Buy Your Kids a Keyboard

I can’t remember exactly when I received my keyboard. Actually, that’s not true, I can kind of remember, at least get us close to the right year. It was probably the end of 1994, maybe 1995. About 20 years ago. My little brother and sister had just been born, and were sleeping from about 7 PM through 5 in the morning. This left little opportunity for me, after three years of study, to just go ahead and practice. The baby grand piano was conveniently set out in our cavernous living room just a room or two off from the twins’ bedrooms, and it was suddenly no longer available to play whenever I’d like.

I made a plea to my father.

My father has always been extremely encouraging when it comes to his childrens’ passions, diverse as they may be. If he saw certain levels of commitment in you, when it came time to upgrade to the professional-level version of the requisite equipment he would pay 2/3 of the cost, and you would pay 1/3. He used to obnoxiously say ‘just tell me a story,’ which was his language for developing a skill-set I now cherish whenever I present proposals to potential marketing clients.

It’s a sweet deal that, as an adult having to now purchase my own way through American capitalism, I only wish I had truly exploited to the fullest.

This is why my little brother ultimately rose to become the second-highest ranked classical saxophonist in the state of New Jersey, still owns a museum-quality Alto saxophone, and identifies as a musician. This is also why my older sister ended up at Oberlin Conservatory of music, playing with God-only-knows how many prestigious orchestras and chamber groups growing up. To this day, my sister plays both her cello with friends and concertina with her husband Dmitry accompanying her on guitar. There is never not music on any given weekend at that house unless they are on call or vacation.

Anyway, it was at this point in 1994 or 1995, when the twins were born, that the idea of a headphone connected, full-size keyboard popped into my head. I started researching the different types and increased my practicing during daylight hours. I certainly didn’t miss a day, and I believe on some days even went substantially over (it has been 20 years, so the memory is foggy at best, if not outright partial fiction at this point).

Today you can buy a MIDI-enabled keyboard, or even a full-blown, lower-end synthesizer, for just a few hundred dollars. Used, even less. But in 1994, this was a real, miniaturized computer. This was a not-insignificant investment, although not nearly as much as the potentially unlimited investment an antique/professional string instrument could run, or even an antique brass instrument in good condition. No, these synthesizers were expensive because they were computers, they were machines, they were technology.

I didn’t realize that at the time. I thought, ‘this will let me play at night, with my headphones on’. Besides which, it’s friggin cool. As soon as I learned in one of our ‘stupid’ general musical arts classes in elementary school, maybe around 2nd grade, what a synthesizer was, my mind was blown. Our teacher never explained to my class that a synthesizer was a sound generator that used oscillators, tone generators, and wave generators to generate a pitch with a distinct tone and timbre. No, it was sold to us, by the illustrious Mrs. Nowicki, as ‘an electronic instrument that could make the sounds of any other instrument’. I remember her claiming it could produce the sounds of ‘an entire orchestra’.

What?! ANY instrument? I had to have one. I didn’t even know what it looked like at the time. I think I envisioned just some big black box where you pressed the ‘oboe’ button and sound came out. That’s ultimately kind of what they are, but especially after I learned that the interface was a piano keyboard, exactly what I had already been studying for the last few years… yeah, I definitely had to get me one of these. My lifelong gadget fetishism absolutely demanded it.

As I mentioned, keyboards back then — full-size, 88-key keyboards at least — were a little bit expensive. They were about $2,000, in 1995 dollars, which today is approximately I don’t know, $1 million or something (for the record, it’s about $3,100 according to the inflation calculator at Anyway, it was a sizable sum of money for a musical instrument that isn’t really a primary instrument, a kid has only been playing for a few years, and actually, could rapidly become obsolete. Remember, this is technology, and like any computerized equipment it, of course, has a shelf-life of sorts.

