Parents have asked me many times what keyboard their beginner piano student should purchase for practice. It's a simple question that doesn't have just one answer. I'm always torn on how I should answer:
- As a pianist, I want students to have a high-quality instrument that will help them develop their technique and artistry;
- As a teacher, I want them to have an instrument that is fun to play and inspires them to practice;
- And as a realist, I want my students to get an instrument that won't break the bank!
An instrument is an investment. It is absolutely worth putting extra money up front for a quality, long-lasting keyboard that sets your budding pianist up for success.
However, beginner students are still discovering which instruments speak to them. It's reasonable to want them to show sustained interest in piano before purchasing a keyboard - yet students need regular access to an instrument to continue sparking that interest.
Before purchasing a keyboard, ask yourself a few questions. What is my budget? How much space do I have available in my home? Do I want a digital piano to prominently display or do I need one that can be easily stored away? How old is my student and what is their current interest level in piano? What expectations do I have of them after getting them this instrument?
Once you establish answers to those questions, you can start narrowing down which keyboard is the right one for your student.
Keyboard Features and Terminology
Digital keyboards vs digital pianos, weighted versus unweighted keys...there's a lot of options out there. Here's a quick guide to common terms and features you'll encounter:
This is a VERY important feature to consider. Key weight refers to the resistance provided by the keys on the piano. Keys with more resistance require more effort to depress; keys with less resistance spring back quickly. The most common types of key weight are:
- Weighted Keys - Weighted keys are designed to replicate the feel of an acoustic piano as closely as possible. The keys require more pressure to depress and provide more resistance. Practicing on weighted keys is crucial to developing good playing technique. However, keyboards with weighted keys are larger and more expensive than other options due to the complex internal mechanics used to mimic an acoustic piano.
- Unweighted Keys - Unweighted keys have much less resistance than weighted keys. The keys are light, springy, and bouncy. Unweighted keys are typically found on keyboards with a wide variety of sounds, making them a fun choice for students. They are smaller and more affordable than keyboards with weighted keys. However, these keyboards are not ideal for piano students to practice on for an extended period of time.
- Semi-Weighted Keys - Semi-weighted keys use a spring-action mechanism to provide resistance. Semi-weighted keys do not feel quite like an acoustic piano but they are not as bouncy as unweighted keys. Semi-weighted keyboards are typically smaller and less expensive than weighted keys keyboards. They are preferable to unweighted keyboards for beginner students if weighted keys are not an option. However, students will eventually need to upgrade to weighted keys to progress in their piano studies.
Types of Keyboards
- Digital Pianos - A digital piano is designed to mimic the look and feel of a traditional acoustic piano. Digital pianos typically have fully weighted keys, realistic touch, and higher-quality sounds. Some are designed with external frames to recreate the look of an acoustic piano; others are similar to digital keyboards. Outside of an actual acoustic piano, digital pianos are the best choice for piano students to practice on.
- Digital Keyboards - The terms 'digital keyboard' and 'digital piano/ are often used interchangeably. Generally, a digital keyboard is smaller and more lightweight than a digital piano. The number of keys are often lower, usually 49, 61, or 76. Digital keyboards do not mimic the feel of an acoustic keyboard and are not ideal to practice on indefinitely. However, they often have features like fun sounds, light up keys, and lower price points that can make them good choices for very young students.
- MIDI Controller Keyboard - A MIDI controller is a keyboard designed to be used with an external sound source. MIDI data is sent to a computer or other hardware that then triggers sounds when the keys are depressed. MIDI controllers are available in a wide range of sizes. Because they do not have internal speakers or internal sound-creating hardware, a full-size MIDI controller is much cheaper than a full-size digital piano.
Ok, So Which Keyboard is Right for My Student?
An 88-key digital piano with fully weighted keys is always the best choice for piano students. However, if you are still testing the waters or do not have the budget or space for full-size piano, a smaller semi-weighted keyboard is acceptable.
Young Beginners Brand-New to Piano
If you have a very young beginner student, a semi-weighted keyboard that has good selection of fun sounds is an acceptable choice. Your student can have fun exploring different tones while developing finger dexterity and general musical knowledge. A semi-weighted keyboard is a good compromise if parents are hesitant to invest in fully-weighted keys right off the bat. A few good options would be:
- Yamaha EZ-300. A fun, affordable keyboard with unweighted (but touch-sensitive) light up keys. Currently in stock at Golden Music.
- Alesis Recital. A semi-weighted, full-size keyboard at an amazing price point.
Beginner/Intermediate Students Who Have Studied Piano for Over a Year
If your student has been enjoying their piano studies for over a year, it's time to think about upgrading to a keyboard with weighted keys. Your student has proven their interest in piano and will have trouble developing proper technique and artistry if they don't have weighted keys to practice on. A few good options are:
- Alesis Prestige. An 88-key keyboard with hammer action, adjustable touch keys. A good price point
- Yamaha DGX-670B. An 88 key weighted keyboard with USB inputs and an LCD screen. Currently in stock at Golden Music.
- Roland FP-30. A quality instrument from a trusted brand at an affordable price point.
If your student is an older beginner, they will benefit more from getting weighted keys right from the start. Older beginners already have more finger strength and dexterity so fully weighted keys won't feel quite as hard to manage right off the bat. If your older beginner is interested in creating their own music or sequencing MIDI, they could consider getting a MIDI controller with weighted keys (keep in that this options require the purchase of additional software or hardware). A few good options would be:
- Korg B-2. 88 keys with touch control at a good price point from a trusted brand.
- M-Audio Keystation 88 MK3. A great weighted key MIDI controller at an excellent price point. Perfect for students with access to recording software or other hardware who are interested in recording along with piano.
- Yamaha Arius YDP 164. A beautiful digital piano with realistic touch and hammer action. Currently available at Golden Music.
The Accessories Every Piano Student Should Have
No matter which option you choose, these three accessories are important to add to your student's keyboard set up:
- Keyboard Stand - Students who don't have a keyboard stand adjusted to the correct height will end up with improper technique. They often play with wrists that are too flat or bent, which can cause strain. A keyboard stand may not seem necessary but it important that students avoid practicing with a keyboard at the wrong height (or even on floor!)
- Bench - A bench adjusted to the student's height and keyboard stand is also important. Your household chairs likely aren't the right fit for your keyboard. A bench will help with technique and make practice more comfortable.
- Sustain Pedal - This pedal is an important tool for expression and fluidity. Proper pedaling technique takes a while to develop so students should be sure to have a pedal with their keyboard. Avoid the cheaper flat, square pedals! They break easily and don't have the feel like a real pedal. Get one that has a raised pedal that mimics pedals on an actual piano.
Whichever choice you make will allow your child to begin their journey with piano, keyboards, or recording and sequencing. My first instrument was an unweighted Casio keyboard. Over the course of my studies, I've played on a Baldwin spinnet, a Roland digital keyboard, a 9 ft Yamaha grand piano, an old upright heirloom piano, a Nord Stage digital piano, a Korg synthesizer, a Rhodes electric piano with a Leslie cabinet, a Roland keytar, and more. Each instrument taught me different perspectives about the world of pianos and keyboards and offered new challenges and possibilities.
-Meaghan Lillis, piano and voice teacher