Julia Pinckney Jones
Choosing a Piano for Beginners
"I don't have a piano at home... can we start piano lessons without one, until we know if we like it?"
Well, you can, but I can almost guarantee that if you start lessons without something to practice on at home, you won't like it. Piano is an instrument with a fairly steep learning curve at the beginning level, and requires consistent repetition of the skills you learn in your lessons in order to make progress. So it's a much better idea to purchase or rent a piano or keyboard right from the start.
"But I don't want to spend thousands of dollars on an instrument when I don't know if my child will stick with it."
Of course you don't. We at Desert Home Music are well aware that the days when almost every home had an acoustic piano in it are long past. Pianos are large, heavy, expensive pieces of furniture, and a good one is a big investment, especially for a young beginner who may decide that piano isn't for them after all. And that's fine. You don't need to make a big investment to have a good instrument to start playing on!
"So what do I need, and how much should I spend?"
Acoustic Pianos: Prices vary from "cost of moving" to thousands.
If you have room in your home for an acoustic piano (upright or grand) then I'd highly recommend trying to get one. Consider the initial cost including moving charges as well as the ongoing upkeep.
This is the most common type of acoustic piano. Some are fancier than others, but it's the sound that counts!
Spinet pianos (or studio, or apartment sized)
have a shorter, smaller footprint and are quieter.
These are the most impressive, and sound beautiful - you can close the top to quiet them a little. They do take up a lot of space and tend to be very expensive.
Buying (or adopting) a "Real" Piano - Maybe cheaper than you think!
Many people with pianos are "downsizing" these days and are offering fantastic pianos for free or cheap. (You'll probably have to pay the moving costs, but that still makes for an amazing bargain.) If you have room for one, I'm a big fan.
If you don't know anything about pianos, you might want to pay a small fee to have your teacher or a piano tuner come with you to evaluate the piano. Most old, unplayed pianos will be out of tune, which is fairly easily remedied, but there are other things that might render a piano much more expensive to restore, and you need to know that going in.
If you go to a store to buy a piano, try playing several in your price range. Many piano stores have some used pianos that might be a good bargain, but not if you don't like the sound.
Once you have your new piano in your home, you will have to do an initial tuning or two, and then about one tuning per year after that. (Annual tunings are usually $100-200 depending on your location and how many piano tuners there are in your area.)
Electronic/Digital Pianos: Prices range from around $500 to $2000 for "upright-style" - "Grand Piano" style costs more, of course!
Digital (or Electronic) Pianos (the names are kind of interchangeable) can be a great option for many people, since they are affordable and sound great.
Some digital pianos are housed in a "cabinet" that makes them look very much like an acoustic piano.
Some have simpler metal or wooden stands:
Some just come as the "keyboard" and you need to buy a stand. You will also probably need to buy a piano bench, although one is sometimes included with purchase.
(More about stands and benches later)
You never have to tune a digital piano, so the upkeep costs are lower than an acoustic.
There is usually a headphone jack, so you or your child can practice at any time without disrupting the rest of the family (and wearing headphones allows a person to practice without being as distracted by whatever else is going on in the house.)
Things to Look for in a digital piano:
Touch sensitivity: (if you hit the key harder, the note will sound louder - and vice versa) Most, if not all, digital pianos will have this. Basically, if you're spending the extra money on a digital piano, this is a deal-breaker.
Weighted keys: (there is resistance to pressing the key down, similar to the "feel" of playing an acoustic piano) Yes, this will make the digital piano heavy. The feel of weighted keys is actually achieved by using weights.
Full 88-keys: Again, by the time you're getting a digital piano, this should be standard. Beginners won't need 88 keys for awhile, but it's good to have a full sized keyboard.
Some kind of music holder: Most digital pianos will come equipped with a built-in music stand. A solid wooden or plastic one is preferable to a wire one, but some kind of music stand is essential.
A Speaker: Remember that this is an electronic device, and doesn't make any acoustic sound. Many digital pianos (but not all) have built in onboard speakers (left). If the one you purchase doesn't, it was probably originally intended as a professional "stage piano."
