcerting if teachers take this position simply from lack of knowledge, training or familiarity with digital instruments. When one considers that the price of an acoustic piano is increasing steadily due to increased labor and material costs (not to mention the price of mantaining it after purchase), while the price of digital pianos is dropping rapidly for a given amount of capability, it seems that digital pianos will become increasingly attractive for those who wish to take lessons.

As Christine has rightly done in this thread, it is perfectly fine to point out the differences between learning the acoustic piano and learning the digital keyboard or piano. These are real and need to be addressed. However, there are even more areas where learning one instrument can help in learning the other. This is a topic on which I could write a book as well (and have written a PEP article on). I just hope that teachers will give some thought to how they could integrate into their curricula the valuable lessons, technical and interpretational, that can be learned from the digital piano, especially in light of the rapid growth in the power of the digital piano and the number of people who play or would like to play it. :)




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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Wed Apr 05, 2006 9:37 am

The reason I mentioned not playing Rachmaninoff, Chopin, et al on a harpsichord is simply because it would be impossible without a damper pedal and the 88-note range of the piano--you'd sooner or later go off both ends of the keyboard!

This discussion seems to have crystalized one of my misgivings about digital pianos. No argument here that the early synthesizers have led to sophisticated instruments that are very often much better than either some of the old acoustic clunkers lying around or much of the cheap junk being sold new under the name 'piano'. But I do have one major gripe, which concerns musical interpretation: "Switched-on Bach" and similar recordings were entertaining, but they were the worst thing that ever happened to poor old J.S.B. A whole generation has grown up believing that Bach is supposed to sound like an endless succession of bullets. This is all wrong, and it's one reason a lot of people say they hate Bach.

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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Wed Apr 05, 2006 11:07 am

Dr. Bill Leland wrote:But I do have one major gripe, which concerns musical interpretation: "Switched-on Bach" and similar recordings were entertaining, but they were the worst thing that ever happened to poor old J.S.B. A whole generation has grown up believing that Bach is supposed to sound like an endless succession of bullets. This is all wrong, and it's one reason a lot of people say they hate Bach.

Dr. Bill L.

You've obviously never heard me play Bach, if you believe "Switched-On Bach" is the worst thing that ever happened to "poor old J.S.B."! :laugh:

You may be right about the limitations of the Carlos synthesizer recordings. After all, they were the first mass appeal Bach recordings ever made and the first ones made with a synthesizer (a Moog, actually). However, they are also probably the only recordings of Bach that most people in the '70's had ever heard, period, let alone liked! I guess this sort of fits in with my view that its better to have people experience and like classical music enough to be motivated to explore it further (and better) than not to explore it at all.

By the way, I have heard a tremendous amount of Bach, both live and on CD, and own probably close to 50 different Bach CD's. I like the Carlos recordings, precisely because they are different in approach and sound. They may not be what old JSB intended (or even imagined), but they still speak to us (or me, at least) in their own way. I presume that all the people who made Switched-On Bach a triple platinum album did so because they liked it, rather than because they "hate Bach."
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Postby Stretto » Wed Apr 05, 2006 12:21 pm

Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Editor wrote:
Dr. Bill Leland wrote:But I do have one major gripe, which concerns musical interpretation: "Switched-on Bach" and similar recordings were entertaining, but they were the worst thing that ever happened to poor old J.S.B. A whole generation has grown up believing that Bach is supposed to sound like an endless succession of bullets. This is all wrong, and it's one reason a lot of people say they hate Bach.

Dr. Bill L.

You've obviously never heard me play Bach, if you believe "Switched-On Bach" is the worst thing that ever happened to "poor old J.S.B."! :laugh:

Dr. Zeigler,
Could you post a recording of yourself playing Bach on your digital? I'd be interested. :)

I think it would be interesting also to hear the difference of the same piece done by the same person on an unweighted keyboard, a decent digital piano, and an acoustic piano. Anyone up to it? This may be an interesting thing to do at a recital (have the students play their pieces on each) and then at the end talk about the differences and take a poll from the audience and students of their preferences. Sounds like a good opportunity to educate students/parents on the differences if you ask me.

When I knew next to nothing about "classical" music, I did say once to a teacher, "Bach is boring" . . . until I played it and studied some things about Bach and his music.

I've always wondered if Bach was around in this century instead, what kind of music he would be composing and what he would use for his instrument of choice - perhaps a digital piano? He might have been famous a rock star or country music composer. One never knows. If we could speak with him today, he might say, "what is everyone doing listening to that old stuff of mine still after all these years and what's all the fuss about?" Where do you think he would stand on the digital/acoustic "debate"?

I have a couple questions to add to this thread from the perspective of a teacher related to teaching students who have keyboards or digital pianos. I'll have to get back to it this week, hopefully. Stay tuned!

P. S. - Dr. Zeigler, Depending on where this thread takes us, you may end up writing another article, "Keyboards and Digitals in Teaching and Learning, Part 2"!




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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Wed Apr 05, 2006 12:57 pm

Stretto wrote:
Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Editor wrote:You've obviously never heard me play Bach, if you believe "Switched-On Bach" is the worst thing that ever happened to "poor old J.S.B."! :laugh:

Dr. Zeigler,
Could you post a recording of yourself playing Bach on your digital? I'd be interested. :)


I've always wondered if Bach was around in this century instead, what kind of music he would be composing and what he would use for his instrument of choice - perhaps a digital piano? He might have been famous a rock star or country music composer. One never knows. If we could speak with him today, he might say, "what is everyone doing listening to that old stuff of mine still after all these years and what's all the fuss about?" Where do you think he would stand on the digital/acoustic "debate"?



P. S. - Dr. Zeigler, Depending on where this thread takes us, you may end up writing another article, "Keyboards and Digitals in Teaching and Learning, Part 2"!

You're not masochistic enough to hear me play Bach (I'm not either!). I try it only when my wife is out of the house. :D

I suspect that Bach would be surprised as much by the cultural changes as by the technology that helped bring them about. In his day, serious music was enjoyed only by royalty and nobility, who maintained their own orchestras and composers (Bach himself is a good example of this). The idea of widespread availability of quality music to just about anyone in a completely portable form would probably astound him. I doubt that he would get as exercised about the digital/acoustic debate as we have.

I'm hoping that someone else will write an article on the original subject of this thread, teaching students with keyboards and digital pianos how to play the acoustic piano and vice versa. Although I don't think there's much point to in trying to resolve which is "better" in such an article, one which talks about how to use the digital keyboard best in teaching piano and music could be valuable.
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