For many pianists ranging from beginner to advanced, it is not always possible to practice on a traditional acoustic upright or grand piano. There may be space restrictions, neighbours and other family members to consider, or of course, budget limitations. Serious piano students can worry that practising on digital pianos (sometimes called electric pianos) will have a limiting effect on the development of their technique, or even damage it if they are already playing at a high level.
Let's explore the pros and cons of this concern.
WHAT IS PIANO TECHNIQUE?
Piano technique is a pianist's ability to carry out the technical requirements of a composition, and control the instrument they are playing to achieve a desired expressive outcome.
There are probably two main areas that affect how a pianist can use or develop their technique... 1) the action of the piano - meaning the keyboard and hammer mechanism combined with how it feels under the fingers, and 2) the sound produced by a piano when reacting to the action. Depending on the abilities of a pianist, ranging from beginner to professional, these two areas will be of varying importance.
WHAT MIGHT LIMIT YOUR PIANO TECHNIQUE?
It really depends on the piano you are playing as to how you can either use the technique you already have, or develop a technique from scratch. It also depends on the genre of music you are playing, and at what level.
Most people when starting out on their musical journey will begin on a relatively inexpensive instrument, and upgrade as their technique and musicianship grows. Leaving what are termed as 'keyboards' out of this discussion (usually with unweighted sprung keys), there are basically two different categories of piano, both having sub-categories within them.
Pianos without strings
Stage pianos, digital pianos and digital hybrid pianos.
Pianos with strings
Upright pianos and grand pianos.
It is often assumed that all acoustic upright and grand pianos are going to be superior to anything in the digital category as far as developing a good technique is concerned. However, in my experience, if developing your technique to a high level is your goal, ALL the categories and sub-categories above will vary in action and sound to a greater or lesser extent. As well as this, you will find that the action and sound will differ between instruments within just one of these categories too.
Not so long ago, there was quite a difference between the digital and acoustic categories in terms of both action and sound. Well maintained acoustic pianos usually always come out on top, but due to acoustics often requiring regular maintenance, they can quickly slip into disrepair, or develop an unpleasant sound. I've always pointed out that if a developing piano student had the option between an out of tune, poorly maintained acoustic, and a good quality consistently reliable digital, they would probably have a much better playing experience with the digital piano option.
When I was studying music at college and university, each practise room had an upright acoustic piano in it, and each of them felt completely different as you moved from one to the other. The quality of the uprights would vary enormously, as would the state of repair. The practice rooms that had grand pianos in them tended to be more reliable and consistent, but the key action and the sound of each one was also very different. All these variations affect how you can either use your piano technique, or indeed, develop and refine it further.
With this example in mind, it is clear that there can be a lack of consistency between the abilities of acoustic pianos. This could also be true of pianos in the digital category, but usually for reasons of the software and hardware rather than needing maintenance.
MOVING BETWEEN DIGITAL AND ACOUSTICS
Whilst developing my piano technique as a student, I had a digital piano at home to practise on, as well as an upright acoustic. The acoustic had limited capabilities due to the somewhat worn action, but I could do enough on it to get by in playing music from the advanced repertoire. I don't recall having any problems moving between one and the other, even though the digital piano had a somewhat lighter key weight than the acoustic. It's actually good practice for making quick on-the-spot adjustments to your playing when faced with using different pianos. This of course is a skill that pianists must acquire, whether they only ever play on two different pianos (their own and their teacher's), or, are playing at different venues. Quickly adapting to different pianos is an essential part of developing a good piano technique.
Pianists off the top of my head who practise on a digital piano are Stephen Hough, Benjamin Grosvenor, Artur Pizarro and Josh Wright. Their technique is still very much intact! Let's be clear though... these pianists will also practise on acoustic grand pianos that they either own, or have access to at concert venues. I do advise that playing good quality acoustic pianos is an important thing to do for a developing pianist... even if it's somewhat occasionally.
If you only ever play on one piano digital or acoustic, you will probably develop a technique within the confines of that specific instrument. You will become so familiar with it that you will know every nuance of it's action and sound, and will be able to predict how that piano behaves. This is great if you only ever intend to play this one piano, but you would be surprised at how strange it can feel to play an unfamiliar instrument. The sound and touch may be completely different to what you are use to, and as a teacher, I've seen many pupils sit down at one of my pianos and react with shock as they play the first few notes of their piece. As mentioned above, this is simply due to them practising all week on their own instrument, and expecting the feel and sound of another piano to be the same as they have grown accustomed to at home.
