Pianos, digital pianos and keyboards
You don’t have to have an upright or grand piano in your studio for examinations; you can also use a digital piano. However, it’s important to have the right kind.
To avoid any confusion, here is a working definition of three types of keyboard: upright or grand piano, digital piano, and electronic keyboard.
- Upright/grand piano: an acoustic instrument where the sound is produced by the mechanical action of felted hammers striking strings.
- Digital piano: this imitates an upright or grand piano in a number of respects – it usually comes with a solidly-constructed stand, internal speakers, built-in pedals, a full-length keyboard with weighted keys, and a bank of sounds sampled from real upright or grand pianos.
- Electronic keyboard: sometimes used to refer to any non-acoustic keyboard instrument, including digital pianos – but more often, it means a portable keyboard – possibly with no stand, pedals or internal speakers, and with small, non-weighted or only semi-weighted keys. It will have a large set of electronic sounds and samples for use mainly in popular music.
For examinations, only types 1 and 2 as defined above are acceptable. If you are buying or renting a digital piano, please make sure that your instrument has the following features:
- an 88-note keyboard (also called a ‘7 octave’ keyboard),
- full-size, velocity-sensitive, weighted keys,
- two pedals*, ‘soft’ & ‘sustain’, and
- internal speakers.
*see the Glossary at the end of this page for an explanation of the terms used.
Which should I buy, digital or acoustic?
Pianists will almost always prefer to play an acoustic piano, but there are many factors to consider. Here are some of them:
Digital pianos: advantages
- Never need tuning
- Easy to move
- Quality of the sampled piano may be better than an affordable acoustic piano
- Can be used for other purposes, such as sequencing, playback, or use with a computer
- Auxiliary outputs can be plugged into speaker system, or used to record directly from piano to tape/hard disk with no ambient noise
Digital pianos: disadvantages
- No resonance through the floor, and an unnatural sound, since no piano is ever perfectly in tune
- Fewer gradations of tone and attack, and limited length of time that chords can be sustained, compared to acoustic pianos
- Less dynamic range than an acoustic piano
- Fast depreciation in resale value, as newer models and technologies emerge
- No use in a power cut, or if one component goes missing or fails
- Buttons, controls and options can be confusing
Think carefully before accepting an offer of an old piano from friends or relatives, even if they offer it to you for free. Have it checked by a piano tuner or repairer, to ensure that it really is a bargain, not a false economy: a newer instrument or digital piano may need less attention, and give you more satisfaction for your money.
Unless your studio and your budget is very large, an upright piano will be just fine. Bear in mind that a ‘baby grand’ may produce no more sound than a large upright.
How much will it cost?
The new price of a digital piano can be anywhere between £500 to £10,000 depending on features, finish and size. You can get a very acceptable instrument for under £1,000. The most expensive are digital grand pianos with real wood casing. Some leading brands are Yamaha, Roland, Casio, Kawai, Kurzweil and Korg, but check with musicians, retailers, magazines and catalogues for the latest information.
Some piano dealers offer a ‘rent-to-buy’ scheme where you can rent a piano with an option to buy it after a certain period, usually between 6 months to two years. If you decide to buy the instrument after this period, the rental you have already paid is deducted from the price of the piano.
Good seating is vital for pianists. Ideally, get a purpose-built adjustable piano stool. Ordinary chairs will do, as long as they:
- don’t have arm-rests
- don’t spin on castors
- don’t tilt backwards or forwards
- do have a cushioned seat, and
- are the right height.
The height of the stool/chair should allow the pianists forearms to be parallel to the floor in a relaxed position. If you put a piano on castors to make it easier to move, the pedals may be lifted so far off the floor that the pianist can’t use them properly. If this is the case, tape a block of wood or similar object on the floor to raise the floor level under them.
If anything breaks, particularly a pedal, a string, or the music stand, have it repaired immediately.
Position of the piano in the studio
Put the piano somewhere where the pianist can see you and the students easily without having to strain their neck. The best position for a grand or low upright is usually downstage left or right, angled so that the pianist is facing centre without having to turn. If the piano is an upright which is too tall for the pianist to see over comfortably, turn the piano to face upstage at a shallow angle, so that the pianist can see the dancers over their upstage shoulder.
