Further thoughts on grand vs. upright vs. digital

I’ve continued to think a lot about these issues since my last article, and because of feedback I received, I just want to clarify a couple of points.

My biggest concern is that some people with uprights that they love might feel deflated by my opinion that an upright is not good for practicing classical repertoire. I didn’t mean to offend anyone who takes the piano seriously but enjoys practicing on an upright. After all, uprights do provide that important sensory feedback I talked about so much, and you can get a lot of enjoyment from playing one — especially a well-maintained professional upright with a beautiful tone.

My point is that an upright action feels and behaves *very* differently from a grand action, and uprights have a much narrower dynamic range than a grand. Because of this, practicing on an upright can hinder a pianist’s development.

I am sticking to my opinion that certain digitals are “better” than uprights for a developing pianist. To be perfectly clear, by developing pianist, I mean someone who has reached the point of playing Beethoven and Kuhlau sonatinas (roughly Level 6 of the Royal Conservatory Music Development Program curriculum) and shows no sign of reaching his or her limit. To me that suggests someone who is headed to conservatory level and beyond. If you or your child are not at this point yet, then there is no reason to trash your beautiful and enjoyable upright! Frankly there aren’t too many people who reach this level and are still going full steam ahead. But, if you have (or your child has), then it is definitely time to think about a change.

Options for the pianist who has reached this point are:

  1. Keep the upright for occasional playing in order to enjoy that acoustic sound and feeling, but get a high-quality digital (budget at least $1000) for most of the practicing. Additionally, try to find a place to practice on a good grand once a week. Check local schools, universities, piano shops, churches, etc. Presumably, lessons would be on a grand too.
  2. Sell the upright, and get an even better digital (budget around $2500), but make absolutely sure there is somewhere to go and practice on a nice grand at least once a week besides at lessons.
  3. Get a grand. Budget at least $20,000. Depending on your living situation, get a digital too if practicing without disturbing others is occasionally important. (This is my solution. I am *very* lucky that my parents moved heaven and earth to get me a Steinway grand 25 years ago.)

I hope that sums it up a bit more clearly. Be aware that many teachers have different opinions on this. In general, classical musicians are slow to adopt new technology. Electronic keyboards were so woefully inadequate in the past, that many good teachers haven’t given the latest models a chance. To me, this development is exciting because it means that kids whose parents can’t afford a $20,000 grand can still aspire to reach the highest levels. It makes classical music more accessible. With a good digital at home and a grand elsewhere to practice on once a week, I don’t believe there is a limit to a student’s development.

Another addition to the last blog post… When I talked about the sensory experience of playing a grand vs. a digital, I failed to address the important issue of volume.

I’ve had a fascinating exchange over email with one of my adult students over the issue of dynamics vs. volume. What I’d like to just touch on here is that even though a wonderful digital (especially with the addition of virtual piano software) may have a dynamic range comparable to a grand, there is no way that it will reach the same volume unless you were to crank it up in the headphones to a level much too dangerous for your hearing. (Do NOT do this. I have some hearing loss, and it is quite upsetting!)

This, again, makes it essential for a developing pianist to play on a grand at least some of the time. You can get a big range from a digital, but I think it is essential to play a real grand to figure out what you have to do physically to produce various dynamic levels. You can’t depend solely on a digital for this because without the actual aural feedback of a grand, it is too hard to judge if you are playing as loudly or softly as necessary. Once you have the feel of how to get different dynamic levels on an acoustic, you can certainly play with the same technique on a digital and hear the different dynamic levels though they will all be softer in volume.

OK, next article will be very soon and will be an introduction to “virtual piano software” both sample-based and modeling-based. If you have no idea what this means, you are in the same boat I was in a few months ago. Prepare to be amazed.


in Digital Piano Tech

17 Responses to Further thoughts on grand vs. upright vs. digital

  1. pwl says:

    Well now, your “further thoughts” have sparked a bit of controversy at Piano World – with one poster (from The Netherlands, no less) characterizing your latest blog post as “largely BS”. I have no idea whether he’s actually read it!

    Personally, I think your thoughts constitute a fresh – and extremely valuable – breeze on this subject. Telling parents and talented kids it’s not only OK to practice on a digital, but even advocating it over an upright acoustic – that’s a big deal! I suspect this is nearly revolutionary – and a huge relief – to some folks’ ears. (And heresy to others, of course!) And insisting on the importance of a quality grand, even if only once a week at first, is an equally valuable prescription – a medicine that must be taken and not ignored. (I know, a great grand is a joy, certainly not a medicine. But some folks still need to be strongly encouraged to take it!)

