Local performance artist Madeline McNeill explores self-healing through song
From premedicine to philosophy, local performance artist and classically trained opera singer Madeline McNeill has dedicated herself to understanding the dichotomy of body and soul.
McNeill began her undergraduate years in premedical studies but quickly became disillusioned.
“I was neither happy nor healthy,” she said. Three years later, she decided to take a year off to rest and regroup.
During that year, her whole world changed.
She began studying alternative medicine and spirituality, but neither proved satisfactory. The pain she carried from burnout and overwork didn’t go away, and she knew she needed something else.
So, after a bit of travel, McNeill “hustered” into a voice program at Western Washington University and returned to school determined to study music. She had never studied voice before, but her fascination with the physics of singing pushed her to continue her studies up to a bachelor’s degree.
The type of practice regimen a classical voice student maintains is extensive, approaching overdrive. But it also led McNeill to explore “body healing modalities” like massage and “body mapping.”
“I gave myself a lot of body work, basically, to take out my pain but also to improve my instrument, which it did,” she said. All of these modalities, she says, draw attention to the structure and musculature of the body.
“There are many different ways to communicate with people or with a student,” she said, explaining how often teachers will use emotion and “more poetic suggestions” to explain how a student should produce certain sounds.
But drawing on his background in anatomy and physiology, McNeill wanted to know what was going on inside, physically, what individual muscles were supposed to do.
“As I continued to practice, I began to develop this vocabulary for myself,” she said. “So now when I think of my instrument, I think of abs. I am thinking of back muscles.
“I’m thinking of the intercostals and the diaphragm…all those individual parts that end up coordinating together in this very unusual, interesting, and powerful technique.”
Totally focused on that side, she looked back and began to think about how certain emotions could be materialized.
“Think of wonder – awe – a map of this would be: high soft paddle, larynx is low, ribs are widened, belly and pelvic floor are widened,” she said. And on the other hand, “Anger is contraction, contraction, contraction.”
“When you shape that with really strong technique, those emotional postures blend together to create and shape those emotional states and tones,” she said.
This led her “down a rabbit hole” into the world of embodied cognitive science, “which studies cognition as bodily interactions with the environment” and the idea that “the body shapes or shapes the mind”. “.
This sort of “phenomenology of experience informed by vocal training” is the foundation of what she calls the “philosophy of the body.”
She uses this philosophy in self-healing, composition, meditation and performance.
“It’s been a long journey…to embody my voice in its entirety,” she said. “There have been a lot of ways that I’ve felt comfortable allowing my voice to do what it wants to do.
“And once I learned how to do that, I started creating with an aesthetic that was true.”
An example of McNeill’s work, a lyric art film composed during the coronavirus pandemic, can be found on YouTube under the title “So It Begins – An Opera”. The piece was directed by Rajah Bose and produced by Ellen Picken. A full list of contributors can be found in the video description.