Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Piano vs Keyboard

I've used a keyboard for 95% of the impro work I've done. (What's the other 5%? Piano, guitar, bass in an impro-3-piece, and once or twice an accordian.) It's awfully hard to pack a piano in your car compared to a keyboard, and I suspect most impro musicians won't be using a full piano. But what if you had access to one for a show? What kind of difference would it make?

Versatility

Pianos make really awesome pianos. Keyboards make ok-to-excellent pianos, but they provide access to a bunch of other stuff - strings, drum kits, organs, guitars, variations on pianos, ... It's nice to have access to that stuff. Even if you spend most of the time playing a piano sound.

Purity

Playing a keyboard-piano will never be as good as playing the real thing. I frequently do Youth Theatresports shows where the venue happens to have a grand piano hanging around. When the show is over and the gear is struck, I'm always keen to just sit and play on the grand for 10 minutes. The way the sound swirls around you from an area instead of a speaker, the control you have, the subtlety vs an electronic instrument... compared to an ultimately cheap copy of a piano, the real thing is just The Real Thing. (If you haven't sat in a hall and played a grand piano, just jammed on your own and for yourself, you haven't lived.)

Weighted vs non-weighted keys

Most keyboards (as opposed to electric pianos I suppose) have lighter plastic keys with fast action compared to a piano. I've certainly gotten used to that, and I find it a bit hard to switch around.

I did a show recently where I managed to arrive at the venue sans equipment (hey, once in 20 years isn't bad!), but was able to borrow an electric piano from the venue. As nice as it was to play, my right-hand pinkie couldn't just brush a key to get a note like it normally can, which made dirty jazz stuff sound much cleaner. I found it was physically more challenging to play songs where I needed a faster action, just because the keys didn't come back as I was used to.

Volume controls

Putting your fake piano through a PA will really let you pump it up when you need to, and bring it back to a whisper other times. A real piano is pretty good at the whisper, and you can belt stuff out when you want, but in a larger venue or when you're having to work with a mic'ed MC it can be difficult.


I usually lean towards versatility, saying as this is impro and you never know what you're going to have to do next. For me, I get that with a keyboard, and not so much with a piano.

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