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ďDigital Pianos, Facts or Fiction

"Digital Pianos, Facts or Fiction."

Almost every piano teacher will tell you that it is best for your child to take lessons on an acoustic piano. There are many reasons a piano instructor recommends this. However, in this article I want to share some facts that hopefully will help put things in perspective for all those who are willing to think through this subject with an open mind.

FIRST: It always amazes me when people are so dogmatic about telling others how things should be done. Ignoring the evidence of what many people have accomplished, by doing it just the opposite way of their opinion.

This can be easily illustrated as we consider the blind spots in our medical field today. How many times has a person gotten well from a sickness, using a means totally un-approved of? Is it better that the person remains sick than to get better by using a treatment that the experts say is not best?

What I am saying is that we want people to play music, children to learn music, and people to enjoy the process of learning. If they get there a different way than you got there is that way wrong? Some teachers would say so. However, I donít think so and the evidence is the proof it just isnít so.

Most teachers will tell you that a student should start with the piano and it is the king of all instruments. I personally disagree. I believe the King of all instruments is the Organ. Though that King has been dethroned nevertheless the Organ has a far greater history than the piano. The organ is goes as far back as the days of Adam and his children. Most people look to the Harp as being the predecessor of the piano, but we know that there was no piano as we know it with escapement and the ability to play loud and soft, until 1700 when Bartolomeo Cristofori built it. No doubt the harp and harpsichord are considered the predecessors of the piano.

Note there are still harps today, and they are still called harps! They are marvelous instruments, but certainly not the king of instruments. The Piano is called the King of instruments by many because it is such a great tool for musical compositions and accompaniment. However, this is because of convenience not because of the facts historically or in reality. There is no instrument like the organ for the ability to provide all the tonal rage of the orchestra. In fact, what an organ really is and always has been is an instrument designed to take the place of an orchestra or many musicians at once. The earliest organ was an instrument that had many pipes that could be played together to produce harmony.

Since the earliest time of human history it has fascinated the minds of men to have one man produce the sounds of many instruments and musicians from one instrument, called the organ.

When I was young my parents wanted us to play an instrument. They bought my brother and I accordions. An accordion is really an inexpensive and primitive organ. In fact, they were probably the equivalent to a portable organ in their day. Who could take an organ with them? However, the accordion was nothing more than a cut down version of an organ. Every accordion has tabs that try to imitate other instruments. On my first accordion there was a tab called Bassoon, and another called, Clarinet, and another called, oboe. Did these tabs accurately duplicate the sounds of these instruments? Not really, but if in that day they could have done a more realistic job in their imitation of these orchestral instruments, they would have implemented any advances available to do it!

I will never forget when I first heard a salesman at a music store demonstrate a combo organ. He was able to play a string bass, a drum sound and an organ sound all together at once. That was the day that I decided I wanted to play organ rather than accordion. I was about 11 years old at the time. Why settle for second best? I begged my parents to buy me an organÖ and they said, "if I did better with my accordion lessons they would," so as I advanced on the accordion they kept their end of the agreement.

That purchase started my love for music. What if the salesman or some teacher told me you canít do it that way, you need to start with the piano? I wasnít fascinated with a piano. What excited me was the idea that I, being one person, could sound like many. That was the original goal of the most primitive of organs: To play more than one pipe or reed at a time.

What was the goal of a piano? The real goal was to get away from the limitations of the harp and harpsichord. The harpsichord could only be played at one volume as the keys plucked the notes. The harp was limited also. The piano escapement made it possible for a player to play a stringed instrument using a keyboard both loudly and softly. Thus the original name "Pianoforte" meaning piano = soft + forte = loud. A keyboard instrument that by the touch of the musician could be played loudly and softly with the use of the mechanical escapement of the action. The harder (or quicker) the musician trips the mechanism, the faster the hammer hits the string and the louder the instrument plays. The beauty of music is the ability to add dynamics and emotion to a composition. This is accomplished by controlling how loudly and softly an instrument is played.

Recently I had a customer that came to buy a piano from me. He said his piano teacher insisted he get a Grand Piano. He did not understand why? I explained to him escapement and showed how this worked on an action model. I also showed how on a Grand piano there is greater control of escapement and demonstrated the ability to play a wide dynamic range. Then he finally understood and bought a Grand piano. He said to me, "why couldnít my teacher explain that." I said, "because she is not a technician and a teacher. I have been both." The classical music he was studying required a Grand piano. However, if he were playing other music this dynamic range would not be necessary or could be achieved in a different way.

