Mr. Cliburn

Like millions of other people in the world today, I’m so sad that we have lost Van Cliburn. We all knew it was coming. He’d been ill for quite a while now, and we should have been ready. But we never are ready to lose the great people.

My experience with Mr. Cliburn started when I was a little girl. I learned my first piece from a Bach suite and my teacher, Mrs. Miyamoto, had a brochure from the Van Cliburn competition. She showed me how this piece that I was learning right then would someday perhaps be part of my repertoire that this famous competition named after the pianist Van Cliburn. I guess she was helping me dream big in those days, but I fell for it. I practiced hard and knew that someday I’d already have my Bach suite learned.

When a colleague of hers bought a Boesendorfer piano, Mrs. Miyamoto made sure that I got to try it. “In case you’re ever in the Van Cliburn competition and you need to pick one piano out of many choices. You’ll need to know if you like to play a Boesendorfer.” It seemed a bit far-fetched at the time, but she turned out to be right. I did play in the Cliburn competition. It changed my life. (I still think it might have gone a bit better if Keith Snell and I hadn’t been in a terrible car accident the day before I left, but that’s another story.)

Van Cliburn handing the trophy to Jose Feghali in 1985, the year I competed in the competition.
Van Cliburn handing the trophy to Jose Feghali in 1985, the year I competed in the competition.

The memories are still so vivid. Listening to Mr. Cliburn speak at the opening night gala. Inspirational in a way I’ve never heard from another person when talking about music. He was completely unique.

What I’m most grateful to Mr. Cliburn for is the opportunities the competition gave me indirectly. The Cliburn Foundation put me to work doing educational concerts and playing outreach concerts.

I played a concert on a New Year’s Eve in Fort Worth in a massive bank lobby. I remember looking at the hundreds of people sitting on the floor in the bank lobby and greeting them with, “This is unusual. I feel like I should lead you all in a chorus of Kum-Ba-Yah.”

Years later I had the pleasure of judging the Van Cliburn International Amateur Competition with some amazing colleagues including Frederic Chiu, Carol Leone, Jon Nakamatsu. It was almost eerie to be back in the same venue where I’d played in the “regular” Cliburn competition so many years before. Mr. Cliburn was backstage with us as they tallied the votes for the finals. It was such a guilty pleasure to be backstage with him and to sit on a stage with him as one of the judges. Goodness.

It’s not that I think my experiences were so special. It’s that they weren’t. Thousands of pianists and musicians around the world were influenced by him in ways I don’t think he could have ever imagined. We all have our stories.

These stories aren’t special. They’re just mine and I will always treasure them.