Yuja Wang's high-heel shoes and the piano pedal techniques
by Hugues Bedouelle
Wang is an
exceptional virtuoso pianist who has been nominated "Artist of the Year
2017" at the age of 30 by the magazine Musical America . Yuja Wang
wears high-heel shoes on stage and this peculiarity has been repeatedly
commented upon and criticized as inducing heavy pedaling [2-4]. A
careful anatomical analysis of renowned pianists' videos has revealed
two different techniques of pedaling, corresponding to low and high
positions of the heel, and therefore to either a dorsiflexion or a
plantar flexion of the foot at rest . None of the two techniques
appears superior to the other for the control of the leg
muscles and pedal. The heights of the shoe-heels and bench are used to
adapt the pianist's morphology to the fixed dimensions of the piano and
result in compromises between different components of the pianistic
technique. This analysis could be useful to pianists of different ages and morphologies and for the pedagogy of piano playing.
Yuja Wang's posture at the piano is especially correct and elegant,
nearly exemplary [6, 7] and it has improved over the years as can be
visualized by comparing her videos. She stands straight on the bench
and does not bend towards the keyboard. She sits on her two ischions
(the sitting bones), on the front half of the bench, which leaves the
hip joints and therefore the legs free to move. Her thighs are nearly
horizontal, i.e. parallel to the plane of the floor. This position of
the thighs favors the pianist's equilibrium and avoids the arching or
bending of the back. It also enables the upper part of the body to
rotate easily around the points of contact between the ischions and the
bench while keeping the feet on the pedals when both hands have to
reach and play in the upper or lower end of the keyboard. The rotations
of the pelvis around horizontal axes, perpendicular to the keyboard,
are very visible in Yuja Wang's videos ; they are optimal to keep
the shoulders in line with the keyboard and the arms free for
virtuosity, when compared to rotations around a vertical axis that
twist and destabilize the body. Sviatoslav Richter's position at the
piano shares the same characteristics .
What are the physical constraints on piano playing?
1) The top of the white keys on a Steinway grand piano are 28 1/8"
(71.5 cm) above the floor.
2) The height of the bench is usually adjusted so that the tip of the
elbow is even with the top of the white keys. This adjustment is
optimal for leaving the upper part of the body, i.e. shoulders, arms
and hands, free to move.
3) As explained above, the pianist's thighs should be nearly parallel
to the floor.
4) The knees must have sufficient space under the keyboard to move up
Constraints 1 and 2 determine the height of the bench and therefore of
the ischions above the floor. Constraints 3) and 4) then determine the
distance of the knees to the floor.
Yuja Wang is usually described, either by herself or interviewers, as
tiny or petite and slender . It would be ridiculous to state that
her feet cannot reach the pedals because of her small size. There are
videos of very young children using adequately the pedals .
However, it is obvious that Yuja Wang's heel bones cannot reach the
floor with the four constraints described above. In rare videos where
Yuja Wang sits at the piano with bare feet, her posture is far from
optimal. Thus, Yuja Wang must wear high-heel shoes if she wants to
maintain an optimal posture at the piano, from virtuosity and
What are the consequences of wearing high-heel shoes for the technique
of pedaling? In the usual way of pedaling, the heel-bone rests on the
floor and the movement of the foot occurs at the ankle joint which is
in front of the heel-bone . When the pedal is at rest, the foot
above the pedal is in a slight dorsiflexion (up position of the foot),
the muscles in the anterior part of the leg are contracted whereas the
muscles in the posterior part of the leg are stretched. The pressure of
the foot on the pedal is mainly controlled by the degree of contraction
of the anterior muscles. When the foot is equipped with high-heel shoes
and the pedal at rest, the foot is in a slight plantar flexion (down
position of the foot), the muscles in the posterior part of the leg are
either relaxed or slightly contracted whereas the muscles in the
anterior part of the leg are stretched. The pressure of the foot on the
pedal is obtained by further contraction of the posterior muscles of
The feet are naturally in plantar flexion when one is lying
down or sitting with the legs hanging down. Thus the muscles of the
legs could be less stressed with high-heel shoes. With low-heel shoes
moreover, the anterior muscles of the leg are less contracted (more
relaxed) when the pedal is depressed; whereas with high-heel shoes, the
posterior muscles are less contracted when the pedal is at rest. Thus,
low-heel shoes might induce heavier pedaling than high-heel shoes,
contrary to the common belief. Whether the precision
and latency time of action are optimal when the foot is in a zero
position at rest, as when one is standing up, remains to be determined.
