If you’re reading this, you’re probably like about 90% of our clients.  You or someone in your family has decided to begin taking piano lessons, but you don’t have any idea what kind of tool you (or your student) needs to succeed.  “Piano Shaped Objects” (or “PSOs”) exist at just about every price point you can imagine – from toy keyboards in the $100-$500 range to artisan concert grands in the hundreds of thousands.  There’s a wide field of options and you have no idea (aside from what fits into your budget) what is “right” for you.  …but, luckily, you’ve found this blog and I am going to help you understand what is available… and which features you absolutely must have to succeed with piano lessons.

kiddie pool

Playing in a toy pool can be a ton of fun, but no reasonable person would expect to learn how to swim with one.

Just like in most endeavors, the better your tools, the better chance of success.  Nobody expects Driver’s Education students to “learn the road” with a remote control car.  Coaches would never let a student play football with inflatable pads and a toy helmet.  …and nobody could successfully learn to swim in a plastic “kiddie pool.”  Having the right tools is essential as they allow you to properly master the activity and develop an innate sense of “feel” for what you’re doing.  Learning piano is the same way – without the proper tools, you cannot be successful with piano lessons.  You won’t train the right muscles, you won’t learn the proper techniques and you’ll never develop a sense of musicality at the piano.

full-sized piano key using dollar bill test

Use a dollar bill to ensure a piano has full-sized keys. The key should run to the end of the ink on the dollar bill (5.93 inches).

So which features are absolutely essential for beginners and which features can you “grow into” later?  Good question!  Our Piano F.A.Q. answers some of the basic questions and you can certainly see why you should not buy a portable keyboard.  …but here is a basic list of features your practice instrument *must* have:

    • 88 Full-Sized Keys. It might surprise you to know that countless keyboards and even some acoustic pianos don’t have full-sized keys.  If you’ve ever used a see-saw as a kid, you know how this can affect the leverage on your keyboard.  It can be a big problem when you go from a “short key” keyboard to a proper piano.  You can tell if the instrument you are considering has a full-sized key (just under six inches) using a dollar bill.  Place the dollar bill on the key with one end pressed against the piano.  The key should run to the end of the ink on you dollar bill.  That is a full-sized key.  …and you need all 88 of them.  Learning piano without some of the keys is like learning to text without all of the letters.    You don’t use some letters very often, but – when you need them – you can’t succeed without them.  Start right.  Get a piano or digital piano with 88 full-sized piano keys.
    • piano key weighting

      Which of these is not like the rest? “Weighted Keys” are meaningless if they aren’t properly weighted. The acoustic piano on the left and the digital piano in the middle have properly weighted keys. The one on the right is too heavy and will cause bad playing technique.

      Properly Weighted Touch. What most people don’t know is that most “weighted key” keyboards aren’t properly weighted and, thus, are a menace to piano students! ‘Weighted’ simply means that they have some device to make the keys heavier so that they feel a little more like a piano. This can mean all kinds of things, such as a spring underneath the key, a weight at the tip of a key or even a system of rubber bands inside the action.  Try learning on one of these and you’ll develop horrible habits that you will have to unlearn later – or, worse, you’ll always play like you learned on an improper action.  Make sure you find a digital piano with a “gravity hammer” action or an acoustic piano with a “direct blow” action (this eliminates toy keyboards and spinet pianos).  A 55-gram technicians key weight should depress Middle C about half-way on a properly weighted action.  Ask the person you’re considering purchasing an instrument from to demonstrate that the piano you’re considering has a properly weighted action.  You will be very thankful you did.

    • A Sustain Pedal –  Within the very first year of piano lessons, you or your student will be using the sustain (or “damper”) pedal.  It’s important that you select a practice instrument that not only has this pedal, but has one shaped like a piano pedal with the “incremental” pedaling feature.  All acoustic pianos have this, but most keyboards do not.  Without this, you will never learn how to properly sustain the music you play.  Pedal technique is just like playing technique.  You or your student require the proper tool to learn how to do this… and you will be doing it A LOT – so make sure your practice instrument has a proper “incremental” pedal.
    • Tuning Stability – Here’s one you almost never have to worry about with a digital piano, but you really have to watch when purchasing an acoustic piano. Pianists begin training their ears to hear musical notes from the very first day of piano lessons.  If your piano is not in tune, if some of the keys “don’t work,” or if you had to tune the piano “to itself” (instead of standard tuning), you will severely damage your (and/or your student’s) “ear” for music.  For some folks, this can never be completely overcome.  Others can overcome it, but it takes years.  Don’t start lessons with an unnecessary road block in your way.  Get a piano (or digital piano) that can be tuned to A-440 (“standard” tuning – your tuner will know what this means) and that can HOLD that piano tuning for at least six months.  Buying a “cheaper” piano might mean you have to spend a lot more money maintaining it.  (See How Often Should I Have My Piano Tuned for more info.)  This is something else you should ask before you make a purchase.
    • piano key regulation problem

      One quick way to determine whether or not a piano is in good regulation is by checking the key tops. If they aren’t level, the piano needs work.

      Proper Action Regulation – Regulation is to piano touch what tuning is to piano sound. It’s impossible to develop proper playing technique and the appropriate finger strength on an improperly regulated piano (like a “spinet” – any piano shorter than 40” tall).  The keys must be level, balanced, responsive and evenly weighted with smooth motion from top to bottom.  Make sure you have a registered piano technician help you if you’re considering a used piano.  This can save you a ton of money later.  Watch this video for more info:

  • Piano Bench – This one might surprise you, but it’s not “ok” to just sit at a folding chair or to place a keyboard on your kitchen table. Developing the right playing posture prevents headaches, bad playing technique and even injury over time.  It’s critical that you have a proper piano bench set to the proper height for your piano student (your piano teacher can help you with this).  Most new pianos come with matching benches, but used pianos (even some digital pianos) can be a bit tricky here.  Make sure your practice instrument comes with a bench that is designed to match it!

playing a bad piano cartoonPracticing on a toy keyboard, an “old beater” or an out-of-tune piano will RUIN your (or your student’s) playing technique, damage your “ear” and make you want to quit piano lessons.  It’s not worth the risk.  Start right – with a proper practice instrument – and give the gift of music making to your family for decades to come

Looking for a great practice instrument?  Here are the Home Pianos and Home Digital Pianos we recommend for a lifetime of musical bliss

Remember.  We’re always here to help.  Contact Us for a FREE copy of our Piano Buyer’s Guide.  Without “pushing” certain brands or price ranges on you, it will guide you through more basic info you need to know when selecting a piano or digital piano.  Of course, you’re always welcome to ask for some personal help from any of our Riverton Piano Pros.  Our goal is to help you enjoy a lifetime of music – whatever your style, experience or budget.  We would love nothing more than to add you to our musical family.

Whatever you decide, I hope you found this blog helpful and I look forward to hearing your piano success story!

See Also:

Piano Basics
Digital Piano Basics