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Is It a Good Idea for a Beginner Piano Student to Start with a Keyboard Instead of a Real Piano?

As a piano teacher for decades now, I've often heard from parents of prospective students a statement along these lines: "We're not sure whether [our child] will like learning piano, so we want to start with a keyboard until we know s/he will stick with playing."

Dear gentle reader, prepare for a controversial post to follow. :-)

If I wanted to make this post super short, I could answer the question in my title, "No, it's not a good idea to start learning piano on a plain keyboard."

There you have it; end of statement. Except you want to know why. Okay, here's the why. :-)

Defining "plain keyboard"

By that I am referring to an instrument with loudness that can only be adjusted by a volume control knob.

The problem with that type of keyboard is that it fails to give a beginner piano student any feedback about how the player's touch and technique would control tone.

The importance of playing with beautiful tone

One of the most fundamental aspects of playing piano is learning the connection between how one uses upper body mechanics and the pleasing sound that results from correct technique.

Students playing simple keyboards are unable to determine whether they can produce round, beautiful tone of varying dynamic (volume) levels when they are at the mercy of wherever the keyboard's volume button is set.

Music is more than notes and rhythms

There is more to playing piano than knowing which keys to press and when to play them. The deep joy in playing or singing music comes from expressive elements like dynamics.

Singers and wind instrumentalists use breathing and air control to express dynamic contrasts.

String players, percussionists, and guitarists use their shoulders, wrists and arms to control the sound.

And pianists use their shoulders, arms, wrists and hands to produce varying dynamics as their fingers sink into the keys at different speeds to achieve the desired tone.

Students playing keyboards that don't have weighted or touch-sensitive keys are missing out on hearing beautiful, aesthetically-pleasing expressiveness that is the lifeblood of musical performance.

They also more easily succumb to awkward muscle movement that can lead to injuries because the poor sound that comes from faulty technique is not revealed on a plain keyboard.

I still don't want to spend more money than a plain keyboard costs, because what if my child doesn't enjoy playing piano?

In my experience, children are much more likely to enjoy playing piano when they have an instrument that responds to their touch!

Unfortunately, the fear of spending money on an acoustic piano or good-quality digital piano with touch-sensitive keys and weighted action similar to an acoustic, because the child might not like playing, too often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Home piano practice on a simple keyboard yields little aesthetic beauty --- it simply becomes an exercise in reading notes and rhythms without generating vibrant, changing tone appropriate to the music's character.

The child can bring nothing of his/her own into the interpretation of a printed piece of music when s/he is unable to produce sensitive tone on one's own. That grows old and boring after a fairly short time.

The challenge of adapting to an acoustic piano

One of the frustrations students with plain keyboards experience is adapting to a real piano at the teacher's studio or other venues.

All pianos are going to feel at least slightly different from one another, but the contrast between an ordinary keyboard and a touch-controlled piano is stark.

It is much easier for students if they can practice all week, every week, on a responsive instrument at home rather than having to drastically change technical habits every time they come to a piano lesson.

Is a digital piano with weighted, touch-responsive keys okay for a beginner?

Yes, I believe this type of instrument is an acceptable alternative to an acoustic piano for a beginner. These pianos have some limitations, the discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article, but a beginning piano player would have opportunity to develop a healthy technique and pleasing sound right from the beginning of piano instruction with a good digital piano at home.

The solution

Always provide your child with the best instrument you can afford. If a plain keyboard with no touch sensitivity is the most your finances currently allow, I would recommend holding off with starting piano lessons until you can acquire a piano.

Your child's best chance of enjoying piano learning will begin with having a good quality instrument to play on at home right from the start.

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