A fan recently wrote asking for advice on learning to play the piano. I thought our conversation might be of interest to fans as well as other piano players who are just learning.
Before reading this, realize that I am not a 'classically trained' pianist. I'm self-taught, so my observations come from a completely different perspective than your piano instructor might have. There is no right or wrong way to go about playing the piano. Just take this advice for what it is, one pianist sharing his thoughts with another.
That said, here's the question....
First of all, learn your music theory. It's the least fun part of learning to play the piano by far, but gaining an understanding theory, even to a modest degree, is what made the 'light' go on for me when I first started playing the piano as a serious hobby. Without an understanding of basic music theory I would have never gotten anywhere as a pianist or recording artist.
Secondly, listen to a lot of piano music. Buy some George Winston CDs, or even my own or David Lanz's. Then pick out some of the slow songs, sit at the piano with your CD player beside you, and figure out, by ear, what notes are being played. This helps train your hearing so you can, over time, recognize notes, intervals, and chord patterns. It sounds difficult, and it is at first, but you'll find that over time you'll get better at it. When I first started getting serious about the piano, it wasn't uncommon for me to do this very thing using Winston's music.
Also, as you listen to the CDs, you'll begin to see that pianists tend to repeat similar patterns from song to song in their music. In my own songs for example, the bass (left hand) is fairly simple - My tendency is just to play octaves and fifths with small embellishments. Even something that sounds complicated, like my song 'Ascending with Angels' from my CD The The Last Waking Moment, is actually very easy if you sit down and work it out.
The point is, you don't have to try and learn the whole song at once. Once you learn the 'main' thing that's going on, in many cases that theme is repeated throughout with very small changes. That's definitely the case with my compositions, which have a very song-like structure. My songs are often A-B-A-B-C-A-like in their composition. The differences in similar sections are small, involving octave changes and small embellishments to keep it interesting.
It depends on what your end-goal is. Scales really improve your dexterity and help your fingers 'get to know' the piano. Scales also go hand-in-hand with theory, because if you know what key you're in when you start out a song, your fingers will 'know' the sharps and flats you'll be playing automatically without your having to think about it so much.
My advice is to work on your scales, but don't obsess over them. In other words, don't make mastering scales your goal. Just work on them as part of your 'warm up'. If you mess them up, so what! Play them a couple times and move on. Over time you will improve, and your scales will become more accurate as you develop your overall skill as a pianist. Also, as one of my beginning piano teachers wisely told me, play your scales slowly at first. You don't need to play them at light speed to get the benefit.
For me personally, as a writer and composer, developing the ear's ability to recognize intervals between notes was the most important thing. But like everything else, that just comes from practice (see answer above).
Ask yourself this: What is your goal as a piano player? Do you want to play sheet music by sight, or are you wanting to write, compose, and improvise?
I'm totally 'ear' oriented, and as a result of that I don't sight-read sheet music well. On the other hand, I can improvise, pretty much making up a song or a theme on the spot.
Generally speaking, there are two kinds of pianists: those that improvise really well (playing by ear), and those that sight read sheet music very well (playing by sight). It's rare to find a pianist who does both very well. Those that do are *exceptionally* talented! My wife, for example, can sight-read well, playing almost any sheet music you put in front of her (she's classically trained). However, she can't sit down and the piano and just make something up. Her brain doesn't work that way.
Whichever approach you take, theory is important. My mind is very mathmatical, so understanding theory helped me to 'see' chord patterns in the keyboard. For those that are sight-readers, theory helps you to 'see' the patterns in the sheet music and convey that to your fingers.
The two different approaches to playing the piano can create an interesting conundrum. When I have new sheet music made for my songs, before I make them public I have my wife play them for me to make sure they are correct. I can't sit down and play the sheet music myself, even though they are my own songs! If I try to do it, it totally freaks my brain out! Weird, huh? But once I take the sheet music away and just focus on the playing, I'm fine.
Finally, a reminder to pianists of all levels. Playing the piano isn't just about hitting the right notes, it's about expression. It's a tool to express emotion, thought, and longing. If you play it that way, even imperfectly, you'll sound better than the best player in the world who plays correctly but with no feeling.