Freeway Music — Columbia, SC’s Premier Music School

“Beware of the Bark Side!” or Digital Pianos Transform Performance and Education (by David J. Pacific)

Any musician at any level can consider a digital piano if they just treat it like what it is: a piano and more.

As a follow up to my recent post discussing how to purchase a piano, I concluded by mentioning that, when asked what instrument I recommend to pianists, I recommend a digital piano. Before discussing what is and what is not a digital piano and how a digital piano is not ever going to be the same thing as a keyboard, I must confess that I am a complete convert on this matter. It has only been four years that I have held the stance that a digital piano is the best introductory, additional, or replacement piano depending on your needs. So, how is it that my mind was changed? Simple: I got educated.

Ask the majority of piano teachers and self-identified classical pianists about a digital piano and, more often than not, the response you will get is, “I just don’t like them.” Pressed further, you might get such responses as, “they’re not a real piano,” “they don’t have all the sounds a real piano makes,” or, “they don’t feel like a real piano.” If you push even slightly further and ask, “when was the last time you played a digital piano,” you’ll get one of the best responses of all: “oh, I won’t touch those things.” Yet, these are the people highly regarded to give their opinion? The ones who won’t touch them? Many pianists and piano teachers have the unfortunate burden of perpetuating myths and feeling the need to elevate our instrument’s status in the face of innovation while deeply believing the non-truths we so readily promote. Too often, persons considering adding a piano to their life will consult a pianist or their piano teacher before the purchase because the teacher is the supposed expert. Well, the teacher is an expert in the field of teaching, but in selecting a piano or considering a digital piano? Myths, opinions, and feelings are usually what are expressed and taken as sound advice.

What a digital piano is NOT:

The first thing to understand is that a digital piano is not a keyboard. Simply put, a keyboard is a toy. You will hear terms that have become rather common place such as touch sensitive or weighted keyboard when referring to both keyboards and digital pianos, but touch sensitive technology is so old, it isn’t even close to what exists in digital pianos now. The most basic of features to have in any instrument is 88 keys. Pianos have had 88 keys since before the twentieth century; this is not new. The second thing to understand about keyboards (vs. digital pianos) is how the sound is generated on a keyboard. A manufacturer will record the pitch of a single note from a piano, then bend the pitch for a group of notes, add four different ‘dynamic’ levels and, voilá! A keyboard! It’s effectively the hocus pocus of the piano industry. Why do we buy into it? It’s a ‘safe’ starter instrument. I have often thought of this as being similar to trying to teach world history with a map from 1980. Sure, you could get around and try to explain Eastern Europe, save a couple hundred bucks by not buying a new map, but would that be a real education?

When considering a digital piano, the first step you should take is dropping the first word in the title and call it what it is: a piano. It is just a piano that happens to be digital, just as some happen to have walnut cabinets. The companies that produce true digital pianos – of which there are only, maybe, three reputable ones – dedicate countless years and facilities to improving their instruments and making them the best possible instruments for performers, educators, and students. Many people believe that a digital piano cannot do all of the things an acoustic piano can do when the very opposite is true. That would be along the lines of saying that a hybrid guitar cannot do the same things as a guitar. The difference, however, is in creating a digital piano, the manufacturers consistently seek to produce the finest product available with all of the benefits of an acoustic piano and more. That “and” is a powerful thing for teachers, students, and musicians.

What a digital piano IS:

Touch and tone are what define any piano’s individuality. In a good digital piano, the manufacturer has sampled from concert grand pianos and incorporated their own technology to produce their instrument’s tone. One manufacturer spent fourteen years developing the first digital piano to use no sampling technology, but, instead, literally built their own piano sound digitally from the bottom up. If you’re wondering how it sounds, to its credit, it was showcased in Walt Disney Music Hall in Los Angeles, CA – one of the leading classical music venues in the country. Unlike keyboards, a digital piano has no pitch bending, no ‘looping’ of sound (keyboards record one pitch and repeat it at lesser volume to resemble decay), an action that is balanced and weighed with escapement the same as you would find on a concert grand piano, and all of the harmonic overtones and qualities found in a grand piano (right on down to sympathetic vibrations and the sound of the damper releasing from the strings at the depression of the pedal). All of this is under a much smaller footprint. A digital piano sounds like a nine-foot concert grand, but takes up the floor space of a small acoustic piano. Don’t like the preset piano? Build your own. Digital pianos have onboard technical specifications that let you build your own piano that you like and save it, changing such things as string resonance, tuning frequency for an individual note, and even the noise of the hammers!

Earlier, I said that a digital piano has “all of the benefits of an acoustic piano and more.” There are remarkable educational benefits to learning on a digital piano. The obvious one is this: playing on a digital piano means that a person is learning and practicing on a perfectly prepared instrument every time they practice. The less obvious ones come from what is really staring at you in the face, but you have no idea why you should use it, and that’s the arsenal of technology. For children, I advocate wholeheartedly using all of the sounds that will annoy everyone in your house (with headphones, of course).

The impact of owning a digital piano:

I was once in a showroom while there was a family looking to purchase a digital piano. The child was practicing the “Imperial March” from Star Wars when he suddenly discovered that there is a “dog bark” voice on the piano. He turned to his mother after playing the “Imperial March” on the bark voice and said, “beware of the bark side!” That was the moment the mother purchased the digital piano: the moment she saw her son engaged in music making. It doesn’t matter what sound the child plays on, so long as they play and are engaged in music making. There are also countless educational apps that sync with digital pianos wirelessly and enhance both learning and teaching. Moreover, something as simple as the onboard recording features or USB storage can provide immediate feedback for a student to hear their own progress. Any digital piano will sync with a computer and software and allow anyone playing to compose their own music in real time. The fact is, the digital piano connects with the omnipresence of technology in all of our lives. People often worry about a digital piano becoming outdated, but the industry is really at a remarkable place. Until someone invents a new concept in speaker technology, there isn’t one thing a digital piano can’t do that an acoustic piano can, save avant-garde works requiring you to put screws inside your piano!

A study produced by a leading publishing house found that six out of ten students who began on a digital piano progressed to the next level of the lesson series. That number dropped to one out of ten when surveying students who began on a used, acoustic piano, similar to what you might find in most homes where pianos are inherited. The difference is in engaging the student in the learning process on their terms and based on their interests. To be clear, however, digital pianos are not just for children and teachers. One of my closest friends and colleagues practiced on a digital piano all through her masters degree and I prepared an entire set of auditions for some of the top conservatories on one. As a last point, there is also the financial component and there simply isn’t a better bang for your buck. An acoustic piano needs maintenance and a digital piano generally doesn’t. If you consider that the average acoustic piano is going to need $200-400 worth of maintenance a year and you’re just saving that money by buying a digital, a digital piano actual pays itself off while you own it just by not having to maintain it. A great man in the piano industry once told me when talking about digital pianos, “one day, people will write for these,” and I think every day we are closer to that. Any musician at any level can consider a digital piano if they just treat it like what it is: a piano and more.

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