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Buying a digital piano: my top picks

I am frequently asked by my students about getting an instrument to practice on.  First off, while a real piano is nice to have, not everyone has the budget to buy one or the space to put it.  Having a digital piano also means you can practice in any space at any time, since you can use headphones.  (Hello, practicing after the kids have gone to bed!). Nowadays, there are excellent digital pianos that not only provide a good sound, but also mimic the feel of a real piano.  And, they never need to be tuned!

When shopping for a digital piano, you are going to want to get something that has 88 keys and has at least one decent piano sound.  Stick to instruments called “digital pianos” and avoid “synthesizers”, as they are very different products.  Digital pianos usually have weighted, touch-sensitive action which will feel more like a real piano and will be better for your technique.  Synthesizers are more for programming and tend to have a lot of sounds but don’t often have weighted keys.

Consider also where you will put your electric piano.  If you have a dedicated space for your electric piano and won’t need to move it often, you could get one that has a permanent built-in stand.  If you will need to put away the keyboard on a regular basis, or plan to use it for gigs or rehearsals elsewhere, you should probably purchase a keyboard with a separate stand.

Some keyboards have built in speakers, which saves you having to purchase an amplifier.  Even if you plan on playing with headphones on most of the time, you will want a keyboard with built in speakers so you can play for others or just practice without headphones on all the time.

The type of work you will be using your electric piano for will also be a consideration before you buy.  Will you be playing rehearsals or gigs?  If so, you’ll need to make sure the keyboard is portable and has a spot where you can plug it into an amplifier.  If you plan to use your keyboard for writing or recording music, you will want to invest in something that is MIDI compatible so that you can plug it into the computer.

There is a wide range of cost for digital pianos, from less than $100 dollars to over $2000.  Generally speaking, a good quality keyboard will cost between $500-$800 and will include a power cord, a foot pedal and a music stand.   All of my picks have built in speakers and are MIDI compatible, which makes them perfect for home recording.

          My #1 top pick for keyboards that gives great bang for your buck is the Casio Privia PX-160 Digital Piano.  For only $599, it comes with a sturdy stand.  It doesn’t take up a lot of room and has built in speakers and a headphone jack.  I have a higher-end Casio Privia that has been gigging with me for years and I love the touch and sound.  This one is a terrific entry-level keyboard that comes with its own stand.

For a bit more money, the Casio Privia PX-S1000 is the higher end version of the PX-160.  For $649, it offers more options for touch sensitivity and a more complex piano sound.  You can pick up a portable stand for this one for less than $100.

Yamaha is a trusted name in pianos and electric pianos alike and the Yamaha P-45 gets the job done.  It has a good sound and a decent touch and is a steal for only $499.  Make sure to buy a portable stand and you’re good to go!

For the next level up, I recommend the Yamaha P-125 Digital Piano.  It comes with a few more whistles and bells for $649.

Korg is another keyboard company with a great reputation and excellent products.  Their entry-level digital piano the Korg LP-180 Digital Piano is $649 and features all three foot pedals, which is a bonus.

 

For a higher end experience, the Korg SP-280 Digital Piano is $799 and has 30 different instrument sounds.  It also comes with its own stand.

 

While the Casio Privia remains my favorite, any of the keyboards listed above will serve your purpose and will be great to practice and perform with!

Why faking is the answer to all your piano woes

The art of faking is all about approximating an accompaniment part.  We do this by using our knowledge of the harmony and we use rhythms to estimate the basic gist of the piano part.  There are several compelling reasons while this is the most useful skill that you can have.

  1.  You don’t quite have the skills to play a written accompaniment part.

You may think that because you are not a virtuoso pianist, that means you are limited in the songs you can work on with your students.  So many songs, especially in the Music Theater genre are very difficult (we’re looking at YOU, Jason Robert Brown!).  By faking, you have a lot more repertoire available to you, because you will be creating your own accompaniments.

2.  You don’t have a lot of time to practice.

I have hear of voice teachers and coaches spending hours and hours each week trying to learn complicated piano accompaniments.  Who has that kind of time?  Unless you are doing a concert with Audra McDonald, you will be perfectly fine faking some (or all) of the accompaniments.

3.  You want to customize the accompaniment to suit your performance situation.

If you are accompanying a less experienced singer, simplifying a busy accompaniment part will help them to sing their best without being overwhelmed by what the piano is doing.  If your singer has a softer voice, if there is no sound system or if the piano or performance space are loud, a simplified accompaniment part with help the singer be heard.  If you are self accompanying, simplifying the arrangement can help you to be present in your vocal performance instead of having to concentrate too much on playing piano.

High level professional pianists fake all the time.  I myself am constantly customizing the accompaniments to suit the situation and I know for a fact that this is commonplace in the industry.  Faking will also buy you time while you develop your sight reading skills at the piano.

