Stephanie S. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved
Word Count: 1530
An Acoustical Advantage
Who, among us, can testify that a child’s experience of pulling a "See and Say" toy mimicking a cow’s MOO is equal to that of standing in a pasture hearing a cow bellow nearby? The immediate bellow encompasses us with rich overtones in close proximity far surpassing the engineered mechanical call. Such is the instrumental difference in the sonority of an electronic keyboard as compared with an instrument of art, the piano. Yet, thousands have chosen to believe that instruction on an electronic keyboard, simple and immediately satisfying, is equal to the high art of sound reproduction on the piano. Yamaha goes so far as to advertise "Bring the quality of a concert grand to your home" in its marketing catalogs for the clavinova series. Enough of this pretentiousness! Electronic keyboards will forever remain true to their name: electronic, and thus, mechanical in sound reproduction. Electronic keyboards are unworthy to be characterized as equivalent to acoustical pianos which are rich and warm in tone. One should not be fooled by high marketing schemes and ventures, and the ease of instant gratification at one’s fingertips with gadgetry. Furthermore, there is no artistic merit or value in pitch duplication on electronic keyboards.
The advantage the piano offers lies in its rich timbre, variable according to technical display and soundboard affected. No matter the dynamic, the rich overtones produced play an immense role in what the listener hears. These overtones, delivered through the skill of the pianist through striking the keys, are noticeably absent in keyboard playing. The keyboard player releases a given pitch through being on the right note with no technical merit involved. The delivery of hammer to string with tone drawn forth is absent. Contrarily, the pianist sinks into the keys with full forearm strength as noted to the style of the composer. Various sonorities are demonstrated through the technique of the artist and his ability on his instrument. This encounter with touching they keys, the action, is one of the highest joys to the well-trained pianist. The relationship of touch in production to desired sound is the highest challenge and the greatest gratification to the pianist. Regulation of the action on the instrument requires high technicalities and careful consideration to the care of the instrument. Flat and non-variable tones are often and usually the result of execution on electronic keyboards.
Among other advantages, dynamics on the piano, the range of volume achieved through intensity of touch, lead to the development of musical shading. Shading includes gradual and subtle expansion of sound as musical passages play with each other in expression. Dynamics on an electronic keyboard are affected through turning knobs and pushing slides, a far cry from artistic display. Individual expression and nuances cannot exist in this manner.
Finally, a piano gives opportunity to the performer for individual interpretation of style. A performer’s unique spirit is easily released through approach on the keys involving all the above stated techniques. Dynamics, shading, and articulation enter into how a performer chooses to express himself or the composition of choice. The Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven may have various interpretations according to the performer although these subtleties could not be executed on a keyboard due to its limitations.
Aside from these convincing advantages of the piano, the electronic piano has its benefits as well. Among the highest is wide spectrum of accompaniment available. It is possible for a student to learn a piece of music by merely listening through a set of headphones with any given backdrop of orchestration. The student may take note of the various breathing points or hesitation points in the music through this listening skill with headphones. In this manner, a student may become interested in other musical instruments. In addition, rhythmic complexities may be solved through simple hearing as compared to complex counting on the written score. A student might interpret tempi with higher understanding through hearing. It should be noted, however, that this is independent work and more suited to class scenarios. A piano student with a private teacher will have the opportunity to gain perspective through private lessons.
For the intermediate keyboardist, the ability to transpose (change keys) by gadgetry without full working knowledge or skill of actual mechanical changes in hand placement is a strong advantage. The affect of several keys may be given through the keyboardist while remained fixed in one easy position throughout. This may be likened to staying in one lane on the freeway, no changes, from one end of a city to another. How comfortable and freeing not to always be changing! This is a strong advantage for the keyboardist as he mingles in ensembles who have different key preferences according to the ensemble and music played.
Finally, cost is a major factor, particularly to the complete music novice, in selecting a keyboard over a piano. There is a strong point to be made in not spending megabucks on an instrument that may require too much in development before enjoyment can be reached. The electronic keyboard is an easy answer to such a problem, and one that is often succumbed to, since it offers so much diversity. Yet, most novices are completely unaware of the bad habits they are likely to develop by looking for fast and easy answers through purchasing an electronic keyboard.
A colleague of mine noted particular bad habits of a student who had sought fast, easy answers on a keyboard. Within his first few weeks of piano instruction, she noted,
"Though he was highly talented and learned quickly, I could tell he was practicing keyboard. When he came to lessons, he was just banging, banging, banging; no tone at all." Such are the bad habits, uneasily broken, when technique is not realized from the beginning.
From a teaching standpoint, technique on the piano is critical from the beginning. Without this essential element of touch associated with sound, the ear is left undeveloped. However, with patience and diligence, when technique is effectively grasped, the ear will have great satisfaction with artistic sound reproduction in the same way as a writer who has crafted his penmanship with beauty. The beauty enhances the message, inspiring the recipient.
Teaching on electronic keyboards is an utterly different phenomenon than giving individual piano lessons. Group settings lend themselves to ensemble fun as keyboard players play in sync with each other, heightening their listening skills. Phrasing and various orchestration colors may be realized through computerized programs within the keyboards. Rhythmic schemes are available with tempo selections optional. All in all, the student has more fun at playing with so many options available. I must add as a teacher that training for a skill, a highly satisfying one, was never intended to be fun as an endeavor. It is the teacher’s duty to make the lesson as enjoyable, as full of musical delight, as possible.
Group lessons are also cost-efficient for the teacher, covering many bases at once. Income is significantly higher for teachers who resort to using CD playback systems in their studios. With added student load, the teacher has less demand, and relies on the built-in teacher’s aid accompanying the playback system. The joy of teaching one on one is certainly omitted from this activity and style of teaching.
With all this mention of fun on keyboards, it is essential to note the one important factor missing in keyboard development which is vital in piano instruction. It is the element of expression that enters in the beginning levels. It does not wait to appear at an excelling intermediate level, but is gradually realized, step by step, from the earliest levels of self-expression with evolving technique and interpretation. It is the missing link that keyboardist cannot attain. The manual mechanics of the keyboard give little room to resonance drawn forth from the action of the piano.
Summarizing my points in the words of noted colleague, Betty Shaw, "Electronic keyboards have their place serving a certain segment of the population. They build strictly functional skills for fun things," she adds, "not serious playing."
For those of us who are serious, the electronic keyboard is highly limited in sound reproduction. My own personal encounter with a keyboard of reputed high quality left me empty and aching inside for pleasurable tone. In spite of my open-mindedness to this instrument, my ears were left in pain for its lack of resonance and tone after having played every favorite classical and non-classical selection I know. That which I know I can produce in warmth and artistic style was turned into elevator music or a bubble-gum style through the mechanics of the keyboard. I left that keyboard craving full acoustic sound quality.
Finally, there is the matter of the relationship between mind and ear. The sound produced by the touch of one’s fingers, the action involved, the timbre produces physically, are immensely satisfying mentally and spiritually. Artistic display, unique and full, can only be captivated on this high instrument of art, the piano. To put it in the vernacular: Who, among us, can testify that listening to a CD of the Stones is equal to that of a live heavy metal concert? Who would be satisfied with sitting at home?
Stephanie Sawyer teaches piano in Tomball, TX. She is the proud owner of a Shigeru Kawaii, the premiere piano of Japan. While working on her music degree, she played on the elite German Bosendorfer. Stephanie has been teaching piano for 14 years, and it is the joy of her life to spread the joy of music to all age groups.
Stephanie is the author of Facing Me (Publish America ’02) and IMPRINTS (Publish America ’07).