When a keyboard just doesn't cut it

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I have allowed several students to begin taking piano lessons when all they have to practice with is an electric keyboard at home. At what point should I refuse to give lessons to these children unless their parents get a suitable instrument?

-- Kelley Dahn (keldahn@msn.com), October 07, 2004


Isn't that kind of mean?

Maybe their parents are barely able to afford the cost of lessons--keyboards are much cheaper, and far more versatile than just a piano. Maybe they honestly have no place for a piano (small house or apartment), or like the convenience of a keyboard because you can put on headphones so that some other person can perhaps study in the same room. Keyboards are virtually maintenance-free, and you can easily transport them to one event or another. Also, if a child decides later on that they aren't interested in piano long term, then the parents haven't wasted a ton of money, either.

I understand where you're coming from--touch and feel isn't the same, for example, but look at it this way--at least they're still spending money on lessons with a live teacher, instead of using a computer program, for example.

-- GT (nospam@nospam.com), October 07, 2004.

I cannot believe what I am reading here. How could someone not accept a student just because they are not able to own an acoustic piano. I live in New Jersey and I am in a very small, but probably the most well-known town in New Jersey. I did my homework and found that there were several children as well as adults that were starved for music lessons. Some of the adults I have met wanted lessons as far back and early childhood, but parent's then could not afford them. SO, I did one better. I opened my studio, in my home, for the not so fortunate student, and today I have some wonderfully talented youngsters and adults taking lessons for $10.00 an hour. They of course purchase their own books, which I have many in stock. The lessons are extremely thorough. N ote-reading, ryhthm training, pitch and ear training, as well as technical drills, scales,theory and music. I'm not getting rich in my pocket-book, but I am richer than most in my heart when I see the faces of these students when they come for their lessons every week. I coulnd't be happier. Take one step back and really think about what you said. Shame on You !!!!

-- Patricia Norton-Hickok (Piano et Forte@aol.com), October 09, 2004.

Wow, you two were rather hard on Kelley.

Kelley, I think you are asking a very valid question. I tell prospective students that, although I will accept students who have only a keyboard, they must plan to get a piano within 6-12 months. It is not a matter of being "mean;" it is a matter of what instrument I teach. A keyboard is not the same instrument as a piano (I can't believe I even have to say that on a piano teacher forum). :( Just as I am not an organist, or a harpsichordist, I am not a keyboardist; it is not what I am trained to play and teach. If I were to try to teach a student who had only a keyboard (with no intention of getting a piano), my work would pretty much be through after I had taught the student the notes and rhythms. There would be nothing to teach regarding tone; technique is different on a keyboard; the pedals on most keyboards are (imo) nearly worthless. The things that I teach to my piano students simply would not be relevant to a person who played only a keyboard. Plus, many keyboards have tons of features that I know nothing about, and couldn't help the student with. Now, if some piano teachers happen to also feel very comfortable playing on keyboards, and are knowledgeable about them, and wish to be a keyboard teacher in addition to being a piano teacher, that is fine. But if Kelley's expertise is piano, I see nothing wrong with her telling a student that she can only take the student so far on a keyboard (ie 6-12 months). BTW, I do have a keyboard in my studio that I use for certain things, so I'm not implying that keyboards are totally worthless. I just don't see the two instruments as being interchangeable for teaching purposes. Annie

-- Annie (no_name_poster@yahoo.com), October 11, 2004.

If you have enough students to be that selective, sure. But why take them at all if they don't have a real piano right then....? And would you rather have someone practicing on a real junker of a piano that is hardly ever tuned, or a decent-sounding keyboard?

I do understand what Annie is saying, but if an instructor feels that strongly, then advertise that way--"piano, no keyboards" from the start, and don't make exceptions. That way, someone's feelings aren't hurt down the line. If you start to refuse to give lessons after happily accepting their money before, it may come back to you in the form of non- referrals. Just something to think about.

And, on the other hand, why not learn keyboard as well? Could be another way to make some extra money, especially if you concentrate on the "pro chord" methods out there. A lot of people buy keyboards so they can learn and play the pop music they like--no shame in that, either. To most people, the differences between a keyboard and a piano are relatively minor, something that perhaps doesn't matter until one becomes really proficient....

