Full-size digital piano or compact (inexpensive) keyboard for kid?
February 23, 2013 10:15 AM   Subscribe

My young daughter (kindergarten) will be starting piano lessons soon, and the teacher wants us to buy an 88 key digital piano with weighted keys - that seems to be about $500 minimum. However we're not sure the lessons will stick, and as a bonus we are space-challenged in our small house. For about $160 we could get something that is still big but not 88 key big, touch-sensitive keys instead of weighted keys (i.e. Yamaha NP11, open to other recommendations). We are piano ignorant, so don't know how to judge the trade-off. Should we suck it up and buy the big boy, or will it not matter at this stage of learning?
posted by _sirmissalot_ to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Music teacher and piano player here, siding with the piano teacher. I have this discussion (but about reasonable-quality violins) with my students' families all the time.

Start her off right. Playing a dinky keyboard is a whole different (and far crappier!) experience than playing a decent, full-size keyboard with weighted keys. If you want your daughter to start out with decent technique and a chance at success, start her with what the teacher suggests if you have the $500. It's really not THAT much more space or money averaged out over a year of lessons.
posted by charmedimsure at 10:29 AM on February 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm a former music teacher. I taught piano. I also own an 88-key, weighted-key keyboard. It's really important to have both those features. They aren't trivial or frivolous. Yes, it will make a difference at this stage of learning. If her lessons are once a week and you want her to practice every day, the weight of the keys she's pressing is important.

Having said that, I don't know if I would suggest that tool for a family whose kindergarten-aged daughter was about to start piano lessons for the very first time, unless the family was serious about committing the child to play for a set number of years. For instance, if you told me that your daughter will be taking piano lessons until she reaches middle school because you feel music is important, then yes, I would definitely recommend you invest in something with weighted keys (if not an actual piano).

On the other hand, if you're just testing the waters and you intend to let her off the hook after a month or two if she's disinterested, and if money and space are real issues for you, then it might be premature to buy an actual tool for her. Maybe you'd want to wait until the summer and see.
posted by cribcage at 10:33 AM on February 23, 2013

If you can spend the money, do it. I started on a little keyboard like that; playing at my lessons (on a proper piano) was difficult in comparison. Weighted keys are important.

If you think these lessons might only go for a month or two, it may be possible to rent a piano/keyboard short-term, depending on your location.
posted by delezzo at 10:40 AM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

My kids play piano. One started in Kindergarten, the other in second grade. We have a Casio Privia. Looks just like this. The good thing about digital pianos is that the footprint is not that large. It fits into small spaces. If you are serious about piano lessons, you have to get 88 weighted keys.

A lot of piano teachers don't want students to get weighted digital pianos like the one I have -- they prefer acoustic pianos.

I would look on craigslist and look in your area for acoustic piano rentals and used acoustic pianos for students.
posted by Fairchild at 10:58 AM on February 23, 2013

I don't know where you are located, but if you can't afford the keyboard the teacher is asking for, can you maybe rent a studio piano, maybe at a college, or somewhere a few times a week for her to practice on?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:02 AM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm also a piano teacher, and I've taught kids on keyboards with and without weighted keys. The weighted keys make the keyboard much easier to play, because you need to apply pressure to make the keys go down. With unweighted keys, the kids accidentally press the surrounding notes down, as just a slight touch will make the note play. Also, since your daughter is in kindergarten, she is still developing a lot of the fine motor skills. A weighted keyboard will make more beautiful music for her more quickly. You could look for used keyboards on craigslist or amazon as well.
posted by subsupra at 11:03 AM on February 23, 2013

Also, there is a strong market for used digital pianos. I would suggest you look around for a used instrument on Craigslist in the $500-600 range, figuring that if it is a short-lived interest it will be pretty easy to turn around and sell it for almost as much as you paid for it.
posted by drlith at 11:28 AM on February 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

You can rent digital pianos! I would definitely go for that instead of either of your options; for a lot of places, you can apply money spent on the rental toward buying an instrument later, so if your daughter does decide to stick with it, you'll not have thrown that money away.
posted by punchtothehead at 11:54 AM on February 23, 2013

