1. Stop looking at your hands and the keyboard! The hand is quicker than the eye (the basis of magic tricks).
As soon as you start looking at the keyboard, your eyes will want to see the keyboard and move your hands aside if they obscure your view. Close your eyes and find middle C. No guessing, no hunting, no trial by error. Take as much time as you need. Hint: black keys are your friend. You don't have to play them, just use them to find your way around. Go to the top of the keyboard (88 keys). You can find that without looking. There is a group of black keys, in a pattern of three and two. Put your pinkie on the top black key. The rest of your fingers find a black key one by one. Move your thumb down the keyboard (aka "left"). You immediately hit a black key very quickly. Put your pinkie on it. The rest of your fingers find a black key. Continue down. At the fourth group of black keys, move your thumb down to the white key. That is middle C. Do this slowly and carefully, to find middle C correctly the first time.
2. There is reading music, and playing an instrument. They are entirely separate. There was a very famous jazz musician Erroll Garner, who never learned to read music. Formal piano lessons always put reading music above playing piano. To efficiently learn new pieces, reading music is very handy, but it gets in the way of the actual playing. There are a myriad of sources on reading music - but few (if any) that focus on actually playing notes with your fingers.
3. Music theory talks about scales, chords, major and minor, seventh chords, etc. that also has little to do with playing. Leave it to last (if you even want to bother much with it at all). Most piano "how to play" books, courses on the web, and YouTube are useless. They require some knowledge of reading music, and often start with "look how great I am and you too can play like this" sort of infomercial on TV. Which neglects to mention those effortless rifts have about 10,000 hours of piano playing behind them. Which is true, those folks have really mastered the piano. How well you play is 100% dependent on how much you practice. Period. If you take lessons, there is no substitute for individual private lessons with a piano teacher. Everyone's hand is a different size, and fingerings (which finger plays which key) varies a lot among individuals. Sergei Rachmaninoff had huge hands, while Alicia de Larrocha had small hands. Both had successful concert careers. If your hand can't span an octave, there are some genres (like ragtime) that you won't be able to play as written and adjustments will have to be made. Only another pianist will notice the extent of the "adjustments".
If you do go the web route, find a site where the demos show a pianist with small hands.
4. The key to finding your way around the piano are the black keys. They stick up above the white keys, like landmarks and there are a lot fewer of them. Although most students know there are 88 keys on a piano, and where middle C is, ask one how many white keys and black keys there are. There are 52 white keys on an 88 key piano, and 36 black keys. The white keys are divided into seven octaves, each octave 7 keys = 49 keys. There are two leftover white keys on the left side (aka "bottom"), and one leftover white key on the right (aka "top"). There are five black keys in a group, and 7 groups in all. There is one leftover black key at the bottom of the keyboard. How many groups of black keys above middle C? Four. Three below.
5. To begin your piano experience, close your eyes and run your hands over the entire keyboard taking particular notice of where the black keys are. With your hands flat, using fingertips, touching the sides, gaps between keys, facing left, facing right, etc. You have ten fingers, and there are 88 keys that equals 880 ways to play all keys individually. No one plays the lowest A with the pinkie of the right hand and the top C with the pinkie of the left hand in a song. The piano doesn't move, so you will shift around as needed to sound every note.
6. All this initial familiarization with piano keys, how you must reach back and forth as you cover the octaves, each note struck with a different hand position, etc. isn't going to impress anyone with your piano playing. When you took piano lessons, your teacher was under a bit of pressure for you to learn something, anything, that would let your parents know their precious darling was gifted. Which probably accounts for why professional pianists usually start very young. Young kids can explore the keyboard and sound, well, like young kids without any expectation of playing music that sounds comprehensible. In reality they are exploring the keyboard with their hands and muscles that can later accommodate any hand position and movements need to play.
7. There are 51 gaps in between the white keys (aka "cracks"). A few chords require you play a "crack" to sound two notes with one thumb on a hand. Although the cracks are tiny compared to the width of a piano key, a finger pretty much is the width of a piano key, leaving little room for error before you start playing cracks in addition to the intended note. So it is critical to play the CENTER of a white key, not matter how awkward the hand position is. Sometimes you have to almost straighten out your fingers.
8. Black keys have more wide space around them, and the only way to hit a crack on a black key is to completely miss it and hit the two white keys around it. Because it is so much harder to hit a crack, the few chords where one thumb must press two black keys is a difficult hand position. You use the side of your thumb. Black keys are easier to strike cleanly because hand position can vary quite a bit compared to white keys. The hand can play a group of five keys with the hand in a completely relaxed natural position, without having to compensate for the different lengths of fingers. To play five white keys requires scrunching the fingers. This may account for the preference of more advanced pianists for music written in the key of a black key.
9. You don't have to press a piano key all the way down to sound it. The phrase "tickling the ivories", is really true. A light front to back stroking of the key, pressed down just enough to actuate the hammer, is all that is needed for faster passages. For slower sustained chords, you press completely down and hold to keep the hammer off the string. For single note passages you can imagine your fingers moving in a circle front to back, and your wrist making circles round and round that looks like a spiral as the hand moves back and forth. Chords are pretty much an up and down motion with the fingers in a fixed hand position.