Well, it’s been 20 years now. In every place I have lived, I have setup my Yamaha S-80 hulking beast of a synthesizer. Sure, they came out with much lighter keyboards in the last 20 years, both full-blown synthesizers and MIDI controllers, but I’ve never had a need to upgrade. I think I tried, even listing the thing on eBay, but new electronic instruments are so cheap these days I wouldn’t recommend anyone even buy the thing. It would cost too much to ship or move, the USB midi ports stopped working years ago, repair on any further broken parts would be a nightmare, the sounds aren’t even that great… I could go on, but why bother. The point is, I literally can’t get rid of this thing short of throwing it in the trash or giving it away.

But I’ve never needed to. In 20 years, my trusty lug of a full-size piano replacement has been a friend, confidant, therapist, sometimes-great table. My keyboard is an emblem of the compositional and creative nature that has become embedded in a part of my identity. Of course, it’s also just an amazing musical instrument/entertainment device/source of inspiration and play. My amazing, how-did-they-build-this-so-it-would-never-break Yamaha S-80 synthesizer, from the 90s, is the artifact I can’t give up. It’s the musical instrument I probably could never bring myself to pawn, no matter how dire the straits get. And besides, no one will pay me $10 for the damn thing, anyway.

But for me, like a good blanket, like a real best friend, it has always been there. I used it to practice late at night growing up when the noise would bother my sleeping little brother and sister. (And actually, the silent tapping-key sound annoyed my older sister in the room next door; pick your battles, I guess).

I used my keyboard to arrange music in my bedroom during high school. In college, insisting it be shipped down from New Jersey, I not only used it to help write music but entertain my friends, had friends entertain other friends, etc. We might have lived in a frat house, but damn it, we had a piano and knew how to use it.

But my keyboard didn’t just act as a tool, it acted as a door. Anyone who plays music, or has played music throughout their life, probably understands this. At times, it was not only a source of self-esteem — proof that I could accomplish something — but a complete portal into my mind, an escape from reality. At a certain level, perhaps at any level, you begin to truly play your instrument and to possess the proper tools to experiment and exude the passion you feel deep inside your body. At that point, the whole music thing becomes a lot of fun. And like any good art form, I’d imagine, it’s one the best forms of creative escape that we have short of mind-altering drugs and substances. Ask any professional musician; some nights, you just flow. And then you come back, and it’s been hours.

So I look back at this stupid, should-have-died-long-ago machine and for the first time reflect on everything it has been to me. The fact that it is, without a doubt, irreversibly, my instrument. I’m stuck with it, due to its size and the fact that it just won’t break in any meaningful way. Also, as a full-blown synthesizer, it has embedded patches and will never cease, so long as the parts inside keep functioning, to be able to generate and manipulate sound. In this sense, it will always be a working piano, one which my entire creative evolution as a human being has been tied to, the embodiment of a big piece of my soul to this day.

It is because of this machine that, going back 20 years, I have always had the capability to manipulate sound. It is what drove me to dig deeper into electronic music production and audio engineering through college. My keyboard, and having such unrelenting access to it, began a lifelong fascination into the ability to create, instantly, just by pressing a button.

I guess the ultimate point of this story is there are much worse things you could do for your children than get them a big, ugly, awesome keyboard. You probably won’t even have to force them to practice. If it’s a cool enough keyboard with enough neat features, they’ll probably learn how to use it. Maybe all on their own, just by pressing buttons and experimenting, or maybe through YouTube. Bonus points for getting them a classical or jazz piano teacher, someone who can show them the ropes theoretically while they improve their technique enough to tinker and hack on their magical noise-making electronic music machine.

And don’t ever let them quit. Make it clear that they can suck, they can struggle, they can hate you for it, but quitting is just not an option. Maybe the teacher or the type of study needs to change, but they can’t quit. Don’t ever let them not be musicians. Even just having a passing, working knowledge of music is huge, but my guess is that you’ll inadvertently, at the very least, turn them into lifelong lovers of music and art. My friends who long since stopped playing musical instruments all still join me at music festivals and hunger for the constant discovery of new, great sounds.

Besides, if there is nothing else in life you can give them, it is the ability, in 20 years, to look back at their stupid Yamaha or Casio or Moog keyboard and say, “I am so glad they never let me get rid of you.”