September 7, 2022

Do I need an acoustic (i.e. a "real piano" to take piano lessons?

Do I need an acoustic (i.e. a "real piano") to take piano lessons?

The old-school way of thinking:

All piano students must have a well-maintained acoustic piano to begin lessons. Period.

When I started piano lessons way back when, my teacher told me he wouldn't teach me for more than a year unless my parents purchased an acoustic piano. There was good reason for that logic back then, but times have changed. Digital pianos (not toy keyboards) are now a perfectly acceptable instrument for the first several years of piano.

In case the above answer did not help you make a decision, I've broken it down by age/skill level below. Most first-time piano families have budget as a primary concern, so I've mentioned some dollar figures in each category.

Beginners younger than 8 years old

Young kids try out a lot of things. Sometimes they are allowed to quit and try something else; other times, their parents require that certain extracurricular activities remain a core part of their lives. If your child is just dipping their toe into the pond of piano lessons, feel free to buy an entry-level keyboard. This will likely cost $150-$300.

The best piano for developing finesse and skill is a well-cared-for acoustic. Little fingers, however, do just fine with a decent keyboard. If the budget allows, stretch for a weighted digital piano over a toy-like keyboard. The best known brands will probably cost $600-$1000 and will last for the first 1-3 years of lessons.

While young students may not require an acoustic, there's no reason not to use it if you already own one. Your child will develop the touch needed to play expressively on an acoustic piano and won't struggle to transition when they play on their teacher's acoustic.

Older Beginners to Late Intermediate

Students older than about 8 years old have more developed motor control and larger hands. They will benefit from a full-sized instrument with a true weighted action. This can be a nicer digital or an acoustic.

Digital pianos for piano lessons
If you don't want to go the acoustic route, there are several excellent digital pianos on the market. I believe Kawai has the most realistic action, but I have several students that play on Yamaha and Roland digital pianos and enjoy those as well. Unless you can find a good used deal, you'll spend around the same amount as a well-maintained acoustic upright piano: $1500-$3000.

A "high-end" digital piano will be large and heavy. Its action will be far superior to the $300 keyboard. Depending on brand and model, it will have weighted keys with a hammer action that attempts to replicate an acoustic. Other features will be 88 keys, a sustain pedal, and hopefully, quality piano samples (the sound produced by the key when played). It’ll get you through several years of piano lessons, which will certainly answer the question of whether or not your child will stick with the instrument.

Acoustic pianos for piano lessons
Quality used uprights can frequently be found for under $2000. If you are new to owning a piano, I would encourage you to hire a technician to inspect it first. They will likely charge $70-$100. This might seem like a lot of money if you don't end up purchasing that instrument; but in that case, it would have saved you much more money down the road. Pianos are expensive to move and tune. You want an instrument that you move once and tune at an average interval (1-2 times per year in environments with large seasonal humidity changes). An acoustic piano that ends up having issues (like not holding its tune or needing repairs) can dramatically increase the cost of that "good deal".

Students with a deep interest in piano, all levels

Playing on a real piano offers optionality and nuance not available on any digital piano. And it's fun! It is profoundly stimulating to alter how you play and have immediate feedback from your instrument. It is what compels me to keep practicing. How can I make this sound better? Maybe a little more pressure here? Maybe a sharper punch there?

Acoustic pianos are alive!

As I mentioned above, used uprights do not have to cost a fortune. Sometimes, you can even get lucky with a grand. I have owned three different uprights and have sold them when I moved long distance. Each time, I either broke even or made a profit. All three were Kawai's, but I've heard similar tales with Yamaha. Like cars, Japanese-made pianos have a reputation for quality and durability.

Alternatively, there are very nice digital and hybrid pianos, but then you're looking at a considerable capital outlay. I have read of serious pianists considering a few models of digital/hybrid pianos to be equivalent to an acoustic. These models tend to cost more than $7,000 and probably closer to $10,000.

If high-end digital pianos cost the same as an acoustic, how do I decide which to buy?

It all comes down to your particular situation.

Headphones, portability, & lifetime expense

After budget, the option to play with headphones is probably the biggest reason most families go the digital route. If you live in an apartment or do not have windows of time where someone can bang around on the piano, you may have to go with an digital piano out of courtesy and convenience. This is absolutely fine and is a perfectly good substitute in order to take piano lessons.

Digital pianos are far more portable than acoustic pianos. While you could have a couple of burly neighbors move your upright piano, you'll likely need professional help with a grand. My 70-pound digital piano needs neither; my husband and I can work together to move it. With the grand, we are limited to minor adjustments in its current room. If we needed to relocate it in the house or to another home, we would hire someone to help.

I offer piano lessons in Milton, Florida. We have humidity here. Period. We also have changes in humidity due to running an air conditioner for much of the year and having dry periods in the winter. I tune my piano twice per year ($140 each visit) and I know of other pianists who choose to tune theirs four times per year. That expense adds up. Digital pianos do not need to be tuned.

As an additional thought on tuning expense - my grand piano will have occasional oddities pop up with the keys or strings due to swings in the humidity. While the piano is adjusting to the humidity change, I have to endure twangs, buzzes, or out-of-tune keys. My digital never has problems. Despite that trade-off, however, I will opt to practice on the grand every time. I love the expressiveness of it, and I am fortunate to be free to make noise throughout the day. 

An easy, stress-minimal path

Maybe there is another option. Don't try to categorize your child into a particular skill level or try to describe their exact life-long goals as a pianist. Just buy the best instrument that you can comfortably afford right now.

That might be an $800 digital piano from Amazon or a decent keyboard for $75 from a thrift store. If it has full-sized weighted keys, it is an excellent starting point.

Once your child demonstrates they actually love the piano and they want to practice, you may find that your willingness to buy a nicer instrument increases. Perhaps you'll find a place that offers a payment plan that suits you.

If money isn't the issue, then waiting still brings peace of mind. Pianos are big, and compared to other non-musical furniture, they can be kind of a hassle (especially if nobody ends up playing it a year later). Now that you or your child have demonstrated dedication to the craft, you'll probably find the purchase a lot more exciting and rewarding.

This was my journey. At age 12, I had a keyboard that was a step up from a toy. That broke after about 5 months of lessons. My teacher lent me a nicer keyboard for several more months; then my parents bought a shorter upright piano on a payment plan.

I later moved to the east coast for school, graduated, and bought a nicer, taller upright. A marriage and a move later, and I purchased a phenomenal Kawai US-50 (a class of upright often referred to as an "upright grand").

My husband and I spent two years traveling around the states to find our next home (Milton, Florida!). During that time, I traveled with first a Kawai ES-8 digital piano and later with a Kawai mp11se digital piano. Now that we are settled in Milton, I have a 5'11" grand, the mp11se, and a couple of lower and mid-range digital pianos for my piano lab.

(I don't think I ever lost money on selling/upgrading my instruments.)

This is all to say that the first purchase does not have to be the last. You can upgrade incrementally and reduce the pressure of making a large, potentially risky purchase. An acoustic piano will likely offer the most rewarding playing experience, but that doesn't mean digital pianos can't be a great substitute.