Piano or Keyboard Lessons: How to Choose?

Piano or Keyboard Lessons: How to Choose?
Piano lesson in progressAs 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.

Piano lesson in progressI 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.

It’s Never Too Late…

It's Never Too Late…
Even 20 years ago, I knew few vocal and instrumental teachers with any pupils over the age of 18. Nowadays, all that’s changed, and over the past 10 years, I’ve seen an increasing number of people taking up a musical instrument later on life. As a teacher, I welcome these ‘adult learners’ with open arms, and have always stuck by my philosophy that it’s never too late to try something new. Over the years my pupils have ranged from under 10, to well over 70. Here’s some advice for those thinking of taking up an instrument as a new hobby.

Why learn an instrument?

Many of the adult learners I encounter had music lessons as a child; many were put off by being forced into doing it or because of unsympathetic and uninspiring teachers. I think you can be rest-assured that things have moved on a lot since then. Adults have many reasons for wanting to learn an instrument; for some it’s realising a lifelong dream, and for others, it’s a chance to take up a new hobby. It’s a rewarding activity not just in itself, but in the opportunities it offers learners to meet with other like-minded people.

Why it’s important to find the ‘right’ teacher

Teachers are all very different, and it’s important to make contact with them to discuss your requirements. I will always be willing to listen to your aims, aspirations and concerns, and hope to offer reassurance and advice. I offer a consultation lesson to meet me face-to-face and to discuss your requirements further. The purpose of my consultation lessons has always been to listen to what prospective pupils want to get out of having lessons, and to demonstrate what I will be able to provide them.

What will happen in the first lessons?

All prospective pupils are nervous, adults more so than children. Please be assured that we are very experienced in dealing with nerves, and we do understand of how you feel. Although many adults come to me for the first lesson as a bag of nerves, they nearly always leave smiling. The first few lessons are likely to involve a lot of getting to know one another alongside the music itself. I will also be looking at where your musical skills are at; although many adults come along thinking they know nothing about music, many do, and many are surprised at how much they can remember from their school years. At every stage, don’t be afraid to talk to your teacher about any concerns you have; we are always willing to listen and to work with you to overcome these.

Don’t worry about the age gap!

One thing I have consistently found, has been that once musicians get together, whether it be taking part in some form of musical activity or on a social basis, age is totally irrelevant. Young and old work together for a common aim and all ages have a lot to gain from each other. The common ground is often found in the fact that everyone, both young and old, is nervous! Once my adult pupils get together, my studio is often filled with uncontrollable laughter, much to the surprise of younger participants!

The thorny question of exams…(though they don’t need to be thorny!)

In the past, many music teachers simply taught pupils for exams. Pupils learnt the material for one grade, and then moved onto another. Sadly, there are still teachers around like this, but in some quarters, things are changing. The simple answer is that you do not have to take exams: music is for life, not just for exams. Many adults decide that at some point on their musical journey, they’d like some form of outside assessment, but many are happy just learning for its own sake. No pupil, either young or old, should be forced into taking exams, and it’s important to not feel pressured by anyone.

Books and equipment

Depending what you choose to learn, you will need access to your own instrument (unless you are a singer!). Some teachers may be able to loan you an instrument in the early stages, and some shops offer a hire scheme whereby the instrument can be purchased at a later date. If you’re thinking of buying an instrument, it’s important to get advice either in a specialist shop or from a teacher. eBay is a wonderful website, but not everything sold there is worth buying. As you progress, you will probably need a few books and other small items, but these are generally inexpensive, and many will last for many months or even years. Some teachers are often willing to lend materials to new pupils, and where local libraries still have a music department, there’s much good music to borrow for free. When you make initial contact with a teacher, it’s worth asking what you’ll need, because you will need to factor in the cost of these things alongside the cost of the lessons themselves.

It’s a big commitment, but an enormously rewarding one; here are my top five tips for taking up an instrument as an adult:

  1. Find a teacher you feel comfortable and who understands your aims, aspirations and concerns – trust your instincts;
  2. Be assured that everyone is nervous, and teachers understand this;
  3. Keep an open mind – although you might be very clear about what you want to do, don’t shut the door on things you might not have considered;
  4. Talk to your teacher about the costs involved, and make sure that they make you fully aware of any books and equipment you may need;
  5. Be honest and share any concerns with your teacher; they want you to get as much as you can from the lessons too.

Remember that these initial enquiries and first few lessons are part of a much longer musical journey of discovery. I really encourage you to take up this new challenge.

I provide flute, piano and singing lessons here in Lichfield, and I will be very pleased to welcome adult learners. If you’d like to find out more, click here, or if you’d like to get in touch, simply click on the contact link above.