Buying digital piano
too young?

Matteo said: Dec 17, 2017
 4 posts

Hi everybody,
My daughter is 6 and she’s been learning the violin with the Suzuki method since age 3 and 1/2. My son is 2 and 1/2 and every time I bring him along at the music school, he asks insistently to play the piano. The teacher lets him play for a couple of minutes and he’s crazy for it.

One of the teachers saw him and asked if we have a piano at home (we don’t) and suggested maybe we should buy one. I actually was already considering getting a budget digital piano for my daughter, as I think it would be great for learning basic harmony, keys, etc. (I’m a longtime amateur guitarist and I can teach her these things, but I’m no pianist at all so I can’t teach even basic technique).

My question is: could having a keyboard instrument that my son would essentially use as a toy be detrimental if later we decide to start real piano lessons for him? Or could it actually help? We won’t start until he’s at least 4, as he is much more impatient than his sister was at the same age.

Another looming question is what instrument to start him on. Violin or guitar would be much easier since I can help him (I finished Suzuki violin book n.3 myself and I’m studying Book 4 and Wohlfarht right now), I shudder at the thought of a third instrument, much as I like the piano.

Lori Bolt said: Dec 18, 2017
Lori Bolt
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
San Clemente, CA
252 posts

There has been a previous discussion here about digital vs acoustic pianos. You can search for it. You should plan to make the commitment to acquire an acoustic piano if/ when the decision is made to take piano lessons.

Lori Bolt

Kelly Williamson said: Dec 18, 2017
Kelly WilliamsonTeacher Trainer
Institute Director
Suzuki Association Member
Flute, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Cambridge, ON
287 posts

There is a surprising number of acoustic pianos looking for homes at any given time. The family of one of my flute students just acquired a piano for free on Craigslist or Kijiji (the mom is a professional-level pianist, so I am sure the quality of the instrument is very acceptable)… I was also passing by one day and saw a piano that someone had pushed out to the curb with a sign on it (basically free to a good home)—I had a family who had very little money but they very much wanted to have music for the kids. The daughter was my flute student on “scholarship”. I called them and they managed to find a friend with a truck and pick it up. In addition, I taught in a church at one point, and they told me that they received numerous calls from people who wanted to donate a piano—usually in the case of estates or downsizing—but that they had no more space for spare pianos, having one already in each room where they could put one!

I’d recommend that you consider the new instrument since he is so keen on it, and keep your eyes peeled for one of these kinds of opportunities. If you belong to a church or have one in your neighbourhood, it wouldn’t hurt to ask whether they’ve ever been contacted about donated pianos, and let them know you’d be interested if they can’t accept them. It’s a big investment, but it will benefit your whole family. I play both the flute and the piano. Anyone who wants to be serious on their instrument will need to have piano skills at some point. Even just fooling around on the piano fills in a lot of theoretical spaces for players of melody instruments such as the violin or flute. It’s worth considering seriously!

Kelly

Matteo said: Dec 19, 2017
 4 posts

Thanks for the answers. At the moment an acoustic piano is out the question for several reasons, such as cost, the fact that we live in an apartment, and my son still being quite young and with a tendency to break expensive things. He will not start taking piano lessons, if we decide for piano, for at least another year and a half, at that time we might look for an acoustic piano.

My question is whether letting him explore right now on his own (with some playful help from me) a keyboard instrument, such as a digital piano, can be helpful for learning the piano in the future, or it can be detrimental in the sense that he may come to see it as just a toy.

Kelly Williamson said: Dec 19, 2017
Kelly WilliamsonTeacher Trainer
Institute Director
Suzuki Association Member
Flute, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Cambridge, ON
287 posts

I don’t think there is any detriment. Children who aren’t in lessons will be using all kinds of strange and wonderful hand and finger positions when experimenting on the piano; these are addressed as a matter of course when they start formal instruction. I personally do not hold the view that exploration should be discouraged prior to learning things the “correct” way, though I have heard some people express this view. It is not supported by the science of learning!

Kelly

Kurt Meisenbach said: Dec 19, 2017
Kurt Meisenbach
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
Plano, TX
37 posts

No harm can come from your boy “playing” with the piano. I would not make this statement about musical instruments in general, where bad habits can be acquired without good teaching and proper parental guidance. In the case of the piano, the “correct” notes are already there. Although there is the issue of tonal quality, which requires professional guidance, the piano at its early stages is a friendly environment where the child can absorb a great deal of knowledge through experimentation.

Your child won’t see the piano as a toy. He will see it as a place to have fun, which is the ideal relationship to have with a musical instrument, especially at the early stages of learning.

