Best way to learn to play piano?

OK, I can read music just fine. I know what all the symbols and notes mean. I can play “simple” tunes with both hands. I know some of the scales, but not all of them. How do I improve, apart from practice, practice, practice?

I’m not looking for a magic pill, but I would like to know (from those that have already achieved competency) how I should be directing my energy. By way of background, I didn’t start learning music until I was 25 years old; I’m now 32. Whenever I learn to play a song, it feels very mechanical - I don’t get that sensation of my fingers just going to the right keys that good piano players describe. It seems a real uphill struggle to learn each piece, and it never seem to get any easier. If you were to take the sheet music away as I’m playing, I would have no idea where to find the next note.

Maybe you have to start as a young child to get that intuitive sensation?

I’d like to be able to pick up a random piece of music (not necessarily a Beethoven sonata but maybe fairly complex popular music) and make a fair attempt at rendering it. I’d like to be able to feel my way, rather than having to learn each piece note by note. It’s like reading a book by spelling out every word one by one! I guess I’d like it to be more of a right-brained activity than left-brained.

I have taken lessons with a couple of different teachers - mainly what I got out of them was motivation to practice on my own. I know the theory but can’t get a “feeling” for it.

Any hints from the veteran pianists out there?

I’m no pianist, but I am a bassist. You do have to practice, practice, but more importantly you have to play with other people. The combination of practice and playing with other people increases your musical vocabulary. To learn songs by ear, you have to start learning songs by ear. Sounds weird, but that’s how it works, it’s like a muscle. The other thing that you must do is transcribe songs, i.e. listen to them over and over and over again, and then notate them. This involves using a device to slow the music down and constantly going over it. Do it over and over. Did I mention you have to do it over and over? This excercise builds your ear and brings you closer to the point of “feeling” your way through a tune. As for sight reading, that’s another thing that just requires practice, the more you read, the better you get at reading.

I play the organ. I have two or maybe three tips for you.
You have one of the keys to the answer in your question. You used the analogy of learning to read. How you don’t have to spell out every word. Think about how you learned to read. First, as a baby you heard the language. People spoke to you. Then you tried to imitate those sounds and learned to speak and make sounds. Then, after you could speak, you were comfortable making the sounds, you were taught to read. That is exactly the principle of the Suzuki method of learning to play an instrument. First you hear the music, you learn to imitate the sound, get some familiarity with the instrument, then you are given sheet music and learn to read. Also, think about how you learn anything. One step at a time. You don’t learn to ski by being told. Ok, put on all this gear, here is the theory of how to ski, this is how you turn, now go to the top of the hill and ski. You practice on more and more difficult hills until you develope skill and progress to a level of skill to handle the more difficult slopes. After you have skiied for a while you don’t have to think about how to turn, balance, bend, etc. you develope “muscle memory”. That is how it feels to play an instrument, or even type on this keyboard. When I learn a new piece of music, I may have to practice a particularly difficult phrase over and over until I can play it smoothly. Then when I get to that part in the piece it flows like the rest. So tip one is; try the Suzuki method. Tip two is build skills, step by step by practicing and tip three is - you don’t have to figure out all the notes in a chord. Know how that cord feels. The fingers are generally about the same distance from each other. Chords are basically all the same, in thirds with slight variations (major or minor for example) and positions (root or 2nd, etc). If you know how a chord feels you can more easily play it. The base player had excellent advice about playing with others. Suzuki classes usually have individual and group lessons as well as performances. I have seen the Suzuki method used to teach violin, cello and piano. Good luck and have fun.