   Faking requires only two skills:

1.  ability to play a variety of chord qualities in different keys,

2.  ability to play different rhythmic patterns to represent different music styles.

In order to fake effectively, you just need to play the chords in a rhythm that is approximate to the written accompaniment part.  It truly is as simple as learning how to reach chord symbols and play them on piano, plus a few different rhythmic patterns divided between the hands.  Put them together and you’re good to go.

Want to learn how to fake?  Check out Piano Skills for Singers – the only online piano courses for singers created by a singer.

How does piano training fail singers?

I am a singer who has the great advantage of being a pianist.  Piano is my first instrument and I was lucky enough to obtain quality instruction from the age of four.  When I entered the professional world, I realized what a huge asset my piano training was.  I was frequently being chosen for job opportunities as a voice teacher, choral director and general music educator over highly qualified singers, simply because I was able to play piano.

Thanks to my piano training, I have had the great pleasure to teach a great many singers to play piano.  What surprised me is that many of these singers had received extensive piano training, both privately and in college piano classes and yet they were still unable to function in a basic level in a vocation setting.  What went wrong?

Many of these singers blamed themselves, saying that they hadn’t practiced enough, or they were just “bad at piano” or how somehow there was something wrong with their musicianship.  That seemed impossible to me, especially since several of these supposedly “bad musicians” were elite singers, performing internationally.  (A couple of them were even Grammy nominated). So, what was the problem?

What I discovered was that the singers hadn’t failed at the piano training, it was the piano training that had failed the singers.  When I examine the syllabi of many piano classes for non-majors, I am struck by what so many of those courses entail.  There is a near-universal focus on playing scales hands together, playing challenging classical pieces hands together and tackling a variety of cadences – topics that are indeed helpful for building piano skills.  However, so much time is being spent on these challenging tasks, but is this actually useful for singers?

First of all, it is important to note that many of this traditional material was developed by pianists.  That makes sense – or does it?  These traditional piano training methods were developed to assist in building the skills a classical pianist would need in order to perform classical music.  Does this serve singers, choral conductors and general music teachers?  My contention is: absolutely not.

The more singers I trained at the keyboard, it became clear that a different approach was necessary to ensure that the right material was being taught and reinforced so that they were equipped to retain skills that would have vocational impact.  In short, singers need to learn how to play piano material that they will actually use in the professional world.  Not just pass a required class.

Here are two examples of how I approach piano training for singers.

Scales

Playing scales hands together requires learning the particular fingerings required of each key.  This is a very time-consuming process that requires frequent repetition to learn and many months or years of repetition in order to actually retain this as a skill.  Instead of working on scales, I focus on learning how to play voice exercises hands separately in 12 keys with universal fingerings.  This fulfills the development of technical fluency in a work-related context.

Hands together classical music

So many piano classes require singers to play challenging classical works like Bach Inventions and Bartok Microcosmos.  While I agree that these pieces are useful for developing two handed independence, this is also time consuming and not immediately useful.

The first thing I work on is learning how to “fake”.  “Faking” means that you are creating accompaniments using chords and is commonly used in jazz and pop music.  In order to create these accompaniments, we work on playing triads and four note chords in 12 keys and then learn a variety of left- and right-hand patterns to create accompaniments.  It is much easier to fake accompaniments than it is to read exactly what is written on the page, so having this skill can drastically speed up a singer’s ability to accompany themselves and their students.  Plus, faking works just as well for classical music and music theatre as it does for pop and jazz.

By focusing the training down to these simpler topics does not mean that I think singers shouldn’t learn how to play classical music or hands together scales.  I just don’t think these are the first skills they should learn.  Instead, we should equip our voice students will real world skills that will ensure they have every opportunity available.  Empowering our singers at the piano should be a central part of their training.

Brenda Earle Stokes is the owner and creator of Piano Skills for Singers – the only online piano course for singers, created by a singer.  Her passion is empowering singers to gain the skills they need at the keyboard to increase their opportunities in the music industry.

Songwriting at the Piano: An interview with Australian Country Sensation Haley Wilson

Tell me a little about who you are and what you do.

My name is Hayley Wilson, I am a singer/songwriter from Brisbane, Australia and in 2017 I released my debut album and since then I have been writing and preparing for my next release by traveling to Nashville and working with writers both in Australia and overseas. 

What instrument have you usually used for songwriting?

Typically, I would use my guitar but I have found in recent times that I tend to sit at the piano and find patterns and voicings that I may not have heard if I just wrote on guitar. 

Why did you choose to study piano?

The piano has always been my favorite instrument and yet I didn’t learn to play until my late teens/early twenties. I love a classic piano ballad and I think it’s such an emotive, colorful instrument. 

What was the hardest thing about studying piano?

