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How to Setup an Affordable Keyboard Lab for Your School

Rich Formidoni • CommentaryMarch 2022 • March 18, 2022

Incorporating an electronic keyboard lab into your school’s music program can be a gratifying experience for everyone involved. Not only does it represent a significant extension of your existing program, but it also enables your students to improve their piano skills while having fun in a group setting. More advanced students can mentor others and students can even play different sounds on different keyboards, forming a virtual band.

Perhaps budget and space restraints have limited your music program offerings to an assortment of recorders. Unfortunately, while the recorder is simple to play, straightforward to teach, and easy for kids to carry to school, it’s short on fun and the screeches it can emit in a beginner’s hands have tried the patience of many a parent. 

You may be happy to discover, then, how certain keyboards offer similar benefits at surprisingly little cost while vastly expanding the creative possibilities for your students and earning high marks for your entire school.

Digital Piano vs. Portable Keyboard
There are several things to consider in making your decision: type of keyboard, number of keys, configuration and wiring in a classroom, and more. All of this may seem daunting at first, but this article will take you through it step by step, making your decision easier without sacrificing quality teaching and learning. 

Assuming a lab full of authentic (i.e., acoustic) pianos is out of the question, there are two types of keyboards relevant to our purposes: digital pianos and portable keyboards. A digital piano typically has 88 keys weighted to feel and respond like those on an acoustic piano and focuses on its acoustic sound. This offers a playing experience akin to an acoustic piano, particularly the key resistance many piano teachers find essential to developing proper fingering.

While some digital pianos are exceptionally realistic, compact, and affordable, they are still larger and more expensive than portable keyboards. This can be a crucial factor when purchasing multiple units that need to fit into a finite space.

Fortunately, portable keyboards have come a long way, offering high-quality sounds at a low price and often enrichment features such as the ability to record and play back performances. For example, the new Casio CT-S1 has 61 velocity sensitive keys, built-in speakers, and 61 high-quality instrument tones, including acoustic piano. Not only is it great for students of varying skill levels, but its compact size and nine-pound weight makes it ideal if multiple keyboards must be stored when a room is used for other classes. Its retail price is $199.

Should you be concerned about having fewer keys than 88? It depends on the goals and skill level of the class, but for most beginning to intermediate students, 61 keys are more than enough to hone timing, dynamics, and finger placement while playing two-handed pieces. 

Bottom line: If your budget can support it and you have the space for a permanent music lab with seats for all your students, 88-key digital pianos are ideal. If budget and/or space are issues, 61-key portable keyboards (perhaps with a single digital piano, such as the Casio Privia PX-S1100 for the teacher) are the go-to solution for beginning to intermediate students.  

More Power to You
How will your students sit? In traditional rows focused on the teacher? In a semicircle to foster interaction? This is relevant to the student experience and how you will distribute AC power to the keyboards. Ideal band and multi-purpose rooms embed outlets throughout the floor, but not every room is ideal, so it’s essential to plan your layout with power in mind.

The first consideration is safety. Haphazardly placed extension cords are a tripping hazard, so think about where your AC outlets are and create a tunnel or space away from students’ feet. Directly under the rear of the desks or stands on which the keyboards are placed is a good start. Suppose you cannot avoid placing some part of an extension cord in a high-traffic area (such as between outlet and wall). In that case, hardware and office supply stores sell a variety of plastic and fabric cable covers in various lengths, which protect the cord and prevent tripping. Gaffer’s tape is an even more affordable option.

The next issue is ensuring an outlet close enough to each keyboard station that the keyboard’s AC cord or adaptor will reach without strain. There are all kinds of solutions — power strips, “squid” cords with several outlets that fan out on one end — and again, the best option will depend on the physical arrangement of the keyboards. The point is to avoid a rat’s nest of AC cords and power strips that’s both unsightly and potentially unsafe electrically. One of the tidiest options is a multi-outlet cable or “multi-tap inline cord,” which places outlets in linear fashion along its length, like beads on a string.

Some portable keyboards also run on battery power (six AAs in the Casio CT-S1’s case). While regularly changing batteries for every keyboard in a music lab is probably not practical, battery power makes it so much easier to take keyboards outside the classroom when the occasion calls for it: Holding music class outdoors as a special treat, an arts-oriented field trip where you may want the opportunity for students to perform or mimic something they hear, and so on. You don’t need to worry about available AC outlets for a recital where one or more students might play in a different area. If your program supports signing out school band instruments, students can even use them for homework without fear of losing the AC adapter — and duly banishing the recorder.  