You will want to set a couple of ground rules: don’t eat at the piano, no banging, and in the case of an electronic instrument, avoid excessive noise. Don’t use headphones. Although they may give you some needed quiet, they create two problems: 1) your child can turn the volume too high and do permanent damage to his hearing, and; 2) you will not be able to observe and participate in your child’s progress, which is important to his development and sense of accomplishment.

Within a short period of time, you child will start to play melodies he already knows and hears. When he starts to add harmonies to these melodies, it opens up a new world of knowledge and may lead to the ability to improvise, which is a skill valued by all musicians.

You are making a wise choice. Do it with confidence.

Betsy Stocksdale said: Dec 19, 2017
Betsy Stocksdale
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
Baltimore, MD
9 posts

I have been a Suzuki piano teacher since 1981.

You will live to regret purchasing a digital instrument. They have their place, but not as a primary practice instrument for a student of any age.

Value wise, they cost more than an acoustic. They also depreciate very rapidly, and resale is difficult. When they break, you are in trouble, because there is no such thing as a “Digital Piano Repair Guild.” There is, however, a “Piano Tuners Guild.”

In terms of technique, the student suffers. Technique is directly linked to sound and tone, and the child will be unable to create the sound that the teacher is teaching. This results in massive frustration and very slow progress, no matter how high the desire or how good the ear initially is. I have dealt with this over, and over, and over. I abhor digitals for this reason (keep in mind I own one, I play on one at church, and I understand their usefulness for gigging instrumentalists.)

In terms of size, you will find that all pianos are 60″ wide, and the same approximate height. Depth differs, but a small acoustic will only be about twice the depth of a digital, if that.

In terms of “apartment,” I sincerely hope you don’t have thoughts of putting headphones on a toddler. I don’t think I need to elaborate. If you have thoughts of turning the volume down so as not to disturb the neighbors, then you are going to create a child who develops the habit of banging to get the sound they want. I’ve seen it, over and over and over.

You do yourself and your child a grave disservice if you, for whatever reason, decide to get a digital.

Matteo said: Dec 19, 2017
 4 posts

Thanks Kelly and Kurt, you helped a lot in dissipating my doubts regarding the benefits of letting him “play” with an instrument.

Kurt, thank you also for the very useful set of rules.

Betsy, thank you for your input. You are making very valid points. I would not use heaphones and I agree with you that for a kid who is taking piano lessons, having an acoustic piano at home is important. However our choice is between: a) buying an inexpensive digital pianoa for experimentation and an acoustic piano later if and when he starts piano lessons (he may start violin or guitar instead, we haven’t decided yet), or b) buy nothing now and wait two more years.

Do you think it would be hard to undo any bad habits developed from “playing” with a digital piano? Right now I feel the benefits outweight the risk.

As far as limitations in sound, my daughter started violin lessons with a size 1/32 violin that was little more than a toy and even the 1/8 violin she plays now has a tiny sound compared to her teacher’s, yet she has progressed enormously.

You are right however that he should play at a volume loud enough so he will not need to bang, I hadn’t tought of that. On the other hand the rest of the family can play at a lower volume…

Barbara Eadie said: Dec 21, 2017
Barbara Eadie
Suzuki Association Member
Flute
Victoria, BC
21 posts

As far as the expense of an acoustic piano, Where I live, people can’t give them away. You should be able to find a decent one you can afford. Many schools here are getting rid of acoustic pianos in favor of digital ones. If you are worried about playing an acoustic piano in an apartment, locate it on an inside wall, and make sure your child is practicing during the daytime. Invite your neighbors to the year-end concert. If people know what the child is trying to learn to do they are usually more likely to tolerate the practicing.

Mengwei Shen said: Dec 21, 2017
Mengwei Shen
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Piano, Cello
Jersey City, NJ
165 posts

Here is a previous thread on acoustic vs. digital:
https://suzukiassociation.org/discuss/14723/

I have a hard copy of Karen Hagberg’s article “Beginners need the best piano” and it’s about tone: “Conventional thinking says that a beginner needs to learn many things before a good instrument is ever necessary: reading music, learning notes to pieces, basic music theory, etc. Kataoka Sensei always says, however, that the first thing a beginner must learn is tone—how to hear it and how the body must move in order to produce it. This very first and fundamental step cannot be taught or learned without good instruments which are capable of producing good tone… the beat-up old instrument, the cheap new one, and the electronic keyboard all make it difficult, if not impossible, for the student and parents to comprehend the essence of the lesson.” (the essence being teaching of tone)

You might end up with some “bad habits” from experimenting/self-teaching but ultimately: are you willing to change if your teacher asks you to? Even if you didn’t have a prior time of experimentation but started lessons and began at that point doing things your own way and ignoring your teacher—that doesn’t help either.

