Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn, piano teacher and mother of pianist Van Cliburn, was born on October 14, 1896, in McGregor, Texas, to William Carey and Sirrildia (McClain) O'Bryan. Her father was a journalist and lawyer. She studied under Arthur Friedheim, a pupil of Franz Liszt's, and passed the grand nineteenth-century virtuoso tradition on to her son, who revived and personified that tradition for audiences in the second half of the twentieth century.
After early piano lessons from her mother and local teacher Prebble Drake, and after graduating from high school in Richmond, Texas, she studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory and later in New York, but was discouraged from pursuing a concert career by her father, a member of the Texas legislature and an associate of leading politicians of the day. She returned to Texas, where, in 1923, she married Harvey Lavan Cliburn, a native of Mississippi and a railroad employee who, shortly after their marriage, entered the oil business on the advice of his father-in-law.
By the time she became a mother at the age of thirty-seven, Mrs. Cliburn had engaged in activities ranging from teaching piano lessons to running a riverfront mission in Shreveport, Louisiana. She began teaching her son while the family lived in Shreveport, where he was born, and continued teaching him as well as many other young pupils after the family moved to Kilgore, Texas, in 1940. After Van was catapulted to world fame as the winner of the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow in 1958, his mother frequently traveled with him and served as his manager until he withdrew from active concertizing in 1978. She resumed traveling with him when he renewed his concert career in the late 1980s. Cliburn always credited his mother as his most influential teacher and as a valued advisor up to the time of her death; he frequently said that she had better hands for playing the piano than his, and that, as his teacher, she could demonstrate anything she required him to do.
After the death of her husband in 1974, Mrs. Cliburn shared Van's New York apartment until 1985, when they moved to the estate that had previously belonged to Kimbell Art Museum benefactor Kay Kimbell in the Westover Hills neighborhood of Fort Worth. There she lived her final years, lionized as the mother of an international concert star and musical celebrity. As long as her health permitted, well into her nineties, she circulated prominently in Fort Worth society at her son's side at cultural and church events (she was a lifelong, devoted Southern Baptist) and frequently entertained visiting musical artists. She died at the age of ninety-seven in Fort Worth on August 3, 1994, five days after suffering a stroke, and was buried in Greenwood Memorial Park in the city. The huge Rildia Bee O'Bryan Organ at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth was under construction at the time. In 2006 she was honored posthumously with an Achievement Award of the Music Teachers National Association.