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Yes, but mostly no. I will allow students who are beginners to use an electric keyboard with at least 66 full sized keys (88 is better: a beginner may not use them all, but they will not be disoriented when they switch to the full-sized instrument at their lessons) only for the first four months of lessons. After this time the student must obtain either a piano or a digital piano. There are also a few good used piano dealers and refurbishers in the Baltimore/Washington area. Among my favorites are Ron’s Piano Service in Bel Air, and Rick Jones Pianos, in Beltsville, MD.
Among prospective piano students, this is the most frequently asked question. The answer below represents my opinion as an experienced performer and teacher. I am not a piano technician, nor do I have experience selling pianos.
Digital pianos, unlike keyboards, have 88 full-sized keys, a permanent stand, and at least one permanently-installed pedal. Unlike acoustic pianos, however, they have no mechanical parts (except the keys) and require electric power to function.
Digital pianos have many advantages, if you listen to the sales rep in the music store. The digitally-sampled sound is of the highest quality, they never need tuning, and they include (sometimes literally) many bells and whistles. Not only could those features include additional sampled sounds such as organ, harpsichord and glockenspiel, but also record and playback, transposition, and even MIDI controller functions.
Why are so many piano pedagogues reluctant to endorse digital pianos for practice purposes?
For us, digital pianos don’t measure up in two areas: tone-production and tactile feedback.
You didn’t make that! The central obstacle is that, as with any other instrument, proper tone-production is a crucial part of every piano student’s curriculum. Yet, it must be remembered, that in the case of digital pianos, the instrument plays back a pre-recorded piano sound when the key is pressed. Unlike the acoustic instrument, the person playing does not make the sound!
There is no question that the sound of most digital pianos has improved significantly in recent years. It is impressive, at first, to hear the sound of a sampled 9-foot concert-grand booming from that tiny box. Dynamic variation and pedal controllers have both improved and will continue to improve. But one must admit that pre-recorded sound will always be part of the digital piano experience. In fact, many players report eventually tiring of the sound of their digital piano.
What happened to the dynamics? Why can’t you play evenly in a quick tempo?
In addition, the touch-sensitivity and tactile response of digital piano actions has gotten closer to that of a “real” piano. At the high-end of the spectrum ($4,000-$12,000), they may even include some action parts that mimic the feel of having the levers and hammers of a “real” piano at your fingertips.
We have observed two action-related problems that our students who practice on digital pianos develop: a small dynamic range, and difficulty playing evenly in rapid passagework. It seems that the digital piano is just different enough that the skills of tone production and timing learned in the lessons do not transfer to the acoustic piano. Naturally, all recitals, exams, competitions, and auditions are held with acoustic pianos. We have also observed that students with “real” pianos are more likely to stick with music, and more likely to excel.
Unfortunately, students soon realize that the digital piano sounds different, feels different, and that they have difficulty making it reproduce the same effects they learned in their lessons.
Let’s be realistic. If a person has several thousand dollars to spend, they can get a quality used upright. Unless they have complaints from neighbors, unorthodox practice hours, or truly use the MIDI controller and other functions, they do not need a digital piano.
A digital piano is not an investment.
Often potential buyers are attracted by the lack of maintenance costs associated with purchasing a digital piano. However, there are other financial disadvantages to owning a digital piano that should be considered.
Resale value: within 5 years, a digital piano will be worth a fifth of its original purchase price. In contrast, a quality acoustic piano will retain or increase its value.
Repairs: within 5 years, replacement parts will no longer be available for a digital piano. In contrast, a member of the piano technician’s guild should be able to repair any acoustic piano regardless of manufacturer.
In short, a digital piano will likely need to be sold at an 80% loss within a few years, and likely need to be replaced with an acoustic instrument.
What is the solution?
If the piano acquisition budget is less than $1,000, a digital piano may seem the only option. However, a rent-to-own program would be less costly than purchasing a digital piano, and then replacing it down the road anyway. Such a program buys the family time to save for the purchase of the piano, or to decide to discontinue. In the worst-case scenario, the student quits, and the rental instrument is returned. Jason’s Piano Warehouse and Boyd’s Pianos are two reputable dealers that offer a rent-to-own program.
The advice given on this page is entirely for those interested in buying an acoustic piano.
Larry Fine’s The Piano Book: Buying & Owning a New or Used Piano (available on Amazon) offers a great deal of excellent advice, and answers a lot of questions about specific brands and models of pianos. But there are some guidelines that we can pass along from our experience:
If you are serious about a piano, bring a piano technician with you to the appointment—perhaps for your second visit.
Avoid any piano that cannot be played.
Avoid any piano with a cracked soundboard.
Look inside. If the normally white felt parts have turned yellow or light brown, and the hammers are deeply grooved, you are probably looking at an expensive future restoration.
Avoid any piano that is a semi-tone or lower than A440 (standard tuning pitch). It may not be possible to return it to concert pitch without replacing the strings and/or rebuilding the piano.
