Versatile Cellist Jeffrey Zeigler Joins the Frost School Faculty

New assistant professor Jeffrey Zeigler believes music is a living and breathing art form—and hopes his innovative creative processes will inspire Frost students to take their careers in exciting and unforeseeable directions.
Cellist, Jeffrey Zeigler

New York-based cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, widely known for pushing boundaries and breaking conventions in the music world, most especially with his latest release, Houses of Zodiac: Poems for Cello, has decided to play a new role: that of assistant professor of Chamber Music and Innovation at Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. 

Zeigler's primary duties will involve teaching chamber music and curating special performances with the students at the Frost School of Music. He will also act as artistic director of the chamber music series at Frost and bring world-renowned ensembles to campus to perform and work with students.

“Jeffrey Zeigler exemplifies the artistry and breadth of career skills that the Frost School uniquely fosters,” says Dean Shelton Berg. “Chamber Music ensembles are a laboratory for performance, creativity, entrepreneurship, technology, and concert production values. Professor Zeigler will leverage the chamber music experience to provide Frost School students with a rich and relevant education.”

While Frost has a robust chamber music program rooted in the traditional canon, Zeigler, who’s an advocate of new music, and a lover of the language of music, brings a wealth of knowledge and, with that, the possibility of unique combinations of instrumental chamber music configurations. 

“I'm excited to see the growth of our chamber music program under the guidance of Professor Zeigler,” adds associate professor of flute, Jennifer Grim, who believes Zeigler’s artistry and musical gifts are outstanding and that it is rare to see artists play contemporary music with such expressivity and integrity. “He will be an incredible inspiration not only to the students at Frost but also to his faculty colleagues and the entire South Florida community,” Grim says.

Before joining Frost, Zeigler and his wife, composer Paola Prestini, produced one of the greatest and most ambitious solo cello albums of all time. Houses of Zodiac: Poems for Cello has received great reviews since its release in September 2021. It’s as if Prestini and Zeigler intentionally attempted to do for the cello what Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon did for rock ’n’ roll,” reported David Templeton in the November-December 2021 issue of Strings magazine.

In an exclusive interview with the Frost School of Music, Zeigler shared his journey to the cello—the musical instrument that inspired him to dream big and changed his life forever.  

After you left your position as the cellist of the Kronos Quartet about a decade ago—arguably the most renowned, popular, and influential ensemble of its kind—how did pursuing a solo career change your life, and make you one of the most innovative and versatile cellists of our time? Did you encounter any challenges along the way?

Joining Kronos was a huge life-changing experience for me. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, so I had known about Kronos my entire childhood. Like so many young musicians, I had aspired to be in a string quartet like Kronos. But to be a member was beyond a dream come true. 

But as much as I loved that period of my life, I have always been one to crave new challenges. When you truly challenge yourself sometimes you succeed, but often you fail. And I believe that it is only through taking risks (and yes, failing too) that you learn and continue to grow. It would certainly have been much easier to stay in the quartet. But being on my own has forced me to develop new skills, as well as discover and use creative muscles that I didn’t even know existed.

You’ve been quoted as saying: “On good days, my cello and I are one and the same entity. On bad days we are like a married couple having a little spat.” Can you expand on that?

I sometimes joke with my students that if I were ever to write a book (which is never gonna happen), the title would be “Playing the Cello is Really Hard.” What I mean by this is that there are layers upon layers of countless details and actions that require instrumentalists to train for decades to master and to attempt to hopefully execute perfectly… often in just the blink of an eye.  

It is also true that we all have good days and bad days. Sports pundits often talk about form versus results. One may get lucky and achieve some results with poor form, but good form will more consistently lead to sustainable positive results. But no matter how prepared you are, at any given moment, there will always be a risk that you may swing and miss or fail to land the triple axel.

How old were you when you began playing the cello, and who/what influenced your music?

I was seven. Although I do not come from a musical family, my parents were always very encouraging. They enrolled me in a short program that allowed kids to explore many different instruments. We played the violin and the recorder, and we also sang. It turned out that the violin teacher was a cellist. After the program, she asked my parents if I would like to take cello lessons. I said, “Sure, what’s a cello?”

Growing up, one of my biggest influences was my teacher in high school, Margaret Tait. At the time, she was a cellist in the San Francisco Symphony. In 1979, she founded the Aurora String Quartet, which was a vital force on the chamber music scene for 22 years. With the Quartet, she maintained a series of compelling concerts in the Bay Area. Their programs always mixed traditional works with very gnarly contemporary quartets. This was the first time I ever heard music like this, and I was absolutely riveted. She was the person who got me interested in new music, and in playing string quartets. 

What inspires you as you begin to work on a new piece?

It is one of my favorite things to be able to bring a new work to life. I feel so much freedom utilizing every tool in my tool kit in this process. I also enjoy being able to have a dialog with living composers. At some point, I think we have all wished we could ask a composer from the past, “What did you mean exactly by that dot?”  

Music is a living and breathing art form. It is also a process. I hope the work that I do with living composers will help give these works continued life for future generations to come. 

Tell us about your experiences working closely with some of the leading composers of our time, hearing their works first-hand, bringing them to life through debut performances, and recording them. How do you balance your personal ideas and the intentions of the composer in your interpretations? 

I feel very fortunate to have been able to collaborate with so many incredible composers. In addition to having learned so much from each of them, it has given me a unique perspective on how to interpret composers from the past.

But you are correct, creative people will very often have differing ideas about how to approach a particular piece. As a performer, my role is to understand the intent of the composer and to convey this message through my voice. There is not a single way to play any piece and every musician should be empowered to apply their unique voice to their interpretations. 

You have worked with artists such as Norah Jones and directors like Darren Aronofsky. You have dabbled in jazz and experimental video while raising a family. How do you balance your creative life and home life?

I’ve been very fortunate to be able to be involved in a wide range of collaborations. And each project stretches you further, and I thrive on that.  

I am also very lucky to be married to Paola Prestini, an amazing composer with a tremendous career with numerous premieres across the globe. Our schedules can often be quite complex, but despite our professional pursuits, our love and our family always come first. 

What did you do this summer?

My Summer began in Los Angeles with a performance of my latest solo project, Houses of Zodiac. This was a COVID project with my wife. Over the years, she has written quite a few works for solo cello, and the pandemic provided us the space to be able to fully dive in. But as projects with Paola can often grow, this “solo cello” project soon became a collaboration with New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin and master butoh dancer Dai Matsuoka from Sankai Juku. We also brought in our friends, the brilliant filmmaker Murat Eyuboglu and lighting designer Bruce Steinberg.  

Now that you are at the Frost School, what do you hope to accomplish as an assistant professor of Chamber Music and Innovation? 

At its heart, chamber music is about collaboration. I am looking forward to collaborating with Frost’s world-class faculty on several projects. The school has a tremendously talented student body, and so I am also looking forward to bringing in guest artists that will create a spark and inspire our students to become the best versions of themselves.

How do you hope to inspire Frost students with your training, talent, technique, and passion as it relates to your instrument and new music? 

Rigorous musical training is more than just mastering one’s instrument and the repertoire. Innovation leads to growth through the exploration of new challenges and seeking fresh solutions. The world is constantly changing and evolving. Although my career has taken me in many different directions, I hope to share an innovative perspective with the students to inspire them to take their careers in exciting and unforeseeable directions. Frost students make me very optimistic about the future of our art form.