    • Thanks! Ah… the internet… where no one can disagree civilly. That’s why I stay off of forums. What I write here are my *opinions* based on my training and my many years of full time teaching. People are perfectly free to disagree. 🙂

  2. Charles Cohen says:

    Now I have a question:

    What’s the difference — in terms of “hearing damage” — between:

    . . . practicing on a grand, and

    . . . practicing on a digital piano with headphones running at “grand piano”
    . . . sound levels, and

    . . . practicing on a digital piano with loudspeakers running at “grand piano”
    . . . sound levels (which most DP’s can’t reach, but some of them can) ?

    One serious pianist reported that he bought a Roland V-Piano, adjusted it so it was as loud as a grand piano, and _never_ touched the volume control again. That makes sense, to me.

    If your own hearing has been damaged by grand-piano practice, that would be a good thing to know. I’ve never measured the sound level at a GP keyboard, but I’d imagine it could get pretty high.

    . Charles

    PS — that Piano Forum discussion generated a lot more heat, than light.

    • Hi Charles!

      Well, I suspect my hearing damage was more likely caused by my teenager years of listening to rock music (and my own electric guitar) REALLY loud in headphones. I am the first generation to have had a portable music player, and boy did I abuse the privilege.

      A student of mine who is knowledgeable in these matters told me that I should never play headphones as loud as I would hear something “live”. Something about the proximity of the speakers to the ear drum. Not sure why it would make a difference, but I’m inclined to believe him.

      And yes, a grand piano, especially in a small room, is LOUD! Probably loud enough to cause damage after playing for hours a day for years. Since most digital pianos don’t have the best speaker system anyway, I don’t think it can really replicate the sound of the grand. Maybe the Yamaha Avant-Grand…

      Since I started worrying about damaging my hearing any further, I got a pair of Etymotic ear plugs. They are great. They cut 20dB without changing the color of the sound. Good for long practice sessions at the grand or when I am teaching a particularly loud student. 😉

    • Charles Cohen says:

      Thanks for the recommendation for Etymotic ear plugs. I’m going to try those myself (surprise — they’re not expensive!).

      I’m still suspicious about “the headphones are very close to your eardrums, and that makes them more dangerous”. I’ve heard it before, but never with any analysis to back it up.

      Loud music on Walkman’s– _that_ is a proven problem. I occasionally see somebody on a bus or train, playing headphones so loud that _I_ can hear the music. Ouch!

      . Charles

    • The only reason I am inclined to believe the “headphones are closer to your eardrum” thing is that I’ve noticed that when listening to music on headphones, my hearing gets “fatigued” pretty easily. When I use headphones for a long time, if I start at a moderately loud volume, I find my ears kind of tire, things start sounding a bit distorted, and I am turning the volume down more and more as time passes. Yet when I practice on the acoustic, I never have the feeling that it is too loud. Hmmmm.

    • Lefont says:

      I’ve read some studies that point to a few factors. One points to the dissipation over distance. Another points to sealed headphones not allowing any pressure waves to escape so open back headphones are less harmful. I am not completely convinced of these arguments, but this following third point seem to make some sense.

      Sound frequencies produce tactile sensation to the body. The first note on the piano is around 27 Hz and the waves are over 20 long, and if you are sitting in front of loudspeakers or grand piano, you can feel the low frequencies hit your body and the reaction is, wow, this is loud because it literally could make your body sense discomfort at high volumes.

      The problem is, nobody goes measuring how loud that was, say 80 dB than measure their headphones at 80 dB before putting headphones on their ears. They just put them on and turn the headphone up until they feel it is as loud as the speakers or grand piano, and lacking any tactile influence from the body, they generally turn it up much higher, maybe 10-15 dB higher on the headphones before thinking it “feels” the same even when it never could. Considering the grand piano is easily 80 dB, you’re probably listening to headphones closer to 90 to 95 dB before thinking it “feels” the same. If the instrument is already so loud that it’s on the verge of damaging our hearing, trying to simulate it using headphone will definitely push it over into the danger zone.

    • That all makes sense to me!

    • Robert says:

      I tend to agree with Lefont: what matters it the power of the pressure waves hitting the ear drum. Newer studies show (if I recall correctly) that anything above 80dB (possibly even less) will cause irreversible damage. Personally, I find anything close to 80dB at least very uncomfortably loud. Since a grand piano at close range and/or in a closed room can probably easily reach such levels, one should be careful even with the ‘real’ thing.

      I am quite sensitive to loud noise myself, which might partly be due to fearing for my hearing, since I too used to listen to very loud (metal) music as a teenager. Nowadays I’m in my late 30s and hear up to 14kHz on a good day. That’s not atrocious, and I’m not 15 anymore, but I still wish it were better.

      However, as I said what matters in terms of damage is solely the intensity of the pressure waves. That’s just physics. 😉 A closed pair of headphones is less comfortable because they shut out ambient noise; certain frequencies might also be over-emphasised due to standing waves, which means that they sound different; they also might effectively be a bit louder than open-back models. The isolation part is in my opinion what can cause feelings of disorientation over time. But 80dB will be 80dB, whether via phones or ‘directly’.