Let us get back to the history of the piano. Soon just like so many other instruments, the piano took on a personality of itís own and became the most popular of Keyboard instruments, surpassing the organ.

With the industrial revolution, almost every home in our country could and did have a piano in it. The piano reigned supreme and still does. However, what was the goal of the makers of the piano? It was to provide an instrument with versatility.

Now this brings us to the digital keyboard. Now it is possible to have a flute stop on a keyboard that sounds like a real flute. In fact, with digital electronics what is being played is an actual recording of a flute. A basson can sound like a bosson. The possibilities seem endless.

Laurens Hammond, in 1935, invented the Hammond Organ, to be an electronic economical substitute for the pipe organ. The ingenious array of drawbars provided an versatile way for the player to control the voices and ranks of the organ which were set up like pipe stops. Again, the goal was to imitate the pipe organ, which was huge and expensive, and was designed to imitate multiple players of reed and flute instruments. The ultimate goal: gives one player the ability and flexibility to sound like many. Flexibility of tone, and volume, was now possible through electronic design. Soon the instrument took on a personality of itís own and now, it has become the classic sound of the Hammond that everyone wants to hear in popular music, from gospel to every form of contemporary music imaginable. Even the defects of the instrument are imitated, whether it is the keys that clicked or the speakers that distorted.

This now brings us to the digital piano. Is it really a piano? Is it inferior to a piano? Remember this, the first pianos were not very popular. Bach himself did not like them at first. When Hammond Organs came out they were sued by Pipe Organ manufactures because of the claim that they could imitate the sound of a pipe organ. By the way the Pipe Organ Companies lost the lawsuit.

It was the sound of an organ that sparked my first serious interest in music. I decided in high school that I wanted to study music in college, and wanted to be an organ major. The college I wanted to go to did not have an organ major, and I was told that even if I went to college as an organ major, I still needed to study the piano. When I was 16, my parents helped me to get my first piano and I purchased a Hammond Organ and Leslie. It was then that I started to study music seriously. I then discovered the beauty and versatility of the piano. I studied music on the piano; I loved and played music on my Hammond.

Now here is the bottom line of this article, and conclusion of it all. The Organ was around a lot longer than any piano. The piano superceded the Organ because of versatility, the piano then became a standard unto itself. Most teachers will tell you that it is essential to have an acoustic piano to properly learn the piano. I personally think it is essential to learn the piano to be a proficient organist, but the superior instrument is the organ not the piano and this is becoming more evident with the advancement of digital electronics.

The digital pianos of today are actually Hybrid Organs of yesterday. Today it is possible to have the 88 notes of a piano, a piano that sounds very close to a real piano and all the other instruments that sound like the real instruments. Plus the keys are touch sensitive and add the capabilities to play Piano (soft) & Forte (loud) unlike the organs that we have had in the past. Why is this inferior to a piano? A teacher will say. "There is no escapement" Well some models build that in, but the purpose of escapement is to provide emotion flexibly expression, in your music, (not necessarily a feeling in your fingers as most teachers would equate it with). Do not digital pianos provide that? Here is the dilemma. Someone will say, if a student learns on a digital piano they will not be able to play a real piano as well because they feel different. Then someone else could say, if they play a real piano only what will happen when they are challenge to play a digital pianoÖ they will not play it very well. The truth is a good player should adjust their technique to the instrument they are playing on like a runner would adjust to the terrain. I believe it is best to learn to do this and become a well rounded player.

Here are the facts. The goal of the average person is to learn music and enjoy the process. Does it matter how a person fulfils this goal? It is best when a musician can sit down a play an acoustic piano and a digital piano equally well. In the day that we live it is best that a student has exposure to both and who cares in what order as long as there is progression for learning and there is a progression in their motivation to learn, desire to learn, and inspiration to learn.

