MTNA National Conference – Saturday

The renowned Van Cliburn gave the opening Keynote speech of the Conference. Though I didn’t transcribe the speech verbatim, I have attempted to capture the essence of it in the following notes.

Van as a young boy

Van Cliburn began his speech by expressing his gratefulness to his parents, particularly his mother, Rildia Bee, who had been his piano teacher from the age of 3 until he was 17, giving him a lesson every day. Rildia Bee was being honored posthumously by MTNA with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Rildia Bee was an accomplished pianist, dedicated teacher and devoted wife and mother. Although she could have become a concert pianist in her own right, she chose instead to stay home and live her life as a homemaker.

Rildia Bee

In a short video clip, Rildia Bee shared about their family; about her fervent prayers to God to bless her with a child. Shortly thereafter, her request was granted and she gave birth to a son – Van. She described him as being “truly God-given.” At a young age, it became apparent that Van had unusual musical ability. Rildia Bee discovered this when, after having finished a lesson and dismissing the student, she went into the kitchen only to hear the student back in her living room playing his piece. When she came to the piano, she found 3 year old Van playing and exclaimed, “You?! Do you want to learn to play the piano?” Van enthusiastically replied, “Yes!” So, like any good teacher would, she replied, “Well, you’re not going to play by ear. You’re going to know what you’re doing.” His father constructed a keyboard with a staff on the reverse side for her to use with new students and for theory and by 4 years of age, Van was reading music. Rildia Bee expressed that playing the piano is not a digital exercise, but a sonic endeavor. At 5 years of age, Van informed his parents that he would be a concert pianist and he has never looked back since.

At the age of 8, Van discovered that he had a nice voice and he sang as a boy soprano. Van shared that by the end of his 11th year it became harder for him to reach the high notes and that his parents never explained to him why this was so. 🙂 His mother helped him with correct breath control and always wondered if she should send him to another teacher. He said if she sent him away, he would stop.

At the age of 12, his mother was contacted by the Superintendent of Kilgore public schools – would Van be interested in competing in the state competition for young people 12-17? He would be required to play a Concerto and he was determined to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto in B-flat minor. He only had two months, but persevered and played in the competition in Austin, Texas, with his mother accompanying him.

On April 12, 1947 Van made his debut with the Houston Symphony. Following his mother’s advice, he went on to study at Julliard with Rosina Lhevinne. Rildia Bee described a great teacher as someone who is a guide so that a student can discover for himself or herself the secrets of great music.

In 1958 Dr. Irl Allison had the idea to start a competition to be named after Van Cliburn, in honor of Rildia Bee. Rildia Bee told Van, “Don’t worry, nothing will come of it. Dr. Allison was just trying to be nice to me.” Four years later, the first competition took place – September, 1962. Even still, Rildia Bee remarked, “Don’t worry, it will only happen once. No one will ever remember it.”

Van described his mother’s personality from birth as magnetic, warm and captivating. She was the baby of the family and her older brothers and sisters were intensely protective. Music was a definite part of her family. Her mother played organ, piano, violin and soon began teaching Rildia Bee. At the age of eight, she had the opportunity to play for and receive lessons from a renowned European musician.

Rildia Bee was Valedictorian of her graduating class. Although she was offered a scholarship to Baylor, she chose instead to attend Cincinnati University. While there, she heard Rachmaninov play. Knowing that she couldn’t study with him, she pursued her studies instead with Arthur Friedheim, who had studied with Liszt. She later moved to New York and filled her life with opera, museums, etc. After moving back to Texas, Rildia Bee met a man she greatly admired, but who, unfortunately, was already engaged. She, too, was already dating and “spoken for.” They were nevertheless drawn to each other and eventually were married on June 6, 1923. For the next 11 years, they lived in ElDorado, Arkansas, and then Shreveport, Louisiana, which is where she gave birth to Van.

Rildia Bee teaching piano

Rildia Bee had a few pupils at that time, but her first priority was to be a dedicated mother. She continued to practice and her practicing was mesmerizing to Van as he saw her tackle and conquer technical challenges at the piano. As he watched his mother play the Chopin Etudes and Liszt Transcendental Studies, he exclaimed, “Oh, mother, your hands are so perfect and you have much better technique than I will ever have.” To which she replied, “There are no perfect hands. Each individual must ferret out and eradicate the difficulty that is theirs alone. What you may think is difficult for you may be easier for me and what is difficult for me may be easier for you.”

Rildia Bee passed away just before her 98th birthday. With his thoughts revolving around music, Van wrote the following acrostic:
Understanding [while]

Van further emphasized this by saying that small children know whether music will ultimately be their profession. The real push, however, is not for them to make music their profession, but for them to be mentally stimulated. Music is a language that exists in the invisible, while notation is visible. Unseen mental exercises are important for every child. Music should be taught in all public schools. When a child is shown the miracle of making music, it stimulates parts of the brain that would otherwise lie dormant forever. Music is not entertainment – it is an exact science. It is open to interpretation and expression, but is not open to self-indulgence. Music study will provide students with strength of purpose, a carriage of will-power and determination for the rest of their lives. The pursuit of music is all-encompassing and so extraordinary. Van shared a quote from Rachmaninov, “Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.”

As he wrapped up his speech,Van Cliburn expressed, “Every day of my life, I thank God for the privilege of knowing Rildia Bee, but I am equally grateful for my father who loved her so that I can say today that Rildia Bee Cliburn is my mother.” He went on to end his speech with a quote from his beloved mother.

“Musical inspiration is the gift of God. Use it with the purest motives. Aim high and consider yourself capable of great things. Lend your talents to the world to make it better.”

Following the speech by Van Cliburn was an entertaining performance given by Michael Hawley, winner of the 2002 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs.

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