The Rule of Five

A Piano Practice Tip

practice manipulatives

Five practice friends arrived
to help you with your studies.
They’ll never tell you what to do,
only help you with some numbers.
Five on the left means five times left to go,
move one to the right when your playing is superior.
If you make an error, go back to the start.
When you’ve fixed your mistakes that’s when
the practice friends have done their part!

Probably the most important lesson I can teach my beginning piano students is how to practice at home. In my years of teaching privately, I’ve found that students who spend their practice time constructively progress faster, have better retention of what was learned in previous lessons, and ultimately have a greater sense of accomplishment and ownership in their development as a musician. This can begin at a very young age if students are taught properly how to practice!

The practice tip I want to share today is The Rule of Five. I teach this strategy to all of my piano students whether or not they are beginners because it can be adapted for all levels of repertoire. You may have heard of its use as a goal-attainment strategy, where you do five things each day that contribute to the success of your goal. Jack Canfield, co-author of Chicken Noodle Soup for the Soul, describes the rule as taking five daily “action steps” that are varied and help you on the road to achievement.

The way I use the Rule of Five is modified for effectiveness in piano study, and in my studio it involves five tiny erasers in fun shapes like a penguin, a panda, and an ice cream bar. The folks at Party City sure know their target audience well because my young students LOVE using these. I mean, who wouldn’t love a tiny squishy penguin?

For practicing at home, any kind of small manipulative can be substituted for erasers. For instance, one of my students likes to use craft gems and another simply uses pencils.

Like it says in the poem, the practice friends start out on the left side of the piano. The goal is to get all five to the right side of the piano for each song/piece/scale/etc. the student is practicing. Here’s how it works:

  1. Begin your practice session with all five erasers on the left side of the piano.
  2. Play through your first piano piece or section of the piece that needs work. Do not go on to the next piece until you have completed the following instructions.
  3. If you make a mistake in the piece or section you are working on, STOP and work on the trouble spot until you are ready to start over. (What qualifies as a mistake: wrong notes, wrong rhythms, pauses or hesitations, wrong articulations.) What we practice is what we learn. Only “perfect practice” makes perfect. It is important to stop and fix the mistakes instead of barreling through the piece and thus learning it with the mistakes.
  4. Start the piece or section again.
  5. If you make it to the end of the piece or section without any mistakes, hurray! You get to move one of the erasers to the right side of the piano, because you practiced it “right”!
  6. Now four erasers remain on the left side, so you’ll need to play the part correctly four more times before moving on to the next piece or section. Repeat steps 2-5 until all five erasers have been moved to the right side of the piano and you have played the piece five times without error. After you’ve fixed all the mistakes, it should be easier to play the piece correctly and move the remaining erasers over one at a time with each repetition. Playing it correctly numerous times will help you learn the piece correctly. “Perfect practice makes perfect,” after all.
  7. When all five erasers have been moved to the right side of the piano, it is time to move on to the next piece or section you have been assigned and begin the Rule of Five practice strategy again. Practice is done when you have either reached your minute goal or you have played through all your pieces in this way.

By using this method, students’ weekly home practice will become focused and efficient and they will be ready for their next piano lesson and new material each week.

“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out”. -Robert Collier