      The isolation aspect also means one loses any sense for absolute loudness, which in fact could mean that one increases the volume to dangerous levels without actually noticing it. This is also the real danger of earbuds and music players: one might not really notice how frickin’ loud it really is, especially when one is used to high volumes. Example: let’s say that kid 6ft from you is playing music at a volume so that you can still clearly hear it: then we are talking about 40-45 decibels at least. Since the earplugs are less than an inch away from the eardrum and also effectively focus the sound towards the eardrums, those will probably be hit by more than 85-90dB: bad idea.

      Regarding absolute volume: with a good pair of active monitor speakers (8″ class or larger) you can probably reach ‘realistic’ loudness without much of a problem. It will however still sound much worse than the real thing because the spatial distribution of the sound will still be ‘wrong’. 🙂

    • Thanks for your insight, Robert!

    • Lefont says:

      The feeling of fatigue is a classic symptom of audio compression. Compared to a real piano, even a CD will be somewhat compressed.

      Here’s where headphones (especially in-ear) may produce a more compressed sound compared to loudspeakers because there is little air between headphone drivers and your ear, so while both device may reach the same peak levels when carefully set that way, headphones may sound a bit more compressed. I would think external monitors would be a tiny bit better and loud speakers from 12 feet away be another tiny bit better.

      The problem with fatigue is that our natural reaction is to turn up the dial a little. You know when you hear something good, you go this part is great, so you turn it up a bit, but often we don’t turn it back down once that part’s over.

      The secret is protecting our hearing is to learn to suppress our compulsion to turn things up, and to learn to listen at a lower volume. Also, set volume limiters. With portable devices if you can’t hear something well because of ambient noise is too high, don’t fight it, just turn off the device.

    • Makes a lot of sense, Lefont. My audiologist said he tells people to never wear headphones in a moving vehicle: car, train, plane, bus, etc. He says that because there is the vehicle noise, you naturally turn up the music to dangerous levels to overcome it. He says that just making that one change could save a lot of people a lot of hearing damage. I know I blasted headphones for years on the subway and on buses. Eek.

  3. Mark says:

    Hi, Rachel! Just found your blog, it’s great. Thanks for that. I have written that certain digitals are “better” than uprights, can you please mention about what models you were writing?

  4. Judy Boyter says:

    Hello, I came across your website and wanted to ask your opinion on grand piano suggestions for my piano students. I have a family wanting a grand now that their two young children are studying piano with me and are extremely interested and play so much at home on their upright. I told them a Yamaha or Kawaii would be a good Japanese choice. What other brands do you recommend that are not too expensive (probably not a Steinway, or a Bechendorf, etc)? I own an August Foerster 190. I love it and teach with it everyday, but I remember a beautiful Vogel and other European pianos I liked when I was looking 10 years ago. What are your recommendations in a lower to mid price range for a family with elementary school aged children?

    Thank you,
    Judy Boyter
    Voice and Piano Istructor
    Spring, TX

    • Sorry for the delay in responding. I love the Foersters! The only other brand I might have them consider that you didn’t mention is the “Essex” line. I’ve heard they are good for the price, and I played a few at Steinway Hall in Manhattan. They were not bad at all!

    • Lefont says:

      Essex is good value and sounds more American and less Japanese. It is among upper tier Chinese made pianos today. In the case of Essex, designed by Steinway. The new Ritmüller being design by former Bechstein designer Lothar Toma, are also good pianos from China, which I tried. (I own an Essex upright 2010. Contrary to rumors, after 5 years of daily pounding, it has not fallen apart or failed to hold its tune.)

      Unfortunately, all the European grand piano brands including former eastern European countries are in the too expensive category like Estonia. Bechstein, Bösendorfer, Förster, Steingraeber, Steinway are all in the outrageously expensive category. An August Förster 190 in plain black is $67,718 today. An Estonia of the same size is $48,139, which is as cheap as it comes from Europe. Anything more affordable would be completely made in China or mostly made in China and finished in Europe / America.

  5. Heather says:

    I came to your site because I just started Chopin’s Revolutionary etude a couple weeks ago and now my ears ring after about an hour of practice. I have a 1969 Steinway B which I adore, but even with the lid down it’s pretty loud when playing ff. I put a carpet underneath and I think I might cover it with a quilt. I saw some good recommendations for earplugs/filters that look helpful too. I know I could play softer, but the reason I took up the piece (beyond its beauty) is to exercise and strengthen the hands. I think it might be important for teens and older who can play loud to take hearing into consideration when choosing a grand over an upright. Practicing on a grand once a week may be healthier, though less fun than playing one every day.

Submit a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *