Schneider was born in Windom, Minnesota. She moved to New York City in 1985 after attending college at the University of Minnesota, the University of Miami and the Eastman School of Music. She studied under Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans, working on various projects with Evans, including the film The Color of Money.
Schneider formed the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra in 1993, appearing weekly at Visiones in Greenwich Village for five years. Her orchestra performed at many jazz festivals and toured Europe.