If you are planning to perform, and wish to avoid the 'shock' of playing an unfamiliar instrument, practise on as many different instruments (digital and acoustic) as you can. This will allow you to adapt quickly and deliver a performance to the best of your ability.
OPTIONS TO CONSIDER
We have seen above that not all acoustic pianos can be described as preferable to digital pianos when it comes to developing and maintaining a piano technique. If the option is a badly maintained acoustic, you probably won't be able to develop any level of refinement in your playing, which will definitely hold you back in building your technique and enjoying your playing experience. On the other hand, if your situation allows, I would say that playing and excellent acoustic piano is probably the ultimate option. If you are limited by budget, and buying either a well maintained second hand acoustic or a brand new on is not an option, a good digital piano may be just what you need. What you will find however, is that your budget will dictate the amount of nuance that you can add to your playing due to the action of the keyboard and the quality of sound. This may either limit the development of your technique if you are moving toward an advanced level of playing, or not live up to what you can already do as an advanced player. In general, as you would expect, the more you spend, the more you move towards the realism of an acoustic, and the more your chosen instrument will respond to your technique. You don't have to break the bank though to purchase an instrument of quality and convincing authenticity.
Unfortunately for me, an acoustic grand or upright piano is impractical. Being constrained by space, I needed a digital that emulated a well maintained acoustic piano. Something that would feel authentic, respond to my technique, and create a sound that behaves according to those things. There are then all the other benefits that a digital piano comes with, usually at a fraction of the price of a quality acoustic piano.
One such instrument on the market at the moment is the Casio Celviano Grand Hybrid. As I write this post, the Grand Hybrid is the most affordable instrument in the 'hybrid' range of digital pianos currently available on the market. But, don't let an affordable price fool you into thinking that this is not a quality instrument. You don't half get a bang for your buck!
WHAT IS A DIGITAL HYBRID PIANO?
It was mentioned earlier that an important aspect of developing a good piano technique is the action of the keys. Although I would take the opportunity wherever you can to play well maintained acoustic pianos, the digital hybrid piano market has now really started to close the gap between acoustic and digital playing experience.
Casio's collaboration with C. Bechstein on the Grand Hybrid's keyboard action means that the instrument benefits from world class experience when it comes to acoustic piano building. Hybrid pianos aim to combine the action of an acoustic piano with all the things that are usually expected from a digital piano. The advantage here is that you can feel more authenticity of touch under your fingers... as you would do of course on an acoustic piano. This leads to a higher quality of playing experience that enables you to use your technique (or develop it) along the same lines that you would do on a good acoustic. The Grand Hybrid makes an excellent practice instrument!
More on this keyboard action in the video below:
As well as having a reliable and authentic action, this instrument is definitely designed with the serious pianist in mind. You can choose between three distinctive piano samples, which as far as your piano technique is concerned is a great way to practise adapting to different piano sounds. This really helps if you are planning to perform on unfamiliar pianos at some point. You could also adjust the touch sensitivity and practise adapting to a piano that requires either more or less finger strength in each key stroke.
Here are some examples of the Casio Grand Hybrid in action:
WHAT TO TAKE AWAY
After exploring whether practising on a digital piano would damage your technique or not, I think the answer is a clear no. However, that would all depend on the quality of the instrument. Just like an acoustic piano can vary in quality, as well as its state of repair, you could make a similar argument against a digital piano and it's quality of action and sound.
Playing on both acoustic and digital pianos can affect how we play to a lesser or greater extent, and being able to adapt to this depending on what is available to us is an important aspect of piano technique to develop.
If you were thinking about investing in a digital piano due to being limited by living conditions that would rule out an acoustic, I'd recommend that you go for something like the Casio Celviano Grand Hybrid. You may even consider one as a second piano! You can be sure that it will allow you to develop or maintain your technique without the worry of having a vastly different experience when you play an acoustic piano.
If however The Grand Hybrid is beyond your budget, why not try this piano selector which will help you find an instrument that is right for you:
Find out more about the hybrid range of instruments here:
Listen to more of the Grand Hybrid in this specially selected playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLcG-xdMuAYX-x1SGtM4odZmnUttQQWCRV