Martha Argerich used to wear high-heel shoes when she was young and her
foot was therefore in a plantar flexion at rest. Thus, her control of
the pedal used the same muscles and mechanism as Yuja Wang. However,
her heels were smaller than Yuja Wang's ones, her thighs were at an
angle with the floor and she slightly leant forward .
When a pianist, as Yuja Wang, has a balanced sitting on the bench,
correct pedaling involves small movements of the knee and hip joint
. These small movements can be
readily observed in Yuja Wang's videos . In fact, one can observe that
sometimes her shoe heel does not even rest on the floor and that the
action of her leg and foot on the pedal is similar to that of an
organist on a pedal board . The same phenomenon can be observed
furtively in Richter's videos .
In conclusion, there are two mains techniques of pedaling : 1) with
flat or low-heel shoes, the foot in a dorsiflexion at rest, mainly
adopted by tall pianists; 2) with high-heel shoes, the foot in plantar
flexion at rest, mainly adopted by smaller persons, typically women.
The balance and coordination of action between the anterior and
posterior muscles of the leg are clearly different in the two
techniques. Both techniques have advantages and disadvantages in terms
of controlled tension, relaxation, contraction and coordination of the
leg muscles, and none appears superior to the other. Given the
unnecessary violence with which the pedal is occasionnally actionned in
fast or loud music passages, an important aspect of the pedal technique
may be to obtain not only coordination but also independency between
the feet and hands. In that respect, playing the organ might be a good
The pianist’s posture and its consequences on technique result from a
compromise between the pianist’s morphology, the adjustable position
and height of the bench and the fixed dimensions of the piano. Yuja
Wang’s high-heel shoes are obviously a way to optimize this compromise.
Her videos give the watchful observer a mine
of technical and anatomical details, including the interplay of her
arm, shoulder, back, abdominal and leg muscles, breathing, etc. of pedagogical interest. I have also a
small request for the video technicians, in line with Vasili Safonov’s
advice to his students (quoted in ): Please give more light and
attention to the pianist’s feet.
 Isacoff, S. Artist of the year 2017: Yuja Wang. Musical America
 Brown, G. Yuja Wang at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The Times, 3 May
 Simpson, E.C. Yuja shows familiar flash but a lack of depth in
Carnegie-recital. New York Classical Review, 15 May 2016.
 Picard, A. Concert: Yuja Wang at the Festival Hall. The Times, 13
 Wikipedia, Anatomical terms of motion.
 Mark, T. What every pianist needs to know about the body: With
supplementary material for organists. GIA Publications, 2004, ISBN
 Wang, Y. plays Chopin 24 Preludes, Op. 28. Teatro La Fenice -
 Wang, Y. plays Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 (Op. 23), Ludovic
Morlot conductor, National Youth Orchestra of China. Stern
Auditorium/Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall, New York City (USA), 23
 Richter, S. plays Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 32 Op. 111. Moscow, 12
 Wigler, S. Thinking Big: Yuja Wang. International Piano, 17 March
 Zhou, A. plays Chopin Nocturne Op. 72, No. 1 in E minor. Canadian
Music Competitions, Age 8 and under category, 2007.
 Argerich, M. plays Chopin Scherzo Op. 39 No. 3 in C-sharp minor.
Chopin Competition, 1965.
 Wang,Y. plays Bizet/Horowitz Carmen Variations (from 2 min 20).
Mariinsky TV, 27 June 2012.
 Neuhaus, H. The Art of Piano Playing. Kahn & Averill, 1998.
ISBN 1871082455 (ISBN13: 9781871082456).
Paris, 25 Jan. 2018; last modified 4 Feb. 2018
Copyright: Hugues Bedouelle