This is a good thing, since the quality will probably be high, but you'll need to purchase a keyboard amplifier (right) if you ever want to play without headphones. (Hint: you will want to play, sometimes, without headphones)
Piano style pedal: Even some good-quality digital pianos don't come with a pedal at all, and if they do, it might be one that looks like a guitar pedal (right) rather than one that looks like a piano pedal (left). If the piano you buy doesn't come with a piano-style pedal, you can (and should) purchase one.
It's partially about the feel, partially about being able to play with sustain, but mostly that guitar-style pedals slide around on the floor and are hard to find when you need to use them!
Electronic Keyboard: Prices range from <$100 to around $1000
Keyboards are a great entry level option, especially for younger kids - when you're not sure whether they're going to continue. Just keep in mind that eventually, you're going to have to upgrade to a digital or acoustic piano.
Things to look for (and avoid) in a keyboard:
Touch sensitivity: Many less expensive keyboards do not come with touch sensitivity. Since most piano teaching methods introduce the concept of playing with dynamics (loudly and softly within the song) very early, it will be extremely frustrating to play without touch sensitive keys.
Full size keys: Some keyboards have smaller-than-standard sized keys. These should be avoided. While little fingers may find these keys easier to play at first, they will quickly become frustratingly small, and it's important for children to develop muscle memory for how far apart the keys are.
As many keys as possible: Many keyboards have 61 or 76, rather than 88. This is probably fine to start with, as beginners will generally only be playing the notes near the middle of the keyboard.
A good piano sound: I assure you, you will eventually get tired of listening to a low-quality, 80's style piano sound. Make sure that you actually play the keyboard you're considering purchasing and that you like the main piano sound.
Don't waste money on too many "bells and whistles": Most keyboards come with lots of pre-installed "sounds," some have songs pre-programmed, and many that are marketing towards beginner students will offer "lighted keys" and other gimmicks. You don't need them. Children may have fun experimenting with different sounds, and that's fine, but it's not essential, and lighted keys don't really help with learning to play piano.
Some kind of pedal: While (as above) I advocate in favor of piano-style pedals, they can be a bit more expensive, and if cost is the determining factor, any pedal will do. But if (as is often the case) the keyboard you want doesn't come with one, get one as soon as possible.
Some kind of music stand: You need to be able to read your music, so make sure there is something to lean a book against, built into the keyboard. The more substantial it is, the better. If you buy a used keyboard, chances are the music holder has been lost or broken, and will need to be replaced.
Keyboard Stands and Benches
Some electronic pianos and keyboards will come with (or be built into) a stand, but some are not, and only a very few will come with a piano bench. The lower the price, the less likely it is to come with anything, so you will need to buy a keyboard stand and bench. Placing the keyboard on a standard table or desk will render the keys too high for good positioning, so you'll have to factor these items into your analysis.
X-brace stands (left) are the least expensive, but they can definitely get annoying, since you constantly hit your knees on them if you're sitting at the keyboard. (They're great for stage performers who stand to play, but not for sitting)
Table/Desk style keyboard stands (right) are also good, as long as the height is adjustable. No more injured knees! They are usually adjustable for width as well as height, which makes them perfect for different sizes of keyboard.
Adjustable Z-shaped stands (above) are more expensive, but great to work with! They are very "heavy duty", so the keyboard won't move when you play - which is wonderful when you're playing "forte!"
Piano benches come in many styles. We use benches for piano rather than chairs because they allow you to sit forward instead of being tempted to lean back.
The traditional bench (right) even has some storage in it, which can certainly come in handy!
However, If you have a child taking piano lessons, it's worth it to get an adjustable height bench. It will grow with your child, and you can still use it with your next (better) keyboard!
Once again, the X-brace style (left) will be the least expensive option, but you can definitely upgrade, and maybe even get some of that sweet music storage! (lower right)
It's a lot to think about. We know. Let us help!
Listen, we at Desert Home Music know that it's a tough decision. But here's the good news: We're here to help you make it! We don't have any affiliation with a particular brand, or store, and we aren't the type of teachers to judge you if you really just want the cheapest possible option that will still work. Heck - I'll help you go through Craigslist if you want - I freely admit to having got more than one keyboard/piano from it over the years!
Tell us what you want, and we'll do our best to help you find it!