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Piano Buying Guide - It's Not All Black and White

Saturday, October 20, 2018 by Phillippa Cairns | Keyboard, Piano, Music, Music Lessons,

Piano Buying Guide- It's Not All Black and White!

You've given your child the incredible gift of music lessons and now face the daunting task of looking for an instrument for them to develop their skills at home. Here is a step by step guide on how to choose the best instrument for your child's stage in their musical journey...             
First Month of Lessons

When signing their children up for our Young Beginners Lessons, parents often ask me ‘Do they need a keyboard to start?’ The answer is ‘Not necessarily right away’. Although having an instrument to practise on at home is obviously favourable, the first month of lessons for our really young students (ages 3-5) is always focused on understanding their way around the keyboard. We recommend practice in the form of students showing their parents what they have learned in lessons, and this can be done on a toy keyboard, or even an iPad app- you could easily encourage your children to show you how they find Middle C and the other note names using these. Older students aged 6+ are taught about posture, technique and positioning from very early on, so the need for a decent instrument is more pressing here in order to ensure faster progress.   

There are many apps available which will allow your younger child to demonstrate their first few lessons of knowledge.

First Year of Lessons

After the first few weeks, students should begin to get into the habit of practising regularly on a decent instrument. The main question parents should ask themselves here is, should they-
a) buy a cheaper instrument that may only last for a year or two.
b) invest now and be prepared for when their child is at a higher standard.  
The most important goal is that your child has an instrument to practise on as soon as possible so either of these options is fine as long as it’s not delayed. Parents who prefer option B should read the information below on ‘Grade 1 and Beyond’. Parents who prefer option A read on…

What do I NEED in a keyboard for my child?

  • Touch Sensitive Keys/Touch Response

This means that the keys change volume depending on how much force you play with, replicating an acoustic piano. This is essential for the development of your child’s playing, as they will need to practise their dynamics (loud & soft) from quite early on in their musical journey.

  • Minimum 61 keys

If you purchase a keyboard with fewer keys than this, the range becomes very limited and it won’t be long before there are not enough keys on the keyboard to play the pieces they are working on (especially with older children). When you’re buying, it should tell you how many keys are on the keyboard but if you’re buying second hand or from a friend or neighbour, make sure you include the white AND BLACK keys when counting how many keys you need.

  • Adjustable Keyboard Stand

From early on in their lessons, PJC students are encouraged to use good posture and technique. Your child should be sat at the instrument with their knees just in front (underneath) the keyboard. The height of the keyboard should be so that their hands and elbows are at the same level, creating a perfect horizontal line (if you placed a pencil on your child’s forearm from wrist to elbow it should rest perfectly without falling). You don’t need to spend a fortune on a special seat; an adjustable keyboard stand would do the trick for about £15-£20.

When a student's posture is correct, they are then able to achieve the perfect 'claw like' position with the hand while playing. 

What do I NOT need to worry about?

  • Playback functions
  • ‘Songs’ (Inbuilt demo tracks)
  • ‘Styles’ (Backing beats)
  • ‘Voices’ (Instrument Sounds)
  • Light up keys

These devices can look exciting and sound impressive but by having lessons, your child is learning something more special than flamboyant gadgets- the ability to create music themselves and eventually play and compose anything they want! Although many keyboards come with these anyway, you certainly shouldn’t let these influence your decision when purchasing.

How much should I spend?

It is good idea to buy a good quality keyboard second hand than a cheap new keyboard. Adults often buy keyboards with the intention of learning, and then give up; selling it on for half the price. It’s also very common that they have purchased a stand and sometimes even a bag or headphones that they include with the price, saving an extra £15-£50!

Which brand?

My advice for keyboards is go for Yamaha and Casio as they are well made and produce a good quality sound. Don’t just buy based on the brand alone though, make sure that it has minimum 61 keys and touch response. Stay away from the super cheap brands that come as a bundle such as ‘Gear for Music’ as the quality is poor and they tend not to last.  

In PJC group music lessons we use all Yamahas, the best and most up to date being the YPT340s.      

Grade 1 and Beyond

As soon as your child progresses to graded examinations, the keyboards above will no longer cut the mustard. All students are examined on acoustic pianos (where the pressed keys cause a hammer to hit the strings). This is a completely different feel to the keyboards discussed above, and students need to be prepared for this. However, although having an acoustic piano is a great benefit, it is not necessary for students to practise on, and buying a digital piano or an electric stage piano could even be the better choice for you.

Do I buy Digital or Acoustic?

Again this all depends on how much you’re wanting to spend. If you buy a piano, remember that it will require at least yearly tuning (about £60 per tuning). There are some digitals that look and sound like an acoustic, retailing at about £3-4K. My strong advice is to stay well away from these. Acoustic Pianos have a very long life in them and digitals have an expiration date. If you’re going to spend that much on a piano, make sure it’s acoustic!

Acoustic Pianos

An upright piano of excellent quality retail at about £3-4k new.  I always recommend Yamaha and Kawai pianos, as I prefer their tone.  

In PJC lessons when a student reaches a milestone piece, they perform their mini-concert to their group on our Yamaha Baby Grand.      

Buying a second hand acoustic piano is like buying a second hand car- it’s only as good as how well it’s been looked after. Unless it is dirt cheap and wouldn’t hurt your pocket too much if it was a disappointment, I would go through a reputable dealer rather than buying online. This way, you can make sure the piano has been fully checked over, maintained, and you’re getting a fair price for it. I wholeheartedly recommend Graham at GSG Pianos who I have always trusted implicitly to give me the best deal. You could get a decent quality second hand piano for £600-£700, but £1,000 is more your average benchmark. It is worth noting that there are buying schemes for children under 18 at certain retailers where you can buy a piano over 10 months on 0% finance so enquire about this before purchasing.

Another warning when buying a second hand piano online. Occasionally, pianos are so old that tuning them correctly would break the strings, and the piano is tuned a semi-tone or even a tone lower than concert pitch. This isn’t so much a problem unless your child develops ‘perfect pitch’. I had a friend at Music College who had this, but having learned on one of these old pianos, her ‘perfect pitch’ was actually a semi-tone out. It drove her crazy and after a while, she quit her degree before finishing. Check that the one you are looking at is tuned to concert pitch by downloading a tuning app (often used for string instruments) and playing the notes into the phone or tablet.

Digital Pianos

If second hand acoustics are like cars, think of second hand digital pianos like televisions. Digital Pianos have a limited shelf life, often of about a decade. Technology moves on and once the parts are not available, the instruments becomes obsolete. Digital Pianos retail new at about £800- £1,500. Any less than £600 and you start to lose quality, any more than £2k, and you should start to to be spending that money on an acoustic which will stand the test of time. You can pick up a digital for £500 second hand. Stay away from digitals from China, which are mass produced and poor quality. Stick with good brand names with long guarantees. Yamaha, Kawai, Roland are my top three.      

A Grade 3 student performing at a PJC Summer Showcase on a Roland Digital Piano.

A Final Note ♪

In the same way that you don’t need a brand new car to learn to drive or the latest 4K technology to enjoy your favourite programme, you don’t need to invest in a top range instrument for your child to learn, enjoy and achieve when it comes to the piano. The best thing you can do as a parent is to encourage and support them with regular practice. As their skills develop, the instrument does become more significant, but nothing is as important as the time and effort put into their playing, and the encouragement and support they will receive from you.      

With over a decade of outstanding results, PJC Music School provides group piano and singing lessons to young beginners Aged 3-14. For more information, contact Phillippa here.