By Rick Press
When Maelyn Jarmon first started singing in her backyard in Frisco, Texas, she didn’t realize she had a superpower.
She was only 6, after all.
But 20 years later, with millions watching, she revealed it the world.
On NBC’s megahit singing competition “The Voice,” the little girl who grew up deaf in one ear and with only 80% hearing in the other, performed a breathtaking version of Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” sending all four celebrity judges scrambling to hit their buttons and turn their chairs.
John Legend, who would become Ms. Jarmon’s coach, reached for superlatives, calling her voice precise, powerful, and pure magic. (Legend should know; he is the rare EGOT -- Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award winner.)
Through 12 weeks of grueling competition and beautiful performances, Ms. Jarmon never once struck a sour note, with her voice or her personality. When “Voice” viewers crowned her Season 16 champion on May 21, it seemed almost pre-ordained. But it also served as a valuable reminder: never underestimate the will of a child who doesn’t hear limitations.
“It’s about looking at a disability and not seeing it as a disability,” Ms. Jarmon said during a phone interview a few weeks after her victory. “I've lived with (hearing loss) my whole life and sometimes when I haven't been able to hear myself, I sing based on feeling. That was something I could tap into, so I do really feel like it can be a superpower.”
“It’s about looking at a disability and not seeing it as a disability. I've lived with (hearing loss) my whole life and sometimes when I haven't been able to hear myself, I sing based on feeling. That was something I could tap into, so I do really feel like it can be a superpower.”
‘My good ear’
Like a lot of toddlers, Maelyn Jarmon had her share of ear infections. When she was 2, her parents decided she should get ear tubes to avoid any hearing loss or speech delays.
The surgical procedure, which involves inserting plastic or metal tubes into the ear drums to help promote fluid drainage from the middle ear, is common. But it can have complications.
“I had really small ear canals, and I was probably too young to have (tubes),” Ms. Jarmon says now. “My right ear tube fell out, but the space never closed up. I had multiple reconstructive surgeries, which led to scar tissue in my ear.
“It was a hard time, and my parents were very upset. But I was so young, I just dealt with it.”
After exhausting all options, Ms. Jarmon says her family accepted that “maybe I am just meant to be deaf in one ear.”
Of course, that doesn’t explain how or why she sings so beautifully.
She tries to put it in terms us mere mortals can understand: If you’ve ever seen a singer “plug their ear” to hear themselves better, she explains, well, she’s essentially doing that all the time because she can’t hear in her right ear. She says it can even help her zero in on any musical key, based on the way it vibrates.
On “The Voice,” during a mesmerizing semifinals performance of Rihanna’s “Stay,” her superpower really kicked in. She was dealing with laryngitis and a sinus infection, and then her left in-ear monitor went out. (Watch closely on YouTube, and you can see her tap it trying to get it to turn back on.)
“I never worked with in-ears before,” Ms. Jarmon says, referring to the devices many singers wear to focus on their voice amid the cacophony on stage. “The one in my good ear went out. And I can’t hear out of my other ear. But I could feel the metronome and feel the beat. In that moment, my hearing disability was definitely an advantage.”
There have been other meaningful positives, too.
“I have received so many messages from parents of kids with hearing disabilities, and it’s so amazing,” she says. “When they wrote, ‘I watched you with my child and we were so inspired,’ I couldn’t help but cry. Because you can tell your kid all day that it's ‘going to be OK,’ but you don't really know that as parents. Seeing someone who has the same impairment and being able to tell your kids, ‘It’s going to be OK, and you're going to figure it out’ – that has been overwhelming.”
Back in a Frisco state of mind
On a breezy Friday evening at The Railyard, Ms. Jarmon is back home, inadvertently trying to set a record for selfies and hugs. A thousand or so of her most loyal fans and friends have crowded into the food truck park on Main Street in Frisco to hear her sing, share stories from the show, and to get their Moment with Maelyn. She obliges every one of them.
Onstage, as she fiddles with the set list on her phone, she is struck by a reality check.
“I went from singing in a multimillion-dollar production studio a few weeks ago to playing karaoke from my phone,” she jokes. “How’s that for keeping me grounded?!”
Ms. Jarmon has lived in New York the last eight years, chasing her dreams and hanging on tight through all the highs and lows. But following her triumph on “The Voice,” she has moved back to Frisco to prepare for the next phase of her career. It’s a place where she still feels very much at home, surrounded by people who have rooted for her since she was a little girl.
“My parents, and my brother and sister-in-law are all here,” she says. “They’ve gone through a lot with me. This is a moment we’ve all been working toward, and it’s a celebration for all of us.”
On “The Voice,” she wanted it to be known that she grew up in Frisco, where she says she was exposed to an eclectic mix of art, music, theater, and culture.
“It’s a huge part of who I am, and I feel very connected to the people here” she says. “I wanted to show that small city girls can go out there and pursue their dreams.”
Next stop on Maelyn’s magic carpet ride is the recording studio, followed by tour dates, and perhaps a collaboration with a charity to help children with hearing impairment. She knows her newfound celebrity comes with responsibility.
While Ms. Jarmon admits she dreams of one day performing at the American Airlines Center in Dallas or Toyota Stadium in Frisco, on this Friday night in June she’s content to be at The Railyard, performing with her father and uncle on guitar. It was just like her early days, singing in the back yard or performing at the Mesquite rodeo.
As her voice rises toward the Texas sky on a note-perfect rendition of John Mayer’s “Gravity,” in the distance a father and son can be seen tossing a baseball around in the grass parking lot. Dad is describing the art of throwing a curve ball, and his boy is practicing the pitch, over and over.
Because superpowers have to start somewhere, and Frisco is known for that kind of thing.
Can we talk about the value of voice care?
UT Southwestern's Voice Center and its laryngologists work with professional singers in Dallas and touring musicians who need vocal therapy. Our specialists also treat many preachers, teachers, lawyers and other professionals who rely on their voice for their livelihood.