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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.