Keyboard or Piano?
One of the first things that many people ask me is what the difference is between keyboard and piano, so hopefully this section helps to make a decision as to which route to take. All points are my own personal opinion but being both a private piano teacher and keyboard tutor, and having learnt both instruments myself from a young age, I feel well placed to offer a fairly balanced view on the subject. Let's start with the myth that keyboards are 'the same' as a piano - they are very different in many ways!
Firstly, keyboards are electronic devices with lightweight plastic keys. These keys are programmed to play the correct sound when notes are depressed. The piano is a more elaborate mechanism: the key is struck which in turn triggers a hammer action that hits a string that produces the sound. Therefore, you can get a much better range of sound (soft, loud etc) on a piano, keyboards can imitate this with the use of 'touch response' but it is not quite as effective. Pianos also have pedals (sustain and damper) and you can buy attachment pedals for keyboards that serve a similar purpose. Keyboards can do something that pianos can't however - they can imitate other instrument sounds! This is of course perfect for inquisitive children and for creating interest within a piece of music.
So, does the music differ between keyboard and piano? The answer is yes! When learning keyboard notation, the 'tune' is played with the right hand (in the 'treble clef'), and 'chords' (2 or more notes played at the same time) accompany the tune with the left hand. The chords are marked over the top of the right hand music, with letters, sometimes in a circle. A back beat can also be activated on the keyboard that adds interest relevant to the tune and keeps you in time whilst playing. Here is an example of Happy Birthday notated for the keyboard:
In piano music, you still play the tune in the right hand but the left hand has to learn its own notes in the 'bass clef' which sits underneath the right hand music. These two lines are read simultaneously. Here is Happy Birthday again, this time notated for the piano:
This is where the piano becomes a more complex instrument to grasp at an early age - reading the notes that live in different lines and spaces in either hand is not for the faint hearted! For this reason, the ideal time to start children on the piano is 7-8 years as they tend to learn faster and absorb more. Children of this age are also generally a better physical build to play the piano - bigger hands, better reach and are taller. However, pupils who have started the keyboard from as early as 4 have moved on to other instruments with great success. The challenge they face when moving to the piano is dealing with the different feel and learning the left hand notes. This said, their hand and eye/hand co-ordination is already well established (a big challenge!) and their note reading, theory and musical knowledge tends to be extremely confident.
Knowing your own child is the best start to working out what instrument and type of lesson will suit them. I can happily say that pottering around with my Casio keyboard some 35 years ago (correct at time of writing!) lead me to a wonderful career in both piano, oboe and keyboard, and I do remember all of it being lots of fun!