The following article was contributed by The Legends Piano Studio – www.stlouispiano.com
I would like to start by first saying that I do not believe that the experience of playing any digital piano will ever 100% match the experience of playing a word class acoustic piano such as a new $30,000/$100,000 Steinway Piano. The closest a digital piano can ever come to an acoustic piano is to sound like an acoustic piano “through a speaker”. We all know that while music sounds very good through an excellent speaker system, it simply does not match the natural sound produced by old fashioned strings, hammers and wood.
Having said that, not everyone can afford to spend $30,000 on a new Steinway Piano and so the question arises, “Is it possible that a pianist or piano student may be better served by purchasing a digital piano rather than an acoustic piano? The answer to this is yes in many circumstances however there are a number of considerations to think about before making this important decision.
For the purposes of this blog post I will focus mainly on the needs of the piano student and piano teacher and the type of instrument that is best suited for study. There are numerous other considerations, such as do you want to practice with headphones? or do you want to plug the piano directly into a computer to record it? Other questions for teachers include,
How can using a digital piano enhance my teaching? How can digital pianos enrich the learning experience of the student? or How can using and electric piano in lessons linked to a computer make lessons more fun?
However, these questions are beyond the scope of this blog post.
The question we must answer is “Can a digital piano ever be an acceptable replacement for serious piano students to practice on?”
This is a question that has provoked fierce debate since the invention of the electric piano with purists drawing the line and saying that a digital piano can never be a suitable replacement for an acoustic piano.
Should a student buy an acoustic piano or digital piano?
Well, of course, the answer is “it depends”. Some of the considerations include;
Budget – digital pianos give more “bang for the buck”. Space – Digital pianos take less space than comparable acoustic pianos. Acoustic Environment – Digital pianos can often be adjusted to suit their environment. The Clavinova CVP 309GP, for example, has a feature that intelligently analyzes the acoustic environment using built in sensors and it then automatically adjusts the tone of the piano for the best possible sound whatever room it is in. The level of the student – the more advanced the student is, the more important it is for them to study on a top class instrument. For very advanced students a large percentage of their time may be spent practicing on a digital piano; however this should not be the only instrument an advanced student uses for practice.
There are many “variations on a theme” when looking at digital pianos and some are suitable for students who would like to study the piano seriously and others are not.
When digital pianos were first invented the purists had a good point and I do believe that at that time they were correct. Digital pianos were plain and simple just not good enough for serious piano students to learn on. But, we need to remember that this was a long time ago. This was in a time before any of you had a computer in your home. As digital pianos rely on computer technology they have always “rode on the back” of technical advances in computing. It is easy to see how computers have improved over the years to the point where they are now a “must have” item. The advance in the quality of digital pianos has been equally as impressive in the same period of time. Digital piano have benefitted in every way from all the breakthroughs in computer technology from processing speed, memory and the ability to hold more data on increasingly large internal hard drives. There have also been considerable advances in the ability of digital pianos to faithfully reproduce the piano action, or the “feel” of the instrument when playing. In my opinion the graded hammer action effect of a Yamaha Clavinova CVP piano is far superior to that of most similarly priced acoustic instruments and it does a very good job of replicating the piano action of a much more expensive acoustic piano.
I believe it is possible that some teachers formed their view of digital pianos when the technology was very young and have not reevaluated their assessment in the light of the remarkable advances that have been made since then.
Many years ago, maybe as many as 15 years ago, the decision was made by the top music schools in the UK (which are amongst the top schools in the world) that advances in the technology of digital pianos were significant enough that the instruments were now of a standard and quality that would be able to serve their students and teachers. These students and teachers are some of the finest in the world and therefore the most demanding in the world as far as the quality of the instrument is concerned.
If digital pianos were good enough for the finest students and teachers in the world 15 years ago then I certainly feel that this issue should now be put firmly to rest and the music education community should finally accept the fact that things have changed and digital pianos now offer a level of playing experience that is equal to, if not better than, many acoustic pianos that would be within the budget of the average student.