Have a talk with the parents and find out what their circumstances are, maybe they do have concerns as I cited above, or maybe they are actually just afraid they'd pay too much for a real piano, but are willing to buy one at some point. If as a teacher you can let them know about gently- used pianos, or when the local college is having their sales, that might alleviate some of their worries, and get you back into a win-win situation.

-- GT (nospam@nospam.com), October 11, 2004.

If I offended anyone, I'm sorry.

I just tend to see keyboards perhaps more as "student grade" instruments (obviously there are good and bad of those too), as opposed to totally different instruments. If someone takes lessons long enough, practices enough, and is exposed to a really nice piano on a regular basis (like at the teacher's house), they probably will buy one at some point in time, when they can afford it and have the space for it.

I just don't like the idea of telling someone (especially a child who really has no say in the matter) to shove off for a somewhat insignificant (imho) reason.

-- GT (nospam@nospam.com), October 12, 2004.

No offense taken, GT. Just still surprised. I've never encountered other piano teachers who were so accepting of keyboards on a long term basis.

I don't advertise as "piano only--no keyboards" because I figure the fact that I am a *piano* teacher sort of implies that already. But if I do get a call from someone who has only a keyboard, I explain my requirement for a piano within 6-12 months (including my reasons), and I haven't had anyone not enroll for that reason. Maybe I'm lucky. At any rate, it's not a situation that leads to anyone's feelings being hurt, since I am upfront in the initial phone call and interview.

I guess I'm also surprised at your comment that, to most people, the difference between a keyboard and piano are minor. Even my first year students have told me they don't like the feel of a keyboard as much as a piano (although they do like all the cool sounds and rhythms). And once a student is playing early intermediate level classical pieces (or even early int. student pieces), a keyboard just isn't going to cut it. I don't think it only matters to someone who is "really proficient."

Another thing I stress with prospective students is the fact that pianos do hold their value very well. A family could spend several hundred dollars on a keyboard, and within a few years it will be nearly worthless (kind of like a computer that is a few years old). And I realize they could spend only a hundred or two for a keyboard, but then the quality is really going to be poor. OTOH, an investment in a piano can almost always be recouped in resale.

Oh well, it's really not my intention to be argumentative. If a teacher feels comfortable teaching keyboard, and has students who have no opportunity to practice on a real piano, that doesn't bother me. I just didn't want Kelley to think she was being totally unreasonable in her question, and I wanted to elaborate on my opinion.

There's room (and a need) for various kinds of teachers. :o)


-- Annie (no_name_poster@yahoo.com), October 14, 2004.

I completly agree that is up to the teacher what s/he feels is best. I have allowed a few students to start out on keyboards as long as they have more than 66 keys, get a stand, a bench, etc. I tell them that they will have to invest in their child's education by purchasing a piano in 6 - 12 months. I also tell them that the only reason I will accept a student with a keyboard is financial difficulty. It's not good for the student if the parent has the attitude that they will invest after the fact. This does not set the student up for the best outcome.

I do believe that a keyboard makes an excellent second instrument when used as a supplement to piano lessons.


-- Lea Johnson (clearfuture@erols.com), October 16, 2004.

The reason I accepted "keyboard" students in the first place was because the parents didn't want to invest in a piano if their child wasn't going to practice. I was asking for advice concerning a time period for when the "experiment" should be over. Obviously, after a year or so, the child has shown interest and should be encouraged to continue...on a real piano.

Frankly, I am concerned I am wasting parents' money. If what they wanted for their child was a basic understanding of music and to perhaps be able to pick out a couple tunes by themselves, I feel I have accomplished that. I cannot teach pedal, dynamics, touch, or songs that utilize more than 3 octaves with my "keyboard" students.

I like the advice I got which suggested I say up front a student can use the keyboard for a year before renting or buying a piano. Afterall, they can find another teacher if this does not suit them. Even beter, maybe I could say once they reach a certain proficiency level, I cannot take them further on just a keyboard.

-- Kelley Dahn (keldahn@msn.com), October 17, 2004.