I’ve been playing for many, many years. There is a physical difference in what fingers do between playing hammer-action keys and organ-style switches. They’re basically two similar but *different* instruments as far as coordination goes. I have a real piano and have had various synth keyboards over the years. I long for a good modern hammer-action electronic keyboard (to plug into my computer) just because I have a hard time playing on the cheap keyboards.
posted by D.C. at 12:07 PM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I play keys. It matters.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:58 PM on February 23, 2013

Best answer: The piano teacher wants you to make a bigger investment for at least the following two reasons and both of them are for the good of your daughter:

1. The weight of keys really does matter. Piano is muscle memory.

2. The bigger an investment you make, the more you will be invested in her progress, the more you will come up with ways to motivate her to practice, the more she will progress, the more the progress motivates her to practice. This is a virtuous cycle but it takes your parental effort and attitude to get her on it, and an easy way to nudge you, as parents, is to make you buy a nice keyboard (and charge you fairly for the lessons).
posted by batter_my_heart at 1:00 PM on February 23, 2013

So yes, batter_my_heart is correct, it's muscle memory and if she learns to play something on a keyboard she will have a lot of trouble playing the same thing on a piano.

And less than 88 keys? Absolutely no way whatsoever. I would say within a year or so of her first lesson she will probably already be assigned pieces that use the piano's full range, and then she will come home unable to play them. Not so good.

In my opinion, the cheap option worth exploring here is buying a "fixer-upper" upright piano off Craigslist. I found one in my area that is listed at $125 and "needs tuning". Go in, test it, see if all the keys actually produce sound, and the piano + tuning together should probably set you back less than the digital piano. Downside: will require tunings every so often, will probably sound like crap, bigger/heavier than a keyboard, she can't practice with headphones when mom and dad are sleeping.

If you do decide to go for a digital piano, I also have a Privia and highly recommend it. It's great and I have no trouble going between that and a full piano (do we say "acoustic piano" now?).
posted by capricorn at 1:07 PM on February 23, 2013

Okay, this is going to sound crazy, but you might want to get an actual piano.

Hear me out -- in my small, space-challenged home, it was actually easier to fit in an upright piano, which is a piece of furniture (which can then hold things on its top, like a lamp, etc., and whose bench can store all of the piano music) than to fit in a keyboard which is just its own thing, and it needs to be set up somewhere where there's a plug, plus it still needs some kind of chair to go with it, and you need to find somewhere to put all the freaking music, too!

In my town pianos are going for free-$100ish on Craigslist. Having it moved to my house cost around $140 (would have been less but it involved a flight of stairs), and having it tuned cost $75. Cheaper than a great keyboard, that's for sure.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:11 PM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you decide to go with an upright piano, beware of what my music professor friends refer to as "piano shaped objects". There are frequently advertised as "just needs tuning", when in fact they simply can not be tuned.
posted by imjustsaying at 2:15 PM on February 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding derlith about weighted-key digital pianos holding their value pretty well; if your daughter ditches it after a year or two you should be able to resell for a good buck.

Seconding punchtothehead that rental (and application of rental fees to purchase) is a definitely a possibility, depending on where you live. The musical instrument mega-stores like Guitar Center and Sam Ash mostly don't do this, as far as I know. You'll want to look at independently owned local music stores or dedicated piano stores.
posted by soundguy99 at 1:43 AM on February 24, 2013

It has not been my experience that weighted-key digital pianos hold their value pretty well. What Drlith said is that if you buy a used digital piano on Craigslist, and if the piano turns out to be a short-lived interest that you need to sell relatively soon afterward, then you probably won't lose much money in that short term. I agree with that limited statement.

But generally speaking, in my experience, digital pianos depreciate significantly. And it's understandable: Weighted keys notwithstanding, they are electronics. They don't depreciate to zero like, for example, a laptop will, but there is definitely a similar dynamic at work.
posted by cribcage at 7:38 AM on February 24, 2013

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