In many cases digital pianos offer significant benefits for both teachers and students. If you are interested to hear my thoughts on the benefits that digital pianos offer piano teachers and students please let me know and I will consider a separate blog post on this topic.
The most important aspect of purchasing any piano for many parents is budget.
While a top acoustic piano will always be superior to a digital piano in the responsiveness of the sound to the fine degree of technical and musical control of the advanced musician, in the real world most of us have considerably smaller budgets than would be required to purchase an instrument of this quality. I believe it is true to say that in many cases piano students would be better served by practicing on a good digital instrument rather than a poor acoustic instrument.
Whereas a top acoustic instrument may cost in excess of $30,000 many quality digital pianos may be purchased for between $2000 and $10,000.
Digital pianos are built to exact standards. You know for example that a Yamaha CVP 309GP that you see in the store is going to be exactly the same as a CVP 309GP that you see for sale anywhere else. It is built to exactly the same standards. It will feel the same when playing the notes and it will sound the same. It does not matter how old the digital piano is, the performance remains consistent. The same is not true for acoustic pianos. No two pianos are exactly the same and one may feel and sound very different from another. Environmental conditions also play an important role and may degrade an acoustic piano over time considerably. The notes may be heavier on one instrument than another making it more difficult for a beginner to play and the tone of the piano may be darker or brighter from one instrument to the next. These differences are exaggerated over time and may become larger. It is entirely possible that you could love playing a particular model of piano in the store but dislike playing the piano you buy unless you purchase the exact piano you try in the store. Therefore it is always very important to make sure that the acoustic piano you take delivery of is the exact one you played in the store and not one that “is the same model but has come from the warehouse”.
My own CVP was $9,900 in the store when I was looking to purchase it. I found the exact same piano online which was brand new, unopened in a box for $4000.00. As the store would not even enter into any negotiations about the price of the piano I, of course, purchased the one I found online as there was no difference in the two pianos. I got lucky. I found a piano distributor that was liquidating the stock from a music store that had gone out of business. This would not have been possible with an acoustic piano.
The piano came from Atlanta. If this was an acoustic piano I would have had to travel to Atlanta to inspect the piano before purchasing it as the feel and sound of the piano may have been very different. While I do believe in trying to support local music stores as much as possible, unfortunately in this case the difference in price was too large to ignore.
How do I know if a digital piano is good enough to learn on?
A full technical description of all the elements that go into making a digital piano is beyond the scope of this blog post. It can be very confusing to know if a digital piano has everything you need. Some digital pianos may have full size keys but they may not be weighted. If they are weighted the action may not be as good as it needs to be. Some digital pianos have large sample rates but inadequate speakers. It is very difficult to choose a great digital piano unless you are a musician that has spent some time studying technical specifications and comparing the technical specs from one piano to another and then comparing the cost to see which piano gives you more for the price. As new models of digital piano are released all the time this landscape is forever changing and it is necessary to always have the most up to date information. My advice would be to seek the advice of a teacher who knows about digital pianos. If you do not know any piano teachers that are familiar with digital pianos I would advise you to get “the best Yamaha Clavinova Digital Piano from the CVP range” that you can afford.
I have used a Clavinova for over 15 years and find that as a teaching tool it is second to none and helps make learning much more fun. I previously had both a digital piano and acoustic piano in my teaching studio and I would ask students which instrument they would prefer to take their lessons on. No student opted for the acoustic piano once they were aware how playing a great digital piano would increase their enjoyment of learning piano.
Who uses Digital Pianos?
A quick Google search will confirm that Clavinova pianos are used in the following prestigious music schools;
Oberlin Conservatory Eastman School of Music University of Southern California University of Arizona Portland State University
The First Choice of the Royal Conservatory of Music
The Yamaha Clavinova is used extensively in music education throughout the UK, including the following prestigious establishments:
Royal Academy of Music The Guildhall School of Music and Drama The Royal Northern College of Music Birmingham Conservatoire Cheethams School of Music, Manchester
A good digital piano is suitable for most piano students and often preferable to a substandard acoustic piano.
Ask your teacher for a recommendation for a particular model of digital piano or go with the Yamaha Clavinova CVP range.