This was originally posted by a fellow piano technician on Piano World. He is a very well respected technician and rebuilder. I thought he answered the question I am asked a lot very well!
Hi Ed – Going through my files, looking for an editorial about restoration that I had put in the Journal some time back, I came across the following piece that I wrote up, but never submitted. It seems to fit with the topic at hand – it was titled “The Piano Experience vs. the Digital Age.” I thought you might find it interesting.
The question came recently as I was gassing up my car from the guy at the next pump. “Alex,” an erstwhile art teacher at the local community college, was always ready to converse.
“Staying busy,” I replied noncommittally, needing to get on the road for a full day of tuning.
“I mean, what are you going to do when everyone’s gone digital, when no one buys real pianos anymore?”
Okay, I thought to myself, I could lose a few minutes. This conversation was always worth having with people. After all, if we as piano technicians are not willing to spend the time to defend our beloved piano, who will be?
“Look Alex, you taught art at the junior college?”
“Thirty-six years until I retired two years ago.”
“Right,” I replied. “In all that time, did you ever advise a budding artist to go to a discount store and buy a paint-by-number set in order to improve their artistic skills?”
Alex laughed at this. “Well no, of course not. Those aren’t real art!”
“Well, given that I’m somewhat passionate on the subject, but to me the digital sound that comes from an electric piano is to the sound of a real acoustic piano, as is a paint-by-number painting to the real oil painting that it imitates. To put it another way, it would be like standing and talking to a cardboard cutout of a real person instead of actually talking to the person himself. It’s a two-dimensional experience.”
Alex looked confused. “Well, doesn’t the sound from a digital piano come from recordings of the real thing?”
“Exactly right!” I replied. “So, if you play a one-handed chord on an electric piano, you get five distinct tones that imitate individual notes from a real piano. What you don’t get is the musical palette provided by the soundboard to mix those tones together. There can be none of the scintillating nuances that come from the vibrations of real piano strings being transmitted and blended together on a real soundboard.”
“Well, digital pianos are lighter and easier to carry around,” Alex said, changing course.
“Absolutely,” I replied. “And if that is a person’s primary concern, by all means take it into consideration. I myself helped my daughter finance a very high end digital piano when she was a music major in college, and thought she needed one to move from one dorm to another. I sat down and played it once.” I held up a single finger for emphasis. “Once!”
“She still uses it?” Alex wondered.
“It’s in a back room of her home, underneath some boxes. What she plays and gives piano lessons on is a Gulbransen-Dickenson upright that I restored for her, that’s in her front room. Over ninety-five years old, and still full of musical life!”
“But on a digital piano, you get all those other sounds!” Alex said with a more than a bit of desperation, clearly trying his Hail Mary pass.
“Bells and whistles,” Alex, “bells and whistles. If you want to be able to play a tuba / piccolo duet on your keyboard, go with a digital. If you want the real piano experience from a real piano, buy an acoustic. I tore the receipt from the pump and headed towards my car.
“The wife’s looking for some artwork for our living room, Alex,” I said with a smile, looking back over my shoulder. “Should we stop by your studio to see what you’ve got to offer, or would we be better off going to Wal-Mart for a print?”
Alex laughed. “Point taken!” he said as he turned away.