10. The hand is quicker than the eye, which magic tricks and card tricks rely upon. There is no way you can check every single note beforehand by eye, so you must learn to play "by feel". If you can't play without looking at every single note being struck, you will never learn anything much more complicated than "chopsticks".
11. All the formal piano lesson instruction about level wrist, properly bent curved fingers, etc. is unimportant. Each person and hand is different, and the most relaxed position for your hand when playing a chord or run is what is natural and best for you. When you consider each passage and chord requires a different hand position in different octaves, and people move around a bit on the piano bench when playing, any belief you can generalize about hand position is ridiculous. Check out the hand positions of virtuoso pianists on YouTube. Horowitz plays some passages with fingers almost straight.
12. Decide upon a fingering that best fits your hands for a piece, and don't change. When you look at the keys or sight read, it is easy to change the fingering and still make it through. But you have vastly complicated your playing of that piece with multiple variations, increasing the probably of making a mistake to almost certainty. Occasionally you may need to verify you are hitting the right key when your hands jump around a lot. Most of the time, you won't. That is because one finger plays the same key while the other fingers move, as you progress to the next note or chord is played. Or one finger moves at most one key to the right or left on a note before the other fingers on that hand move.
13. When you think about it, the main difference between a virtuoso pianist and everyone else, is that they can play complex passages at a fast tempo. That's it (but an enormously difficult "it"). You can play most any piano piece if you slow the tempo down enough. If you cannot play a piece mistake free at the slowest tempo of your choosing, you will not play mistake free at any higher tempo. So before speeding anything up, make sure you can play it at the slowest tempo needed to be mistake free.
14. There are no "easy" passages in a piece of piano music. It takes as much concentration to play an easy passage as a difficult one. So concentrate on ALL the notes as equally important. Because each note IS as important as any other to the composer and audience. You can play a fast passage a bit sloppy and sound okay to a casual audience, but no one is going to miss weird sounding slow notes.
15. The most popular song in the western world is "Happy Birthday". Make this the very first song you learn. That you can play note perfect, on any piano and keyboard, blindfolded, in the rain, one handed, under any circumstance. Do not move on, until you can play this song. There are a whole bunch of beginning piano songs used to teach music reading, that no one otherwise wants to hear. Forget about those. Learn the easiest arrangement of Happy Birthday you can find - like this one. Learning this one song is worth more than dozens of sight reading exercise pieces.
16. Chords are formed when you strike more than one note at a time. In piano it means all the notes sounded by just ONE hand. Each hand can play a different chord at the same time. A few other instruments can sound two notes at a time (aka double-stops for the violin), but only a keyboard can sound three or more notes at once.
17. A perfect fifth is the most important two note chord that you can play. You can use thumb and pinkie, leaving the other three fingers in between. There are 12 perfect fifth chords in an octave. You play two white keys at the same time for six of the chords, two black keys for four of the chords. In two cases you play one white and one black key. When you look at a group of five black keys (two and three), the top and bottom black keys (C# and A#) use a white key for the fifth chord. It is much easier to play these two exceptions using the thumb and fourth finger, and the pinkie and second finger.
18. In some styles of piano music, it is not obvious when a mistake is made. In jazz the "mistakes" are actually a feature of the genre and required. In contrast classical music is very precise and even one wrong note is noticed by musicians, and often the general audience. Ragtime has a lot of redundancy in its music because the pianos in bars were not maintained or regularly tuned. Even with broken keys and bad tuning ragtime still sounds pretty good.
19. Music notation was settled hundreds of years ago, and is very efficient at documenting a piece of music across oceans and generations. But otherwise looks mostly incomprehensible (take a piece of music and turn it upside down to see this). Looking complicated doesn't mean it is necessarily complicated to play. Chopin's Etude Opus 10, No. 12 in C minor (aka "Revolutionary") has music that looks complicated, and the piece sounds impressively difficult at a fast tempo. But not quite that difficult in actual performance. The passages in the left hand repeat a lot and the right hand chords are not played very fast.
20. In contrast, the Bruckner excerpt on easybyte.org requires some really weird chord progressions and left hand passages to remain faithful to Bruckner's work. The piece is much harder to play than it looks. In particular the dissonant minor second intervals in the left hand. The effect achieves a sound somewhere between a major and minor chord, but not blurred like the seventh chords in jazz. Sort of a yin-yang mystical ambiance. The final scene in the film "The Matrix Revolutions (2004)" uses this effect of dissonant arpeggios, as the sun rises for the dawn of a new era.
21. If you buy a piano, chose an electronic one with touch sensitive keys and a lot of different instrument voices. A full keyboard with 88 keys is nice, but not absolutely necessary. Acoustic pianos are a LOT more expensive, need regular tuning, and require a professional mover to relocate. That's a lot of hassle for what most of them end up as -- expensive furniture in the living room. Let me repeat, a real piano requires tuning, an electronic piano is always perfectly in tune. When a virtuoso plays a piano concerto with an orchestra, the piano is always tuned immediately beforehand.
