I’ve seen it time and time again: cautious – yet well-meaning – parents purchasing portable keyboards as “starter” practice instruments for students whose musical interest may or may not be long-term. Meant to be temporary until they determine whether or not their student is going to “stick with” piano lessons, these portable keyboards prevent any real development and – inevitably – cause a majority of students to lose interest in playing altogether. …and I can understand why. Most kids aren’t aware enough to point out the practice instrument as the source of their troubles. …but they see that the songs they can play perfectly well at home fall apart completely on their teacher’s piano. They simply attribute their failure to a lack of aptitude on their part (a notion that, sadly, many of their parents will readily accept) and leave traditional piano lessons behind in favor of “YouTube shortcuts” or other “easy play” technology.
The worst part is all of this could have been avoided. Most parents are willing to support their child’s musical hobby as long as they have some indication that said hobby is more than a mere passing fancy. …and, since pianos (especially good ones) are expensive, most parents look for another solution.
That is where most parents go wrong.
Expecting your child to be serious about piano lessons before she even starts is a bit like promising to buy her a book once she learns to read. It’s backwards thinking. Interest alone won’t help a child deal with the frustrations inherent in learning a skill that is 50% language and 50% sport. Your child needs your help and experience to develop her budding musical interest into the discipline that makes piano playing a lifetime skill.
Piano Lessons are a Family Commitment. Everyone Has to Do His Part
You would never buy your child a “practice puppy.” Instead, knowing that a puppy requires daily care and support from the entire family, you’d hold a “family meeting” and get everyone to agree to do his part. As a parent, you have to regulate student activities so your kids have time to play (and to practice!). Your students(s) have to agree to practice regularly – even if it’s only 5-10 minutes at a time. …and the teacher you select has to provide a lesson experience that will motivate and reward the student for all of her hard work. It’s a group effort. …and it all starts with getting the right practice instrument.
Get the Right Tool
Have you noticed that the DMV doesn’t require Driver’s Ed. students to practice with RC cars before they drive the real thing? Like portable keyboards, remote control (RC) cars are smaller, cheaper and easier to get into your home than a full-size car. …but that doesn’t make them good learning tools. In fact, driving an actual car like you do an RC car will get you into a considerable amount of trouble – especially in Arizona.
The proper practice instrument is critical to success in piano lessons. Without the right tool to help your child develop muscular memory and “proper playing technique,” you are wasting your money on piano lessons. Just as you’d never pay a driving instructor to teach your kids with an RC car, you shouldn’t invest money into piano lessons until you’re ready to provide the right practice tool at home.
Portable Keyboards Are Toys – NOT Tools
Unfortunately, many music instrument manufacturers have tried to present their “toy” portable keyboards as serious practice instruments. One has even coined the phrase “Portable Grand Piano.” Believe me, there is no such thing. In fact, studies show that over 80% of the students who start lessons on a portable keyboard quit piano in the first year. This percentage FAR exceeds that of students who start on a piano or “proper” digital piano – making portable keyboards the worst choice on the market for beginner students. Here’s why:
- Incorrect Key Action: How many serious body builders have you seen working out without weights? It sounds silly to suggest it. …but being in the gym and moving your arms up and down doesn’t build any muscles. Resistance is the key. Thanks to gravity, lifting weights builds muscle. The same concept applies to the piano. Most portable keyboards have little or no resistance in their key action – so your student won’t be able to build the proper muscles to play a piano. She may even perfect a song on her practice keyboard and then struggle to play it on “the real thing” thanks to the increased resistance. She’ll get frustrated and quit. Who wouldn’t?
- Not Enough Keys: Pianos have 88 keys. Most portable keyboards have 61 or 76. That’s like buying a car for your Driver’s Ed student that only has 3 wheels. …or buying a football student 69% of his pads. Do you think the coach would accept that? Of course not. If you and your student are going to succeed at the piano, you have to make room in your home, in your budget AND in your schedule.
- Keys Aren’t Full-Sized: Do you remember riding the seesaw as a kid? What happened when you moved closer to the middle? Was it easier or harder to move up and down? Piano keys work on a similar system. You press down at one end and lift a weight on the other. When you let go, that weight falls and returns the key. This is called “Gravity Hammer Action” (NOT “Weighted Key.” Due to a lack of standard measurements, keyboard manufactures have made that term virtually useless nowadays.) Most portable keyboards (and some cheaper upright pianos) have keys that are shorter than they should be. This limits the leverage a student needs to develop proper playing technique and should be avoided at all costs.
- No Bench: You can’t just use a kitchen chair. Piano benches are set to a specific height that matches the height of their piano’s keys. Forcing your child to put their keyboard on a stand and stand up to practice (or worse – use a chair that isn’t set to the proper height) will damage their posture and slow their learning significantly.
- Keyboards Don’t Behave Like Pianos: Most portable keyboards utilize very cheaply-recorded piano sounds that lack the complexity and depth that acoustic instruments (and better digital pianos) have. This lack of resonance teaches students to play the piano they way one would play a keyboard – with little emotion and no sense of dynamic control.
- No Pedal: Students will begin to work with the piano’s sustain pedal in the first year of lessons. If you don’t have one on your practice keyboard, you’re wasting time and money.
- It’s a Waste of Money: How much money is too much money to waste? If you’re like me, wasting anything over $20 starts to bother me. With all of the piano rental options available today, there is no reason to risk your child’s success with a keyboard that is worthless the minute you take it home. Save your money and get the right lessons tool.
There Are Better Options
Now that we’ve established that portable keyboards make great toys for toddlers, but poor tools for lessons, you’re probably asking yourself “What should I do instead?” I know you don’t want to spend thousands until you know if your child is going to “stick with it,” but – believe it or not – you can have an acceptable practice instrument in your home without breaking the bank. Here are some good options:
- The Riverton “Rent to Learn” Plan: Select from a huge variety of options (starting from $30/mo) and we’ll deliver a top-grade piano or digital piano to your home – giving your student the very best chance at success. You can rent for up to a year with no risk!
- Purchase a Portable Digital Piano: We have excellent lessons pianos from $699 on up! Why spend $500 on a throw-away keyboard when you can have something that will promote proper playing technique for just a few dollars more?
- Used Pianos: Admittedly, this option can be a bit tricky as the Phoenix area is FLOODED with used pianos – most of which are NOT good lessons instruments. If you go this route, we recommend you purchase from a reputable dealer (not a dealer who sells freshly-painted spinet pianos) or have a piano technician evaluate the instrument you’re considering before you buy. If you buy the right used piano, it can be an affordable “first-step” into the world of piano playing, but buying the wrong one will cost you far more than it’s worth.
Bet on Success
Studies show that the combination of an acceptable practice instrument, a compatible teacher and good family support give your student a 78% chance of making piano a lifetime skill. Remember, not every student is going to be the next Liberace, but if we can make piano playing a fun and enriching part of your child’s life then we have done something important.
My final advice is this: Caution is important and understandable when dealing with the fleeting whims of young children… but remember: Piano study is a discipline and your child doesn’t yet understand the benefits of hard work over time. It’s up to you to keep him engaged. Give a child the right tools and enough encouragement and she can reach the moon!