A common question new piano students ask is what should their practice sessions focus on? They are not sure whether they should spend their time practicing piano chords and scales, or something else altogether. Most students simply wish to know how best to utilize their time spent learning how to play and in learning music theory in general.
The answer is, it depend on what your ultimate goal is. Chords and scales are undoubtedly a very important component of mastering piano. Learning scales will help you improve your finger dexterity. They will help you familiarize yourself with the keys of the instrument. Piano scales are also ingrained in music theory. When you know which key you are in, if you know your scales, your fingers will automatically “know” the configuration of they keys that need to be played without you having to consciously think about it.
You should certainly learn your scales, but don’t become too obsessed over time. They should not be your end goal, unless you wish to become a hard core theorist. Usually it is productive to practice piano scales when you “warm up” at the beginning of a session. Play them once or twice and them move onto something different. In time you’ll improve and scales will become second nature. You’ll be able to play them accurately and without thinking too hard about playing them.
When you’re first learning your scales it is wise to learn them slowly. This way the “muscle memory” of your body learns the mechanics of playing them and in time the pattern will become intuitive.
Another useful skill of a master pianists is to develop your ear’s ability to recognize the intervals between notes. This too will come with practice.
It all comes down to what your goal is as a piano player. To answer the question of what you should practice, you need to first ask yourself why you are learning piano? What’s your end goal? Is it to have to ability to play sheet music on sight. Do you wish to compose and improvise in scales? There are two types of general pianists. Those who play by ear and can improvise well and those who can sight read sheet music extremely well (play by sight).
Very rarely will you find a piano player with the ability to do both well, but they are out there! As you progress it may pay dividends to figure out with type of piano player you belong to and cater your practice along those lines.
Also do not forget that playing piano is not simply about hitting the right notes. Piano playing is about playing with the right expression with the music. Playing music is about expressing emotion as much as it is about scales and chords. You may be the most technically competent player in the world, but if you can’t play with “feeling”, you’ll sound hollow and repetitive.