Tuning and maintenance (acoustic pianos only)
Get the piano tuned for any special occasions such as a performance or examination. The more you use the piano, the more often you should tune it. For a piano used at home, twice a year is enough. In a school, three times yearly, at the beginning or end of every term, is advisable. If the piano has been moved, or has been subjected to large changes in temperature or humidity, let the tuning ‘settle’ for a few days before calling in the piano tuner.
Pianos are sensitive to changes of temperature or humidity, so keep them away from radiators and direct sunlight. If your studio is very dry or damp, get a humidifier or dehumidifier.
Here are some common terms that are used in the specifications of keyboard instruments. Vital means you must have this feature on a piano that is used for an examination; advisable means that a feature is worth getting, even if you can’t see a reason to have it right now. Optional means that you’ll probably never miss it if it’s not there.
- Aftertouch: A feature on some electronic keyboards that allows the player to alter the sound made by the instrument by pressing harder on the key after the initial depression. This is called ‘aftertouch’. Optional.
- AUX out: A digital piano with internal speakers usually has left and right ‘aux out’ sockets (short for auxiliary out) so that the keyboards sounds can be played through external speakers. Advisable.
- MIDI-compatible: MIDI stands for ‘Musical Instrument Digital Interface’ and is the means by which electronic instruments and computers are able to communicate with each other. Most electronic keyboards come with MIDI sockets (5-pin DIN plug shaped) fitted as standard. Advisable.
- Mod Wheel or Modulation Wheel: A wheel, usually on the left-hand side of the keyboard, which changes the sound produced according to how far the wheel is turned. Optional.
- Pedals: Metal levers operated by the pianist’s feet which alter the sound of the piano. Standard pianos have two: a SOFT or DAMPER pedal on the left, a SUSTAIN or SUSTAINING pedal on the right. Vital.
- Pitch Bend Wheel: A wheel on the left-hand side of some keyboards which can be used to change the pitch of the note while it is still playing. Optional.
- Practice Pedal: (acoustic pianos only) Fitted between the soft and sustain pedals. Locking this pedal in the ‘on’ position places a strip of felt between the hammers and strings, so that the sound is reduced by about 80%. Optional.
- Samples/sampling: Samples are recordings of real instruments which are then stored inside an electronic instrument to be re-triggered by the keys. Piano sounds are vital, others are advisable.
- Sequencer: This is a form of recording system which is sometimes built in to electronic keyboards, when it is called an ‘onboard sequencer’. It enables the player to record while they are playing, and then edit the resulting track (e.g. copy, paste, delete, or repeat it) or add other tracks on to it. Alternatively, keyboards are often used (via MIDI, q.v.) with sequencing software on a computer, such as Logic or Cubase. Optional.
- Sostenuto Pedal: A third pedal, situated between the soft and sustaining pedals, seen on some pianos, but not a standard feature. It is only rarely required or used by pianists, and not necessary for examinations. Not to be confused with a PRACTICE PEDAL (see above) Optional.
- Sound Bank: A store of sounds held in the ‘memory’ of an electronic instrument. Piano sounds are vital, others are optional.
- USB MIDI: See MIDI above. The standard for MIDI connections used to be a 5-pin DIN plug, but in recent years, it has become common, and a lot more convenient, for keyboards to have a USB socket so that they can be connected by computer directly, without the need for an additional interface between the keyboard and the computer. Advisable.
- Velocity-sensitive: This simply means that if you hit the keyboard softly, it will play a quiet sound, and if you hit it harder, it will play more loudly. Some electronic keyboards are not velocity-sensitive, or only to a moderate degree. Vital.
- Weighted keys: On a real (i.e. acoustic) piano, the mechanism offers resistance to the fingers when they are pressed. Digital piano manufacturers reproduce this resistance by weighted keys that offer a similar sensation. Electronic keyboards, have only a basic spring-back action and little resistance, making them unsuitable for playing piano repertoire. For a pianist, a weighted keyboard is the equivalent of having a sprung floor for dance. Vital.