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SMU Grad/Vocalist Maya Jones Gives Voice to Power of Faith, Confidence and Helping Others

In her four years at SMU, Jones has made a name for herself not only as a vocalist and dancer but also as a motivational speaker.

by Denise Gee

Maya Jones

Maya Angelou once said that people may forget what you say and do, but never how you make them feel. It’s fitting, then, that SMU graduate Maya Jones was named for the legendary poet and activist. Anyone who has witnessed one of Jones’ powerful operatic or gospel performances can recall just how she made them feel: elated, or perhaps sorrowful, but decidedly impressed.

As Jones prepares to earn bachelor’s degrees in vocal performance and music education from SMU on Saturday, May 14, she reflects on her evolution from a girl judged “too loud” or “too this or too that” into one of the most gifted performers to be cultivated at Meadows School of the Arts.

In her four years at SMU, the Mansfield, Texas, native has made a name for herself not only as a vocalist and dancer but also as a motivational speaker.

“Music truly saved my life,” Jones says. Recounting her early struggles as the daughter of a single mother, she was a girl who yearned for a father figure.

“But I found the ultimate father: Jesus,” she says. With encouragement from her mother, grandmother and grandfather, the late Rev. Kenneth Davis, then senior pastor of Mt. Triumph Baptist Church in McAlester, Okla., she found strength through scripture and song.

Jones joined the choir at the Abundant Life Community Church in Fort Worth, and “found myself pretty much singing all the time,” she says. She sought comfort by humming hymns including, “O, How I Love Jesus” or “Amazing Grace” and also by dancing. “Both helped express the emotions I needed to express.”

A middle-school music teacher first gave her the idea she could channel her emotions and skills into a career. She loaned the 11-year-old Jones a few tapes of powerhouse performers Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti and American soprano Leontyne Price.

“I was blown away,” she says. “It’s hard to explain, but their voices reached me in a deeply moving way. That’s when I realized how healing music can be. How empowering. It’s truly a higher language. And for me, a higher calling."

She continued toward that calling, and as a high-schooler at the Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts, she visited the Dallas Opera to hear rising African-American opera star Solomon Howard. He recounted how his family’s struggles with poverty did not deter him from a career in opera. His story made a major impact on her. “I left that place crying, in awe of him,” she says. “I was determined to shine just as brightly.”

Jones worked to absorb everything she could from voice coaches as well as from Youtube, where she studied a wide range of high-impact singers — from Motown greats to gospel giants, including longtime idol Mahalia Jackson. “Some people call me ‘Little Mahalia,’ she muses.

In November 2011, Jones got the chance to show what she could do – and potentially land a college scholarship – during a National Association of Teachers of Singing scouting event attended by SMU Meadows School of the Arts Distinguished Prof. Barbara Hill Moore.

“I said to myself, ‘Lord, let me be your instrument today,’ and went on to perform an aria that must have made a good impression on Prof. Moore,” Jones says. “My mother and I couldn’t believe it when, after the event, she approached us in a hallway and said, 'Nice work, Maya. See you next fall.' ”

“My jaw just dropped,” Jones recalls. “I hadn’t even applied to SMU! But I was determined to do just that after hearing those words.”

Buoyed by the Bible verse in Luke 1:37, “For with God nothing shall be impossible,” Jones applied and prayed for scholarships that ultimately came — ones that allowed her to begin studying at SMU in fall 2012.

Since then, with support from Prof. Moore and others, Jones has loaned her talent to such roles as Katisha from Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado”; Mercedes in Bizet’s “Carmen”; Maria in “West Side Story”; and performances of Mozart’s “La Finta Giardiniera” and “The Magic Flute.” In 2015, she also became the youngest artist to perform at the “The Dallas Festival of Ideas.”

Vying for key singing roles and awards is a major part of the music profession, and competition and criticism can be fierce, Jones says. She credits encouragement from others and belief in herself and her faith to being able to succeed as a performer and earn additional scholarships from sources including SMU’s Black Alumni Association as well as Concord Church.

While at SMU, Jones has been able to travel abroad to study and perform in South Africa and Greece. She also has served as a member of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority (Rho chapter), vice president of the Voices of Inspiration gospel choir and worked for the Meadows box office.

“Maya has an enormous sense of humor and an easy way of making you forget your troubles and enjoy the blessings of the day,” Moore says. “And she is spontaneously supportive, giving and kind to everyone she meets. I’m confident she will be an exemplary educator and performer.” (For clips of Jones at her Meadows School of the Arts senior recital, visit here.)

Social justice education has played an added role in her personal and professional growth. While visiting South Africa and participating in SMU’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage, her eyes were opened to racial injustice – and since then she has actively worked to speak out, to make a difference.

Jones recently was named by The City Influencer as one of 2016’s “Most Influential College Students” in the DFW African American community, along with fellow SMU grad-to-be Nariana Sands. After graduation, Jones plans to stay in Dallas, teach music to children, perform publicly, write plays, and, above all, offer encouragement to others. “Growing up, I was my own worst critic, but I learned to let go of negative things,” she says of the advice she shared in her 2015 TEDxSMU talk, “Freedom Is a Choice.”

“All of us can be mentally bound by hurtful realities or painful remarks about our financial or academic standings, our appearances. But we have to let go of what harms us. Otherwise it’s like carrying a backpack filled with rocks,” she says. “You’ll just struggle to move forward.”

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