Bernard Depasquale – General Manager, AMEB Ltd
In my earlier life as a professional musician I have used and owned Yamaha, Kawai and Roland digital pianos. Performing in the Tea Rose Duo (Piano & Violin duo) we did a lot of country touring and often played in venues with no choice, or a poor choice of piano. Because we were playing classical music the quality, sound and tuning of the piano was important to us. We toured with a digital grand piano that looked and sounded great. If we got to a venue and they had a good acoustic grand piano available we would always use this in preference. If we had a good upright piano available then the choice was more difficult as to which to use – it usually came back to accessibility and set up of the stage (it’s a lot harder to set up a concert performance nicely with an upright than with a grand piano). If there was an upright that had been sitting there for fifty years without being tuned – and would have put Winnie Attwell’s honky tonk piano to shame – then we would use our digital grand. It meant we could know with surety that we could perform anywhere – as long as power was available! I should say that our digital grand was a high end piano that suited our needs as touring musicians. Digital pianos do vary considerably in their quality and features.
We invited Cameron Tait, Asst. Marketing Manager from Yamaha Music Australia to enter the debate about digital versus acoustic.
Cameron Tait – Asst. Marketing Manager, Yamaha Music Australia
Let me start by saying that this question is a complex one. Much of the discussion I have observed stems from the viewpoint of a teacher. As Marketing Manager for Yamaha’s acoustic and digital keyboard products, as well as being a former classroom and instrumental teacher, there is perhaps something I can contribute to this conversation.
As any experienced teacher will know, it’s not realistic to say to some families ‘you must have an acoustic instrument, or they can’t learn piano/attempt Grade x’, although I have heard this advice being given. Families encounter a number of factors that lead them to first consider digital, one of which is that the price entry point for digital is naturally lower than a well-crafted acoustic instrument. While teachers may valiantly, and quite accurately, espouse the importance of hammers and strings and the ability to finesse them, it’s simply not feasible, nor the most suitable option, for some families. Hence the conflict.
The grade at which one should ideally transition to an acoustic piano is debateable, and depends somewhat on the quality of the digital piano. High-end digital pianos respond more like a grand piano than an upright in touch and pedal response (there is a difference), and in many cases will be vastly better than a cheap second-hand or poorly maintained upright acoustic. In fact, I have heard one of Australia’s most respected concert pianists say he would prefer a high quality digital piano to rehearse on backstage to an upright, due to a high end digital piano’s grand-like qualities. The AMEB examine above Grade 4 on acoustic only, so that gives some indication of what the examiners are considering and assessing at this level.
Have you ever had the experience of listening to accomplished piano players and wondering how one could be judged to be better than another, when each give performances that are 95% flawless? You could say the difference lies in the last 5%, the ability to wield an instrument and its inherent idiosyncrasies to best musical affect; working to the acoustic of a performance space, adjusting for regulation and tonal tendencies of the piano, and combining these technical elements for best musical expression.
All of this is very important, but access to an instrument should never be used as a reason not to take lessons, or not to attempt a certain grade. There is almost always a way to soften or overcome this; a higher-end digital, practising at school or a friend’s house, and rental is another low initial investment option.
Digital pianos will continue to grow in popularity. With the vast improvements in tone, touch and pedal response, coupled with the relatively low entry point, there is little evidence to doubt this trend, and in fact we can see this reflected in import statistics. Being exposed to the world’s leading instrument manufacturers I’m fortunate enough to see the latest innovations (and some things that are planned but not yet realised!) and I’m honestly astonished at what digitals can achieve. Even subtleties like sympathetic resonances of neighbouring strings in various pedalling positions are calculated and reproduced in the latest high quality digital pianos, as well as the slight sensation of ‘let-off’ in the action when playing softly.
Acoustic pianos will maintain their aspirational status, simply by virtue of their nature as true acoustic instruments. Institutions like universities, performance venues and the AMEB, as well as high end players will continue to prefer them, especially for their superior ability to fill a space without amplification. Indeed, there are musical possibilities that can be realised with a real piano action are not possible on a replicated action. Remember a piano action has around 10 000 moving parts. And let’s not forget the important work of an expert piano technician, and the subtleties of a specific instrument they can effect, much like an expert mechanic on a premium vehicle. In view of this, musicians at home will assess their needs in terms of the ability to practice silently, access to educational and compositional possibilities of technologies like recording or MIDI, cost, size, maintenance, tone and touch. Many musicians and institutions, quite rightly, will never get past the romance of hammers and strings. Others will capitalise on the tangible benefits of a quality digital instrument.
In the modern era where digital technology is offering valuable functionality and nearing the capabilities and nuance of acoustic instruments, a far more useful and fruitful discussion than the old binary discussion of ‘digital vs. acoustic’ is how can we understand the contribution each of these options can make to our music culture and education institutions.
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