For me, the hardest part has been some of the theoretical work but Brenda’s teaching style really resonated with me and made it so simple for me to understand in a way that I never had before despite studying music all throughout school and afterward. 

How has learning piano affected you as an artist?  Has it changed how you write or perform?

Learning piano has completely changed my approach to being an artist and a songwriter. From learning piano, I have found myself wanting to dive deeper into my musicianship and it has made me want to perfect my craft in every possible aspect. It makes me appreciate the art so much more and being able to confidently play piano live for an audience is a real dream. 

Why do you think singers/songwriters should learn piano?

Absolutely, because it’s another tool you have to express your idea and opens up so many doors in terms of creativity when it comes to writing a song. You’re not boxed into one instrument or one way of writing. 

Would you recommend Brenda as a teacher?  Why?

Heck yes! I have had piano teachers before Brenda and none of them helped me learn so quickly and efficiently as Brenda. She has a way of explaining things that just makes sense! She’s passionate about what she teaches and it really shows in the results you get from lessons. If it wasn’t for Brenda, my piano playing would be nowhere near where it is today and I’m so grateful to have found a teacher like her. She has helped me gain the knowledge and confidence in my piano playing to be able to perform in front of thousands of people and ignited my passion for piano. 

Learn more about Hayley Wilson HERE.

Money Matters: An Interview With Financial Planner and Broadway Percussionist Dave Roth

As a freelance musician with an over twenty-year career, I am often asked for advice from younger musicians who are coming up.  My number one piece of career advice?  GET YOUR FINANCIAL HOUSE IN ORDER.  Why?  Because being a musician, an artist or any other freelance worker requires capital in order to maintain and grow it.  Being a musician also requires tenacity and longevity, which means young musicians have to take a long range approach to their careers.

To create a truly helpful experience, I enlisted the expertise of Dave Roth.  Dave is an Enrolled Agent, which is a federally authorized tax practitioner recognized by the U.S Department of the  Treasury.  He is also a professional percussionist who has been playing Broadway shows for many years.  Dave is my family’s accountant and financial advisor and he has been a tremendous resource for both my family’s finances and the complexities of my business needs.

The goal of this post is to give musicians a chance to reflect on their financial lives so they can make better choices for the future.

Q:  Financial planning can be quite terrifying for artists. What is the first thing you recommend someone doing when they decide to get their finances in order?

Dave:  First and foremost get out of debt.  If this is an issue for you then you should adopt an effective budget plan to assist in this.  I recommend the 80/20 method.  And then start putting money into investments.  No amount is too small.  The sooner you start the sooner that your wealth will start to grow.  Remember that all this is about exponential growth.  Every year that passes without putting money into investments can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in growth by the time one reaches retirement.

Q:  How much should someone be saving every month? What categories do you recommend people save in?

Dave:   That is dependent on their cost of living and their income levels.  One of the most useful tools to help with this is a financial tracking program like Quicken, iBank, Mint.com, etc.  Use of this style of tracking will assist in identifying areas of spending that can be curtailed.  9 times out of 10 it is cash withdrawals from the ATM machine.

Q:   What are some of the mistakes you see your clients making in their financial lives?

Dave:  Not “feeding the animal”.  What I mean by that is continuing to put money into an IRA to invest on a regular annual basis.

Q:   What about retirement savings. Is that something that artists should even think about?

Dave:  ABSOLUTELY!  In many ways artists need to think about it more than the average Joe because they may not work for an employer that provides a retirement program like a 401K.

Q:   What do you recommend for people who live in high cost of living areas (like NYC or LA)?

Dave:  Don’t live beyond your means.  As a NYC artist I have always been realistic about the lifestyle that I can afford.  Don’t rent or by an apartment that will drain most of your earning and savings potential.

Q: What do you wish you had done better, started/figured out sooner?

Dave: I wish I would have started putting money into my IRA much, much sooner.  I also wish I would have educated myself on how to handle my own investments at an earlier age.

Dave’s Top 5 Pieces of Advice for Artists

  1. Learn to communicate effectively
  2. Remember that your art will not put food on your table if you don’t treat it as a business.
  3. Treat your fellow artists with the same respect as you expect would be paid to you.
  4. Learn all the intricacies of taxes as it relates to a sole proprietor business or hire a professional to navigate this for you.
  5. Practice!  I’m not just talking about your art form but all aspects of life, love, health and financial wealth.

 

Dave Roth is a professional percussionist in NYC.  He is an active musician in the Broadway scene having played on nearly 40 shows and has also accompanied Sting, Sir Paul McCartney, Gladys Knight, Ricky Martin, Joni Mitchell, Natalie Cole and Aloe Blacc to just name a few.  Dave also became an Enrolled Agent licensed to practice before the IRS granted by the United States Treasury Department and has an active tax and financial planning practice with well over 200 clients.

Check out Dave’s performance website.

Check out Dave’s accounting website.