Friday, February 5, 2010

Shopping for a Keyboard

I recently had a conversation with a friend, Abby, who was interested in piano lessons for her and her family. During our conversation, I asked her if they had a piano and her answer was that she was looking for a keyboard. I told her that I had opinions on that subject. Her main objective was that it had a headphone jack so practice could happen among a family of 7 and growing. I thought it was a very good idea for her. Headphone jacks are among the nicest things that a keyboard provides, even for a piano teacher like me. I can practice at all hours and not disturb anyone and Audrey and Ben can still practice and give me a break from the noise, especially after a long day of teaching.

Here are the absolute essentials when buying a keyboard:
1) 88 keys!! That's a full keyboard. Anything less will limit your abilities, even for beginners.
2) Weighted, touch sensitive keys. This means the key depresses similarly to an acoustic piano and will respond to a lighter/heavier touch by sounding softer/louder. You will want to try several keyboards to understand this more fully. For contrast, remember the little Casio you got for your 10th birthday? No, you don't want a big version of that.
3) Sustain pedal. This is a pedal continues to allow the sound to reverberate while it is depressed.
4) A stand or better a cabinet for the actual keyboard. This is a way to hold the keyboard stationary, keep it from wiggling while playing and also keeps the pedal stationary.
5) A bench. Proper height and posture at the keyboard is important for technical development.
6) Music stand. Hopefully, self- explanatory but if not, it holds the music. At this point, if you have a proper cabinet, you will also have a music stand.

What is definitely not so important:
1) The number of sounds it can make. Yes, it can make practicing more interesting, but don't pay extra for it.
2) Any programs that syncronize with a certain piano method. What are the chances that your teacher is going to use that particular method?
3)Any other technical stuff that they try to sell you on. Remember, technology changes instantly. If your child get to the point he wants to layer sounds, etc. you can always add on. The keyboards all come with enough outlets to add those features.
4)Cabinet color. I know, this is a sensitive subject! I am not in love with the cabinet color of my keyboard, but for what I wanted, it was all that was available. If your instrument will be in a highly visible place, perhaps this will be a bargaining point with the dealer. However, don't walk into the store and say you want a black piano!
Addendum: If you are currently or will be taking lessons soon, ask your teacher what he/she prefers. A lot of teachers will be fine with you having a keyboard for an instrument. There are some teachers, though, who only want you to have an acoustic piano. And a few, far in between teachers, that insist you must have a grand piano! It is always a good idea to check if you can.

What to do at the store:
Have you or your student play lots of keyboards and listen and feel. The top two things I shopped for in my keyboard was how the piano setting sounded and how the keys felt when I played them. The heavier, the better since it will help finger strength. Listen to the piano sound and don't get distracted by the drums, voice, strings and trumpet sounds. What you will work with the most is the piano sound and so you want to like it. Most keyboards are not going to have state of the art sound systems to amplify, however, you can always add on. But do listen. If you don't like it you may want to choose a different one or be prepared to configure things with additional purchases. Listen to the higher voices, lower voices. Listen to all sounds when the pedal is depressed. Play it by making loud sounds, soft sounds, fast, slow, short, not connected notes, long, connected notes. Don't be afraid to do all of these to all the keyboards. Even if you don't know a lick of music. Try, try, try. Ask questions, too. Be discerning of those who are trying to "sell" you versus helping you make the best instrument purchase for your needs.
Don't look at price tags, too much at the beginning. It will sway your opinion prematurely. Make notes: I like... on this keyboard. I don't like this... It costs this much, etc. Then, later on, as you look through your list and try them out again,you can narrow down the list. If a favorite is just way out of your price range, ask the dealer if there is another similar keyboard, but in a lower price range. Now, there is wiggle room in all of the prices. The competition of online shopping will tell you that. I am not a good haggler, so I leave that to Bill. Be prepared, though, to perhaps spend a little more for a better instrument that will bring the enjoyment you expect it to.
There are many brands out there. What I chose may not be what you choose. Again, be cautious of numbers the dealer may swing your way. "This x-brand has sold more than ...# models." There is a lot of room for a lot of everything in those kinds of statements. I can't say much for online reviews. Everyone is going to love or hate something about each and every keyboard, and it can get really geeky, really quick, leaving you without much help. It is really up to your personal preference.

This is going to take a little while. Please don't expect to walk into a music store and buy that day. I hope, though, that you will feel confident in making your purchase after reading this. Please feel free to contact me if you have more questions, too.


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Thanks for reading. Kind comments are always welcomed!