I thought I would write a few words on the difference between Pianos, Digital Pianos and Keyboards and why certain options are less helpful.
One vital difference in comparing Grand or Upright Pianos(acoustic) with keyboards is their action. Piano keys are thicker and heavier than those on a keyboard and being naturally weighted due to the mechanism of the instrument, take more effort to play. It is harder to build finger strength for playing the piano and develop the correct technique without weighted keys, it will be harder to play and progress on a piano without having this feature on your own instrument. While ‘real’ pianos are expensive and high maintenance – they will need regular tuning, and you need to be careful about where in the home you place an acoustic piano – the sound, timbre and resonance of an acoustic piano are very difficult to replace. The palate of sound colour and expression that is available on an acoustic piano cannot be matched, and technology can only go so far in replicating this. A new or reconditioned upright can be bought for a couple of thousand, but the cost of a grand piano can stretch anywhere from a few thousand to the price of a small apartment!
The Keyboards are usually the cheapest of the three options here. I am sympathetic towards those who wish to avoid spending too much when you don’t know yet if a child will ‘like’ and stick with the piano, especially if money is an issue, but worst case scenario I wouldn’t like to see someone use one for long. The keys on an electronic keyboard (such as that pictured) are much thinner and lighter than those on a piano or digital piano. It takes much less effort to play a key, and there is often no ability to vary how loud or soft you play according to how you play these keys. Keyboards which are capable of dynamics(loud and soft depending on touch) will be labelled as “touch sensitive”, but many won’t have this. Keyboards are very easily packed away, but anything that a student will be practising on needs to have a piano action(weighted keys, etc. ) and to be on a dedicated stand at the right height. In addition to this, they don’t usually have the full 88 key range of a piano. Saving the cost of a term of a term of lessons before actually taking them can bring a basic digital piano into a possibility, but if the situation is really that difficult, I would hands down rather see someone continue to enjoy music than give up because of what they don’t have access to.
Digital piano technology is always improving – it’s possible to get a decent instrument with weighted keys for around €400 new which may last up to around an intermediate level (check out Yamaha P-45 for example, not pictured), so that’s a good few years of lessons for the majority of people. This option ensures that a beginner student has the right set up at home which allows them to develop the correct technique from the beginning. These are usually provided on a stand at the height of a piano(but may take up less space) and with pedals included, though there are certain times when they are sold separately. Look for the term “graded hammer action” or any variation of it – this means they have used some kind of weighted key technology and that the bass keys are heavier than the treble(high) keys, similar to how it is on an acoustic piano. Digital pianos also often have many different sounds to play with and built in features to encourage creativity and support learning – such as the ability to record yourself, use an onboard metronome, play along with a recording, etc.
If you’re trying to keep costs down looking for a second-hand instrument is an excellent option. I would be more than happy to help any student of mine source a cheap digital piano, a second-hand digital piano, or a very old upright piano as an alternative to a keyboard – My first upright acoustic piano was bought for me for €60, it was old and beat up but still an acoustic piano. I know many teachers who would also be willing to help their students with this, and the internet makes it easier than ever nowadays to track down an affordable instrument.