One difference with piano vs. violin is that wherever you go to practice piano, have a lesson, perform, you use the instrument in that location (well, unless your teacher is coming to your house or you’re hauling your own keyboard around). For violin lessons, you use the same violin that you practice on and don’t have to frequently adjust to another instrument.

Anecdotes:
- A prospective family: interested in “Suzuki” over “traditional” piano because of the child’s ability/interest to play by ear. They identified “by ear” as matching pitch and rhythm but were not previously taught about tone and physical aspects of tone, also phrasing, expression, etc. and realized they were not looking for a teacher who viewed those as important.
- A current violin student: got a much better instrument after spending a year and a half on a comparatively inferior one, now working hard and making progress on retraining certain physical habits.

Regarding concerns with breaking expensive things—digital pianos aren’t exactly cheap either, nor certain other things in the house (phones, other electronics, sister’s violin, your guitar). Learning to interact appropriately with things will have to be part of gaining life skills.

Still, I suggest to parents of very young, destructive, pre-lesson children that a xylophone type toy can serve almost the same purpose (search for Basic Beat 8-note resonator bells set $30). Learn the left/right direction of low/high pitch, figure out melodies, and drive the rest of the household crazy, at a much lower cost of money and space. Can a kid who plays with a xylophone toy grow up to be a proficient percussionist? Sure—when age/maturity/desire enable him to take the steps do so.

Matteo said: Dec 22, 2017
 4 posts

Barbara, if we decide for a piano later on, I might consider a used one. I see ads for pianos where I live, and sometimes they are quite cheap. The problem is that I’m unable to judge their quality and how much it would cost to bring them in good working order.

Mengwei, thanks for the suggestion. We do have a two-octave chromatic carrilon which is reasonably in tune, but he doesn’t show nearly the same interest as he does for the real “piano”.

Now I’m going to ask something I hope won’t make piano teachers angry: given the problems mentioned here of the digital piano as a substitute for piano (essentially, tone and feel), how about a plain electronic keyboard with non-weighted keys and used with non-piano sound? Being quite different from the piano, when later he is introduced to the piano there will be no confusion.

Mengwei Shen said: Dec 22, 2017
Mengwei Shen
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Piano, Cello
Jersey City, NJ
165 posts

You could hire a piano technician to check out a used piano that you have your eye on—similar to hiring a mechanic to help with a used car purchase (unless you are highly knowledgeable yourself or trust the dealer). It’s an expense, but otherwise you would risk it or perhaps buy new from a dealer with a corresponding price tag.

I would put the plain electronic keyboard in the same category as fancy digital piano with advanced features. It still has the same keyboard look and unless you have it set on a non-pitched sound effect, I wouldn’t call it “quite different” from a piano (and how will you enforce not using the “piano sound” option?). Completely different would be: a piano app (used on a touch screen), certain percussion instruments with keyboard-like formation, an accordion.

I’m way out of practice (10 years) but there are differences in organ and piano technique (hands) despite that the keyboards look similar. At the time, I had access to an organ to experiment on before starting lessons, and if I had continued to play around my way, that would have been a waste of going to an organ teacher. Regardless of experimentation or prior learning, it’s how you adjust once you have a teacher.

Laurie Maetche said: Dec 23, 2017
 
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Guitar, Piano, Cello, Viola
Lacombe, AB
13 posts

Everyone that has responded has made some valid points.
I like that you are getting such a rounded amount of feedback.
At the age of your son, allowing him to experiment and giving him the opportunities to do that I think is very beneficial and when the time comes for formal training then look into a quality instrument to aid him on his journey.

I found when I started my son on the acoustic piano because of his age (5 years) he had no finger strength so for the first 4 months or so of lessons I chose to do it on my keyboard with non-weighted keys. This was a good choice for us as he just wanted to play so this allowed his hand and finger posture to get stronger so that when we switched we could focus on proper technique and tone quality without strain. Within the 1st year he performed a nice little Minuet in our local festival on a beautiful grand piano with no issues and received a minor scholarship.
If I had to do it again I would do it the same way.

No matter what your decision it will be the right one for your family at this time.

Heather Reichgott said: Dec 24, 2017
Heather Reichgott
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
South Hadley, MA
102 posts

Some of my students have digital pianos. They have a somewhat more difficult time producing a good tone, fine-tuning the balance between the hands, and learning to use arm weight. But they can do it; it’s just somewhat harder and takes a bit longer to develop those skills. For the family, the trade-offs are probably worth it.
On the other hand, two students who had a very hard time being musical at all turned out to be practicing on acoustic instruments that hadn’t been tuned in years and were in extremely poor repair.
So if the family can’t, or won’t, take care of an acoustic piano (which does take time and care and extra cost), a digital is far preferable.

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