Avoid spinet pianos. These are the smallest and least expensive uprights, but the sound is the poorest and sometimes the actions are less durable.
Console pianos are much better. They are a little taller than spinets, but well worth the difference in price. Baldwin-Hamilton and Yamaha have made especially durable console pianos, many of which endure in fine condition and can be acquired in the $2,000 price range. Ron Panuska and Rick Jones sometimes have these available.
The gold standard in terms of sound is produced by the tallest uprights, measuring 48”-54”. These may cost between $6,000 and $13,000 new (depending on brand), but the best of them (Yamaha is a perennial favorite) provide a sound and action that can approach the qualities of a grand costing much more. They sometimes cannot be easily be maneuvered up stairs or in tight quarters, but once in place, their footprint is not more than that of the lowly spinet. Used, name-brand versions can be obtained for between $4,000 and $7,000. Again, Ron Panuska and Rick Jones have a wide selection of such instruments. They also provide excellent warranties and service.
A serious student will soon notice that the grand pianos used at recitals, examinations, competitions and auditions are different from any upright in terms of dynamic range, responsiveness, speed of repetition, key angle, and often, key weight. It may seem more difficult to play softly, yet speeds in trills and repeated notes will be possible that could not be attained on any but the finest uprights—and sometimes not even then. Because the levers in the grand piano action are longer, the keys work efficiently even when pressed close to the fallboard (the large wooden piece above the keys with the manufacturer’s name). Particularly on the largest instruments (7- to 9- foot concert grands), the bass hammers are much heavier and require much care in producing the softest sound. This also often causes the actions of concert instruments to be much heavier than upright actions, causing the student to tire quickly in performances of demanding repertoire.
The solution is to have the student practice regularly on a grand piano. Although the decision can usually be deferred until 8th or 9th grade, if the student desires to perform and compete at the highest level, only a grand will suffice.
Avoid the smallest grands. A grand piano less than 5’ 2” in length is not likely to produce enough of an advantage over an upright to be worth the investment.
Avoid Chinese and Korean pianos. Sometimes an old, English or German-sounding brand is purchased by an Asian company and produced cheaply in China or Korea. It is worth asking where the piano was made. Even Yamaha and Kawai make some of their cheaper models in countries other than Japan.
Bigger is usually, but not always, better. Grand pianos greater than 6’ in length usually have a richer bass, wider dynamic range, and actions that feel more like those of a concert instrument. But one could still be better off with a 5’ 8” Yamaha in excellent condition than with a 7’ Grotrian Steinweg or Knabe (both amazing pianos in their day) that is in need of $10,000 worth of restoration.
New is not always better. In fact, it is difficult to know what a brand-new piano will sound like until you’ve played it for a year or two. Only then will it stay in tune reliably and only then will the hammers be played in to their more permanent firmness. So, used can be better and restored can be best, (David Hughes is the restorer of greatest fame in our area) unless you are considering a $100,000 Bösendorfer or Steinway. Dr. Dillon still regrets not buying a restored Knabe concert grand (a 10-foot instrument that could sustain a single note for up to 2 full minutes) from David Hughes back in the 1990’s for $25,000. No comparable new piano could be had for triple that price today.
Steinways are overrated and uneven in quality. There are some jewels out there, but one must choose very carefully. The upside is that they can have a more unique “voice” than most Japanese-made instruments. The downside is that the majority of Steinways, especially the 5’ 7” “L” model, are not as good as any comparable Japanese piano.
Keep your perspective. For most people in the market for a grand, the price is going to be comparable to that of a good used or a very serviceable new car. But the car will diminish in value, and at a certain point down the road, the cost of repairing it will exceed its value. That will never happen with a fine grand piano.
Follow your heart. Assuming you have brought a piano technician with you to your appointment, and assuming they approve of your choice, the piano that feels and sounds the best to you probably really is. All other things being equal, if you fall in love with a particular instrument, that is the piano for you. Acquiring a fine grand piano, like finding the love of your life, is the decision of a lifetime.
We hold two large studio recitals a year. Students are strongly encouraged but not required to participate. If a student expresses a desire to participate in the county or state festivals, try-outs or auditions, we support them and help them to prepare. Although we believe that healthy competition is necessary for proper musical development for each student, we do not force students to enter them. We regularly point out to our students when events are upcoming, including the Trinity College London Practical and Theory Exams, which are held annually.
Both ways have their merits. Rental programs are a great way to put a relatively small investment into music lessons during the initial stages of your child’s musical development. After a short period, however, it is best to purchase a quality instrument.
Every new student at the Bel Air Music Studios will receive a copy of the attendance policy. The attendance policy is also available in the waiting area. You may view the policy by clicking here.
No. All lessons are given from our studio’s locations in Bel Air.
No. Call (410) 803-5449 to schedule a free interview and trial lesson.