22. The most amazing feature of an electronic keyboard are the different voices. The more the better. Simple arrangements, which sound unremarkable on a piano, can change into something extremely impressive with the right voicing.
23. With iPods and modern electric keyboards, there is little interest nowadays for complex piano transcriptions. People either want to play it live for their own enjoyment or a wedding, or hear it in its full glory for original instrumentation by world class musicians on their iPod. Even the piano transcriptions of Lizst have fallen by the wayside. Why listen to Liszt's transcription of "Les Préludes" for two pianos, when you can just as easily hear Liszt's full symphonic version? The last 15 bars of Les Préludes for piano is so different from the orchestral version it might as well be a different piece.
24. Don't ever accept a "free piano" from someone. They just want to get someone to move it for free and it will be a piece of junk. Acoustic pianos deteriorate unless maintained, and this maintenance is in and of itself expensive. I accepted a free piano once, and the tuner said it was a piece of junk, that someone started some sort of restoration on it and gave up, and he still wanted to get paid for coming out. Strings are wound around tuning pegs made of metal. The pegs have to fit in the holes very precisely and have to stay put after they are moved. If a piano is so far gone that the tuning pegs don't stay put, you might as well give it to a piano demolishing competition (have them move it for free).
25. Piano restoration is extraordinarily expensive - and probably only worthwhile if the piano has real ivory keys in excellent condition (no cracks, discoloration, etc.). World trade in ivory has been banned since 1990 and piano keys ceased to be made of ivory since the 1950s.
26. A piano is able to play more music than any single other instrument, and is usually the alternate instrument for musicians. However, there are a few problems with the piano as a musical instrument. The biggest problem is that all notes decay, so there can be no sustained notes that carry with the same volume beyond a few seconds. So piano music tends to have lots of notes played to compensate.
27. The second problem is intonation (aka being in tune). When 12 keys are used to divide an octave, you find that C-flat and B are not exactly the same frequency. A couple of odd cycles per second (hertz) have to be dealt with, that is solved in contemporary times by "equal temperament" - all notes are slightly out of tune. All intervals and chords sound slightly fuzzy compared to a symphonic orchestra.
28. The third problem is based on the limitation of the human hand. Some chords cannot be played at all, and some chords can only be played in some keys. For these reasons, composers will often choose an orchestra or band to write for. The "organ symphony" of Camille Saint-Saëns is very unusual in that it has two pianos used in the last movement that play rapid plinky-plink arpeggios.
29. The piano was originally called a "pianoforte", Italian for "soft loud". The harpsichord can play only one volume level for all notes, and the piano was considered a major improvement because it could play different notes at different volumes. Even so, the difference between soft and loud on a piano isn't much compared to other instruments. Playing soft passages a little slower than loud passages can create an impression of a greater dynamic range than there actually is. People find this charming or not.
In particular the song "The Mysterious Barricades" by Francois Couperin (1668-1733) is almost always, with a few exceptions, played with very heavy rubato (rhythmic flexibility) that makes the tied notes across bars sound bizarre. The piece is already extremely unusual, almost unique, among Baroque literature and even with strict attention to a constant tempo it sounds much different than any other piece by Couperin or that era.
30. Copyright. In the United States, any piece published before 1923 is in the "public domain" and fair game for anyone to copy, alter, arrange, etc. without issues of copyright infringement. Any piece (or written work for that matter) after 1923 can require some tedious research to verify it is in the public domain. Other countries (like England) base copyright on the death of the composer, so a public domain piece in the United States can be under copyright in a foreign country, like Canada. If you are a United States citizen and the server is in the United States, you can tell folks in a foreign country to go pound sand. If the server is in a foreign country, do not expect American copyright law to apply. Or for them to even respect your copyright on a unique arrangement of a public domain song.
A unique arrangement of a public domain piece can be copyrighted in the US and other countries. Some arrangements are so simple another arranger could independently come up with the same arrangement. Some are so complex no arranger could possibly come up with an identical or similar arrangement by chance. Although a public domain piece of music may be in the public domain, an actual recording of the music is most always under copyright. Simon and Garfunkel's sound recording of "Scarlett Faire" would be under copyright although "Scarlett Faire" is in the public domain. Music companies like Warner Music Group and EMI Group that shake down businesses for the right to play copyrighted music often don't make this distinction.
Intellectual property rights, like for software and music, are among the most litigated issues in the courts. Almost every video on YouTube with a sound track violates copyright, and music companies are very annoyed with this situation. Having my stuff ripped off without so much as a credit makes me a bit more sympathic.
Anyway, this brief tutorial on copyright is provided in case you want to post ads on your site or otherwise make money on your creative works. If you infringe copyright, forget it. EMI and others are positioned to pounce on you if you so much as download a copyrighted piece. They are quite serious and do not have qualms about completely crushing you.