Also, if parents are on a limited budget and they are not going to get their piano tuned for a while I think it is better that the student hear the proper notes (A-440) at (A-440). So many students quit lessons because their music doesnít inspire them because they are playing on an out of tune piano. I learned music first on the accordion then I went to a home organ and then to the piano when I was serious about music. By that time my ear was trained to hear proper pitches. When our piano was out of tune I told my parents it needed to be tuned because I knew what in tune music sounded like from the organ not the piano. When the tuner came and tuned my piano I sat there the whole time, and when he was done I sat down and played the piano and made him correct anything I didnít like or any unisons that were slightly out. (The poor guy). I learned this from the sound of the Organ not the piano. My parents didnít do that I did it. My ear was trained by hearing the electronic organ that had a fixed and locked temperament that was at an acceptable standard. Who cares how you get there as long as you get there. Every teacher will tell you that wasnít the right way to do it. Thatís what they told Laurence Hammond, and I am sure thatís what a lot of people told Bartolomeo Cristofori. Thatís what a lot of people told Louise Pasteur. And that is what a lot of people are advising people concerning Digital pianos.

I personally think Digital Electronics are Advancement over the piano, but require a good understanding of piano technique to truly master. Just like I needed to take the piano before I could be a serious Organ Major. If a student can get inspiration from a digital to see the need to take serious piano lessons, that is good. If they get serious about music they will want a real piano. There is something about the intermingling of live acoustic harmonics that inspire creativity in a musician. The electronics can be a good starter for the student. Serious and proper Organ or Keyboard technique is really a challenge if done right. An organ doesnít have a sustain pedal. The musician has to hold a half note for the duration of the half note. Most pianists get lazy in this regard.

For the adult player who doesnít have the time to become a serious student of music, they just want to get where they want to be as soon as possible. The new digital pianos offer the easy play features of the home organs from years ago with amazing improvements. Just as computers have come a long way so have the digital music scene. Any Digital piano with Midi can now be hooked up to the home computer and there is such a variety of software that can be purchased to help a person make music the possibilities are endless. The average soundcard in a computer has more sound power than organs that were being sold for thousands of dollars in the 70ís and even 80ís What the new Digitals provide is a comfortable Keyboard real standard size keys, good speakers, estically pleasing décor, that can be coupled with any home computer. I would suggest that this instrument is a must for any serious musician.

What is the conclusion. I think that if a digital Piano provides more inspiration and motivation for a child to learn music go for it. If the parents are willing to get a good acoustic piano for learning, that is even better. Who cares how they get there as long as they get there. I never would have gotten serious about music if I started out with piano. I personally was more excited about sounding like an orchestra and the piano was just one instrument in that orchestra. Soon I learned that it was impossible to reach my goals without mastering the piano and I did. Who is going to say that is wrong? The organ was around a lot longer than the piano. It was the mysitque of the organ that inspired me to learn the piano. If the Mystique of a digital keyboard inspires a student whose to say that is not the right way to do it?

These are the facts as I see them. But before I end this article let me tell a little of my experience.

In the 80ís I worked as a piano organ salesman for a company that today I purchased the remaining inventory and equipment from. At that time over half of the console organs I sold in the company. I sold very few pianos, mostly because we were sales oriented company and not a service oriented business. It was hard for me to sell something I did not enjoy myself. I could not enjoy playing an out of tune piano. I later left that company and through a series of circumstances became a piano technician. However, my true love all these years has been and is the mystique beauty and power of the organ. When I learned to play the organ I had to play three things at once and control the volume with my other foot that was free and in between change stops. Now think about that, how is that possible. It is for this reason there are less and less true organists. However, with the emergence of the Digital Pianos musicians are able to enjoy the thrill of playing all these parts without having to go through all the years of discipline that people like me had to learn. Why is that inferior, especially for an adult that just wants to play some music for relazation and theorpy. I think itís great.

I am going to ask all the teachers and my fellow piano technicians to close their ears for this last story. I recently sold a digital piano to a client who upgraded from a digital that I sold him a few years back. After I spent a little time with him, he was so excited about the sounds and the music that he was able to make, he said to me why would anyone want a real piano. I kind of cringedÖ I know what he meansÖ. What he means isÖ he doesnít have enough years left to get the music out of a piano that he can from his digital that is a fact. Am I going to tell him that he is learning the wrong way? For him this is how he needs to get there.

I hope this article has given some of the facts concerning digital pianos and Keyboards. Please fell free to call at Piano Organ Depot if you have any questions concerning digital pianos (570) 352-5501


Frank Bissol Owner of PianoOrganDepot.com