By Julie Harris
When a young Maria McNeil met her soon-to-be adoptive parents, there was an undeniable kinship between them.
Call it irony, call it circumstance, call it destiny. But in that moment Maria and her parents learned they share a deep love of music — a bond that makes any differences in physical appearance between the three of them often go unnoticed.
“It seems like it’s obvious that I am adopted, me being Mexican with a red-headed mother and Scottish father,” Maria said. “But I know it’s not as obvious as I think. I was adopted when I was nearly 5 years old and I already loved music. Some may say it was a fluke or some sort of bigger plan, but however you want to look at it, I ended up with two parents who also loved music and it was a fundamental part of how we connected as a family.”
As the years went by, Maria’s love for music only grew — carrying her from her early home in the suburbs of Chicago, across the East Coast, and then to Somerset, where she opened McNeil Voice Studio in 2014. The studio would later become McNeil Music Center, expanding to include voice, instrument, performance and acting instruction, a mission for which she will be honored July 20 at the Master Musicians Festival. Maria is MMF’s 2019 Music Educator of the Year.
“Maria has made a huge impact in our arts community that has noticably changed our culture,” MMF President Tiffany Finley said. “Walking the halls of the old Somerset City Hall and hearing the sounds coming from each classroom makes you excited about our next generation and the direction we are headed as a community.”
Maria, a graduate of the Chicago Academy for the Arts and Berklee College of Music, spent many nights as a child listening to her family’s jam sessions and dreaming of the day she could join them. Her father, Bill McNeil, a violinist, and her mother, Kasandra, a singer and piano player, often joined her uncle and other friends to make music.
“My early childhood was filled with music ranging from Vivaldi to the Beatles to James Taylor to BB King,” Maria said. “We would have candlelight dinners where my father would play records teaching my sister and I about composers and music history, which would usually end with some sort of debate and one of my parents running off to get a reference book.”
Indeed, education was important in the McNeil family. “My family stressed not only basic education but that learning never ends,” she said. During her time at the Chicago Academy for the Arts and Berklee, she was influenced by a number of music educators.
“Some of these teachers I worked with on a daily basis, some only for a semester or a class but they all made a huge impact on me,” Maria said. “This always reminds me that you can change someone’s life with one encouraging sentence.”
So it was only natural that after graduating from Berklee and setting off to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter, she often found herself considering a shift to teaching.
“As a singer-songwriter I got to perform at venues in Boston, New York and Chicago,” Maria said. “I enjoyed this part of my life with my music but I always felt like something was missing. I never really felt comfortable as a lead singer.”
She began teaching workshops and giving private lessons. It wasn’t long before she built a reputation working with singer-songwriters on applying better vocal technique to their own music. She had the opportunity to work with singer-songwriters like Laurie Raveis and Bethel Steele, but it was her short time with Vietnamese pop singer Doan Trang that gave her the idea to open a music studio.
“After teaching private voice lessons for years at different locations I started to desire two things. One, to be part of a voice teacher community that was inclusive and open to new concepts, where students had a primary teacher but also worked with other teachers to achieve goals, and two, to be at a location where teachers didn’t just come and go but a place where you felt like they were part of a team.”
From those desires, McNeil Voice Studio was born in 2013 in Maria’s home in Massachusetts.
It wouldn’t stay there long.
“I know this sounds weird but I literally woke up one day and was like, I have to move to Kentucky,” she said.
Maria’s grandmother lived in Nancy, Kentucky, and her parents moved there from Chicago when Maria was in college. Kentucky was a place with which Maria had become familiar over the course of her life — she’d visited here with her parents every August since the age of 6. Now it would become home.
“Originally I thought I would be going to Lexington or Louisville, but Somerset quickly became the place I wanted to be and to grow my business,” she said.
McNeil Voice Studio’s Kentucky doors opened at the Carnegie Community Arts Center in Somerset in 2014. Then in 2016, the studio became McNeil Music Center to encompass several new musical instruments she was able to introduce to students. In 2017, McNeil Music Center moved to the old city hall building with Flashback Theater Co., where today you can find 150 students learning piano, violin, drums, guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, ukulele, voice, flute, trumpet, songwriting, or performance and acting coaching from 15 instructors.
Maria’s parents have also joined the effort — Bill teaches violin, and Kasandra sometimes works the front desk.
One of Maria’s initiatives after opening the center was to partner with the Master Musicians Festival to help her students gain performance opportunities. Now each year through this partnership, students audition to earn a spot on the MMF stage right before the Friday night headliner.
It has become one of her favorite memories during her time here.
“At our first MMF appearance we actually had three students perform that day,” Maria said. “The judges were so impressed with the local talent. Our finalist that year was Will Muse and watching him get the opportunity to perform on the MMF stage was like watching magic.”
McNeil Music Center is entering its fifth year. Maria said the priority is asking how McNeil Music Center can give the community something it truly wants and needs while finding new ways to show love to current students.
Regardless of what changes, McNeil Music Center will continue its mission, while also continuing to connect its founder with so many people who share the common bond she found with her parents when she was a little girl.
“For me it’s about the whole package,” Maria said. “I love those days when it’s super loud in our hallways and you can hear Caro Mio Ben, Queen, Bach, a banjo and musical theater all at once and see the joy on our students faces as they leave. We may all be very different people but here we all have something in common, our love of music. Seeing that come to life fills my heart with joy.”
Maria McNeil will receive the 2019 Music Educator of the Year award at 9:30 p.m. Friday, July 19.