You should also consult your school’s facilities manager about the available circuits in your classroom and which circuits feed which outlets. Portable keyboards consume very little power, which is a plus if the number of circuits is limited. Even so, it is always a best practice to spread multiple keyboards across multiple circuits if possible.

Features, Fun, and Engagement
Here’s a big difference between electronic and acoustic instruments: the fun factor. Today, music education and self-guided practice compete with digital diversions such as video games and social media. Ever younger kids have smartphones or tablets, a trend no amount of educator chagrin can reverse. A digital piano or portable keyboard represents enough of that futuristic, electronic experience to keep students — especially those who are younger, beginners, and/or easily frustrated — engaged at the instrument longer than they might otherwise be. 

Of course, there’s a balance to be struck, as “bells and whistles” on a keyboard can be distractions in themselves. Even so, if a student veers off-task to explore a cool sound effect or rhythm the keyboard can make, they’re still at the keyboard instead of playing Roblox or scrolling through TikTok, which raises the chances of getting them back on task. 

Relatability is also vital. While it is up to each music teacher to decide on curriculum and repertoire, the data shows that viewing the instrument as a connection to one’s favorite music significantly increases student engagement. 

Digital pianos and portable keyboards capture these benefits in several ways. The Casio PX-S1100 and CT-S1, for example, can connect with a smartphone or tablet via USB to integrate with music apps such as Chordana Play, which turns the process of learning a song into a literal video game. Now a staple on many keyboards, Bluetooth connectivity (either built-in or using an optional adapter) can turn the instrument into a listening and play-along system for songs already on a student’s mobile device. In the CT-S1’s case, the student can even remove the melody from incoming audio so they can play it themselves. 

Engagement is also served by various high-fidelity sounds, although piano is fundamental and almost always the first sound available when any digital keyboard is powered on. Today’s pop-culture-savvy students will undoubtedly want to explore sounds they know from their favorite artists, such as drums, synthesizers, string sections, special effects, and more. 

Getting back to the lab setting, sonic variety means that students can learn orchestration and arrangement by playing different instrument sounds together. 

Mission Control
In a class of students of varying ability and/or age, everyone needs to have a safe space in which to learn without feeling exposed or “on the spot.” For example, teachers may need to address students or play a musical passage for them as a group or individually; likewise for listening to or recording students’ playing. A student may wish to practice privately in headphones, then play their performance for everyone when ready. You also will want students to be able to work together in groups, hearing each other but not disturbing others.

A group instruction system — sometimes simply called a “lab” itself — is the nerve center that makes all this possible. It consists of a hub unit for the teacher plus satellite units parked at each keyboard station. The hub typically contains audio inputs for the teacher’s digital piano and microphone, outputs for the teacher’s headphones, a P.A. system, and possibly a recording device. 

The satellite unit likewise takes audio input from the keyboard’s output, and better ones provide two independent sets of mic and headphone connections because budget and space challenges often mean students must double up at each keyboard station.

One such system is the GEC-5 from Korg. (GEC stands for Group Education Controller.)  The teacher hub connects to the student units via standard Cat-5 Ethernet cables. An app running on the teacher’s PC, Mac, iPad, or Android tablet then lets the teacher select individual students for listening or communication. It features three main operating modes: Lecture Mode for presenting to the entire class, Practice Mode for letting students work independently and interacting with students one at a time, and Group Mode to facilitate students playing together and hearing one another. Groups are very flexible; the teacher can create subgroups with a click and assign individual stations to them.

There are a few things to be aware of when setting up a lab. One is making sure you have the proper audio adapter cables to connect each keyboard to its GEC unit. This is easy, as such cables are inexpensive and plentiful at music stores, electronic stores, and online retailers such as Amazon. Another is that a fair amount of Ethernet cabling is involved, as a separate cable is needed between the teacher hub and each satellite. In general, you should follow cable neatness guidelines like those discussed in the section on AC power: Keep cables away from foot traffic, tack them down where necessary, and make sure you have enough cable length to reach every destination. If any of this sounds too time-consuming, running the Ethernet cabling in your keyboard lab is a great job for your school’s I.T. or facilities professional. 

STEM to STEAM
Arts education — music in particular — is not merely enriching in itself. It demonstrably improves performance in virtually every other subject, not to mention students’ social interaction and empathy. With ever-higher value placed on understanding technology, what better synergy could there be than using technology to make music? This is the promise of the modern keyboard lab, and thanks to the instruments and equipment discussed in this article, assembling one is easier and more budget-friendly than ever. 

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