I practice scales a lot. I find it helpful to begin each morning by warming up with long tones and scales. Scales help me get the air going through the instrument. Scales also help homogenize the tone across the various registers of the instrument. When I start on a low note, I try to maintain the initial note’s warmth and richness as I ascend. After reaching the top of the scale, I try to maintain the clarity and focus of the high register while descending. Scales also help improve finger coordination. And, of course, scales are the basis of so much of the music we play, so time spent practicing scales reduces the amount of time needed to practice certain passages in a work by Mozart, for example. Since the way you practice scales will influence the way you play anything on the instrument, it is important to practice scales in a thoughtful and deliberate manner. If you can’t do this, then it’s probably not worth practicing them.
Regular practice teaches the body the necessary movements to execute a particular passage. In the beginning, the movements are clunky and inefficient. But, effective practice helps to streamline these movements, so that they become smooth and efficient. The movements become smaller and smaller. This is how practice enables faster playing. The movements which were initially large and required conscious thought become subtle and automatic. Getting the fingers to move directly from one note to the next in a gentle and streamlined way should be a main goal of practicing scales.
Scales should be practiced slowly and with care taken to ensure that the fingers make only as much movement as they need to reach the next note. This is not so difficult when playing consecutive notes, but it becomes progressively harder as the size of the interval increases. Playing a sixth requires many fingers to move in perfect coordination, and often when the tempo is too fast a player will draw strength (and tension) from the wrist, forearm, or even shoulder to make up for this lack of coordination. When you hear the fingers slapping against the keys and feel the wrist tensing up, it is because the fingers do not have enough strength and coordination to execute the passage at tempo. So slow down the tempo, and reeducate the fingers on the proper movements to make. Fast, effortless technique will only result by practicing slowly with a supple wrist and only as much finger movement as necessary. Any interval can (and should) be practiced this way.
Scales are boring, you say?
You get bored when you have done something so many times that you no longer feel that there is a challenge – it is not usually due to mastery, but rather a lack of imagination. So, if you can, identify a new challenge with the scale, and if that is not possible, then change the scale exercise. I started many years ago by playing that single Klosé scale page that gets you through the entire circle of fifths. Then I moved on to all the scales in Baermann Volume three (spending up to two weeks at a time on a single scale with all of its variations like returning scales, scales in thirds, and arpeggios). Now I am working on exercise 5 of Jean-Jean’s Vade Mecum, which combines scales and arpeggios in every key with various articulations. There is a near infinitude of scale exercises out there, so find something new and interesting!
What about hand position?
If your hand is large enough, all of the fingers should be curved (including the pinky finger). Never play with flat fingers if it can be avoided. When you play with flat fingers, all of the distance the finger has to travel has to be accomplished in a single joint, the knuckle. With curved fingers, each joint is available for movement, which means that the movement required of any single joint is very small.
Whenever I have a lull in my performing schedule and I don’t need to learn anything new for a while, I return to scales. I use the repetitive nature of scales as an opportunity to improve some aspect of my technique. I might spend a couple of weeks of the summer holiday focusing on strengthening the corners of my embouchure so that I don’t leak air, and I will practice only scales while trying to make this improvement. Or if I want to improve my double tonguing, I will again practice it with scales. It is much easier to learn something new if I combine it with something I already know well.