As a flute, piano and singing teacher here in Lichfield, one of the questions I’m asked more than any other is “What’s the difference between keyboard and piano?” For most people, and that often includes musical ones too, the layout of black and white keys on both a piano and a keyboard is no different, hence the understandable confusion!
If you were at school in the 1980s, you might remember your music department taking delivery of its bulk order of electronic keyboards; a fashionable accessory at the time. The trouble is, that over the years, they’ve got a bit of bad name. The general perception is that unlike the keyboard, the piano is a ‘proper’ instrument (though I don’t think they’re necessarily saying that the keyboard is ‘improper’!). There’s also a perception that the keyboard is easier than the piano: this couldn’t be further from the truth. Neither is proper or improper, they are just different.
In short, there are three sorts of piano: an electronic keyboard, a digital piano, and an acoustic piano. The difference between having piano tuition and keyboard tuition is quite distinct. Generally, because of the way an electronic keyboard is made, it isn’t possible to master the technique of piano playing on this type of instrument. For example, keyboards often don’t have full-size keys, the key weighting is not correct, and their response is, as might be expected, pre-programmed electronically. When having keyboard lessons, the time which on the piano might have been devoted to technique, is channelled to making use of the many and various electronic buttons the instrument offers. Generally, unlike the piano, keyboard pupils learn to play chords in the left hand and melodies in the right hand. These can be accompanied by backing sounds, and quite impressive performances can be created right from the beginning of having lessons.
Basically, the advice I always give is that prospective piano pupils (or their parents) should think about cost. I my opinion, those who want to learn the piano will need access to a digital or acoustic piano; the former start around £600 for a decent model and the latter from around £1,500 (often cheaper bought secondhand, but not a lot cheaper for a decent model). In contrast, an electronic keyboard is inevitably cheaper (as little as £150 or less). Many pupils start piano lessons with an electronic keyboard, and so far as I’m concerned, this is OK to begin with. However, it won’t last long – maybe just a month or so before the pupil will need to be learning the techniques which can only be learnt and mastered on a piano. Nowadays, some companies hire pianos on a rent-then-buy basis so this is also something worth considering to spread the cost.
I often feel unkind saying this, and it does come across as rather blunt, but the fact of the matter is, if the pupil or parent is unable to invest in a digital or acoustic piano either at the commencement of tuition or in the near future, they should instead consider electronic keyboard lessons. To put it plainly, you cannot truly learn to play the piano on an electronic keyboard.
It’s not all bad news though, learning the keyboard is just as fun. A certain amount of the skills learnt will be transferable to the piano at a later date, although it is almost certain that the pupil will need to back-track to learn some piano technique. Keyboard players will be used to playing chords in the left hand and the reading of the bass clef parts will often be new and challenging.
Whether you choose piano or keyboard, both are enjoyable and rewarding. Graded exams and diplomas are available right up to masters’ degree level whichever instrument you choose. As always, here at David Barton Music we’re always willing to advise and help pupils and parents make the best decision about their tuition.