“Is this a technology question?” asks a reader. “Could I use an electronic keyboard to practice on? My roommate also plays. Are there trade-offs I couldn’t live with?”
Yes, sounds like a technology question, to me. Yes, it can work just fine to practice piano on a digital piano (but not all electronic keyboards are digital pianos). I doubt the trade-offs would be such that you can’t live with them.
Calling the differences between digital pianos and acoustic pianos “trade-offs” suggests that there could be some advantages and some disadvantages. The question would be how those balance out.
Another way to look at it is that those are two kinds of pianos, and each has its uses, and they are not entirely interchangeable. That’s about where I stand on the issue. So far I have kept my Baldwin, but I have had electronic keyboards for a long time, and two digital pianos.
There have been digital pianos, some of them excellent, long enough that I am not sure it makes sense to refer to the acoustic kind as “traditional.” Which tradition would that mean? The tall, pre-WWII upright? The uprights produced since then, from three to five feet high? Horizontal pianos called grands, from three to 12 feet long? Those can sound very different from each other, but all would be recognizable as pianos. None of them sound like Beethoven’s piano, though.
The college student (at least I think it is a dorm room that is mentioned) seems to think getting an electronic keyboard in there wouldn’t be so difficult, but putting an acoustic piano in there could be out of the question. Makes sense to me. But this reader might be picturing the synthe kind of keyboard, which is seen in many settings. I would not recommend most synthes for maintaining or building piano abilities. They don’t feel or sound or operate enough like pianos; but there are a few digital pianos that have some of the characteristics of synthes.
Digital pianos need to have at least 76 keys, but most have 88, the same number as modern acoustic pianos. There are lots of keyboards around that have 61 or fewer keys, but that would be only five octaves plus an extra c, and that is not enough for piano players except in very early stages of piano study.
I would miss the extra 12 keys, if I had a 76-key piano, because I am used to having 88. But then, Beethoven didn’t have 88, or wire (strings) as heavy as that in my Baldwin, or a cast-iron plate or “harp” inside the cabinet, and I think Beethoven still managed very well. It would appear from the sloppy way he wrote ledger lines, Beethoven would not have used a lot of the lowest notes we can play, or the tippy-top ones either.
A digital piano is much lighter, and easier to move around. Not only do movers of digital pianos not risk hernias, but there is no need to call a piano tuner every time a digital piano is moved. I wonder whether those people who diss digital pianos are piano technicians and surgeons!
Many digital pianos available now feel enough like acoustic pianos to allow pianists to maintain their ability to control dynamics, and to use proper phrasing and touch effects. I don’t get a really good manual sostenuto “ring” with my digital piano, though.
Digital pianos classified as “stage pianos” generally lack on-board amps and speakers. The expectation is that they will be used in settings where there are sound systems, and will be connected to amps and speakers. Most other digital pianos have on-board speakers. Digital pianos that come in cabinets resembling short upright pianos in appearance tend to have more on-board sound.
Most digital pianos also have output jacks for headphones or speakers or both.
Concerning touch, most digital pianos being marketed now are designed to simulate the feel of acoustic piano keys. Acoustic piano keys are levers, attached to hammer actions. The fingers overcome the weight of the key mechanisms, and the weight is not uniform from bottom to top of the scale. “Graduated action” in a digital piano indicates that this difference has been simulated. Some have little hammers inside, but they don’t strike anything.
Many digital pianos come with sustain pedals, the pedal on the right, typically used with the right foot; all at least have jacks for sustain pedals, and some “cabinet” models have all three pedals. I don’t like doing without the middle, or sostenuto pedal; but many piano players use one but little—depending on the kind of music they play. The una corda (sometimes called “soft”) is good to have, too, but most of us can live without it.
What most digital pianos can do that acoustic ones can’t is interface with a computer. Those of us who do some composing and arranging and use notation software do like to use MIDI (musical instrument digital interface). We need MIDI in and MIDI out, definitely; and MIDI through is very handy too. There are other interfaces now too.
Many digital pianos can be pitch adjusted up or down enough to match some other instrument. That would be a very tedious undertaking with an acoustic piano! And quite a few digital models can transpose to any desired key. Well, about time people stopped expecting us keyboard instrument players to transpose for everyone else!
Digitals I have played do not provide the tactile feedback (as distinct from touch) I enjoy from good acoustic pianos in good tune. And I miss the shifting, circling “sympathetics”; but some musicians would not.
Yamaha, Casio, Roland, Korg, Roland—lots of good digital pianos out there. I encourage my reader to find one—Musician’s Friend or zzZounds might have a used one or close-out at a masterpiece of a price.