I enjoy reading all the responses. I would add that I agree with having to have a real piano if one is teaching/studying classical piano seriously. On the other hand, if someone is taking or having his/her child take piano just as an exposure to music, maybe continuing, probably not (look at how many kids are in band up through high school graduation then never pick up an instrument again), whether they use a keyboard or not shouldn't be too much of an issue. Many studies have indicated that children who are involved in music do better in school, and parents may have children take lessons for that reason.

Same with if they are learning a pure "chord" or improv piano method, as opposed to classical--in this case, a keyboard may actually be better, because it is more versatile with the extra sounds, pre-set rhythms, ability to record your music, doesn't have to be periodically tuned, etc.

Finally, as an example, lots of people play guitar only with chords with perhaps some strumming patterns (i.e. folk guitar) and make beautiful music, while others follow in the traditions of the great Spanish guitarists. Both types "play" guitar, but in different styles, and many are quite talented within their type of style. And let's not leave out the electric guitar people, either.

I know that one person (not the guy currently on PBS) who had developed a chord piano method, said that yes, he was classically trained, but had accepted a job as a back up musician for a rock group in a concert once, and found that his classical training was of no use in doing improvisation to lead sheets with just the chords on them. He also found, in teaching, that many people aren't really interested in the scales and exercises, etc. but want to play enough to be able to accompany themselves or others while singing, using the "fake books".

Being able to "play" piano should not just be narrowly defined as only being able to play "classical" piano is what I'm saying. I guess the assumption here is that all teachers on this forum are teaching classical piano only?

As long as you, the parents and the child are all on the same page with expectations, then things should be fine. Also, showing "interest", is not the same as showing real aptitude or talent. I would say, sooner rather than later, have an honest chat with the parents and child (together and/or separately) and find out how they feel--they may have a built-in "stop point" in mind, you never know, which may also be working against their getting a real piano. And, once the child reaches a certain age, there are often other activites competing against each other that have to be taken into consideration. How committed is the child to piano, or is this the only outside activity he she has?

-- GT (nospam@nospam.com), October 18, 2004.

Is anyone thinking of the high quality Electric pianos being produced now. I for one spent a whole semester studying on a Yamaha Motif 8 an 88 key weighted keyboard with sense and touch almost exactly like the baby grand piano in the practice rooms at our School. Not only was my jury succesful but I was deemed by the piano teachers "most improved" Go figure.

-- Donald (dnthomas@hotmail.com), November 08, 2004.

At the risk of jumping into the wrong forum... I am the parent of an 8 year old who wants to try piano lessons. I was surfing the web for keyboard info, wondering all the while whether a keyboard is enough like a piano for getting a child started (I am a complete musical illiterate - I'd hate for my daughter to be one), when I came across your debate. Given that I am not going to buy a piano for something that she may end up dropping after a few months (not unprecented for her, but not something we expect her to do), what keyboard features would be acceptable to a good piano teacher who would accept an 8 year old student on a keyboard for 6 months? Many affordable, entry-level (per the manufacturer's claim) models have 61 keys, and from there the specs become a mystery to me. Thanks for any advice you can provide (and I hope this question does not start a raging debate!).

-- Jonice Webb (jonice@rcn.com), November 15, 2004.

Will you be having your daughter take classical lessons, or chord lessons (sometimes referred to as "pro piano") ? If you're doing the chord lessons, a keyboard is probably fine, simply because they cover the keys most pop music is written in. That makes a difference right there.

-- GT (nospam@nospam.com), November 15, 2004.

I've taught piano for about a decade and some of my current advanced pupils started on keyboards. After about a year I start persuading them to get a piano. The time scale depends on the progress of the pupil - once the pupil is soon not going to be able to do things at home that you've taught in the lesson, it's certainly time. To Jonice I would say, you definitely need full size keys and no less than 5 octaves - you run out of notes very quickly. Get a touch sensitive keyboard if at all possible (one where the note sounds louder when you play it more forcefully). This will prolong its useful life - I find it difficult teaching pupils who cannot play dynamics at home. Looking back over the years, I do think my pupils who started on pianos found it easier. I do think that what Annie says about a piano being a better investment is true- parents don't want to spend money when their child might give up quickly, but you can probably sell the piano at what you paid for it -you won't get much for a used keyboard. Hope this helps.

-- Sarah Owen (sarahp@1MUM.com), November 24, 2004.

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