His mother, an accomplished pianist who had studied under a student of Franz Liszt, discovered him playing at age three and mimicking one of her students. She began his own lessons. He developed a rich, round tone and a singing voice-like phrasing, having been taught from the start to sing each piece.
Van Cliburn toured domestically and overseas. He played for royalty, heads of state, and every U.S. president from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama.