It is crucial that you understand that this is both a mental and physical activity (seems obvious but often overlooked) and is similar to a sport or anything else that requires specific physical co-ordination. If you keep this in mind, you will find you will make a lot quicker progress.
Important to find a good teacher and one that understands how to properly play the piano with the upper body. Hand and arm relaxation are critical and it is important to resist the urge to play with just the fingers — important to involve the whole upper body. One ultimately plays with the upper body.
Tension is the main enemy as it will restrict speed and flexibility.
Many teachers teach bad technique. (Believe it or not, some of it is handed down from the days of the older keyboard instruments which require much different technique to play.) Bad technique will slow up your progress considerably. It is much harder to make free-throws shooting from behind your back then with the ball in front of you. You wouldn’t believe how many young students struggle with bad technique seriously hampering their progress.
Rumor has it that Liszt was most responsible for promoting good technique — of course, he learned the principles for himself and could run circles around his weaker contemporaries. Some teachers today still proudly proclaim their descent from the Liszt piano-teacher lineage. Chopin was a friend of Liszt and also a master of proper technique.
In the last half of the 20th Century, just as sports techniques took off (including using computer aided feedback and instruction) so did piano technique become more of a science. Now there is more helpful literature on technique than ever before. But there are still plenty of bad teachers out there. The difference between a good teacher and a bad one translates into significantly different amounts of practice time required to play a given piece or reach a certain level. Bad technique ultimately places a ceiling on all but the most unusually gifted piano students.
Watch out for piano teachers that teach curved fingers but neglect posture, proper arm and back usage, or relaxation. Definitely avoid teachers that emphasize using finger action only.
Generally, if it takes a long time to warm up (more than a few minutes), something is wrong. Some players, play their best after several hours of practice because they have worked all the tension out of their body. Simple stretching exercises and a vigorous but natural shaking of your arms at your side and your entire upper body will aid relaxation. Moving your arms around like they are floating freely is helpful also. Tension can be used usefully, but in a controlled fashion — in other words on demand!
When you seek a teacher, ask them what approach they take towards relaxed playing or get them to discuss how piano playing is similar to a sport. Whenever seeking a teacher, it is important to have an interview with them, so you can know what their philosophy is and what they can do to help you as well as what they expect out of you. You interview your employees, right? Well, you are paying the piano instructor, too! Even if the instruction is free, it better be good. Bad habits are hard to unlearn and a bad teacher can do a tremendous amount of damage.
In practicing, never play music just to learn it and rarely play the whole piece through until you have mastered it. Practice small sections of a few notes and pay more attention to your technique than anything. Treat it as if you are practicing a golf swing or a free throw — that is why you break it down into a small section. Most music is built from a combination of basic patterns, so by practicing the lowest level of those patterns (the atomic level — the lowest level something can be broken down to) you can become really good, really fast.
Focus and concentrate when you practice, otherwise you run the risk of spending time practicing bad habits. Although, it may seem difficult at first, in the long run it will make practice more fun and your progress you provide ample reinforcement to continue focused and concentrated practice. Better to spend 20 minutes with full concentration than an hour not really focused.
And don’t forget to listen to yourself. Supplement listening by recording (whether digitally or on a tape deck.) Rarely play fast enough to make a mistake (unless performing a piece.) And most of all realize that the end result is a form of communication. You will more likely be relaxed if approaching music making as if you are talking casually to a friend than trying to make a speech in front of a large important audience.
Most of all have fun and approach becoming good as if you are playing a game! Enjoy your practice minutes and never do one routine or activity very long. Break your practice session into a number of short, very focused drills. It is okay to get up from the piano bench, flap your arms around, and relax for a minute now and then. Also consciously consider what you are doing and never put the body or the mind on automatic.
By following these simple guidelines you will make better progress and require less hours of practice to meet your objectives!