Payton MacDonald is a percussionist, composer, singer, and filmmaker. He studied music at the Eastman School of Music and the University of Michigan, where he studied with John Beck and Michael Udow. Payton has also been studying Hindustani music for 22 years, first as a tabla drummer with Bob Becker and Pandit Sharda Sahai, and now as a Dhrupad singer with the legendary Gundecha Brothers. He has toured all over the globe, released over 20 recordings, and made two full-length documentary films. He co-directs the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble and is a full-time, tenured full professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J.
Rhythm! Scene: If you weren't a university percussion professor, what career could you see yourself having pursued?
Payton MacDonald: I thought about taking the freelance route for a while, but I really like being in the academic setting so I can pursue experimental music and not worry about money. And, of course, I love teaching! If I wasn't a musician, I'd probably be a scientist of some sort—anything that is creative and looking forward over new horizons.
R!S: What's one thing in your institution or city/town (other than your school of music or music department) that you are proud to tell people about?
PM: One of the things I'm most proud of with William Paterson University is that we serve a broad range of students from a variety of backgrounds. Diversity is in the forefront of our news cycles these days, but we actually walk the walk at WP. We have a number of services designed to help students from difficult backgrounds so that they have a fair shot at finishing college and building a career. I've personally seen hundreds of students elevate themselves out of challenging situations and become successful professionals in a variety of fields. I'm grateful to be a part of that process and honored to work with such motivated and intelligent students.
R!S: What's one thing most people don’t know about you?
PM: I'm a passionate herpteculturist. My reptile collection currently includes eight ball pythons, a boa constrictor, a bearded dragon, a sand boa, and a leopard gecko. I'm also a passionate amateur arachnologist. Currently I only have three tarantulas, but at one point I had over 100!
R!S: What is your favorite percussion instrument and why?
PM: My favorite percussion instrument would be a toss-up between marimba or vibes, with snare drum a very close second. Probably marimba, but I'd hate to choose. I love playing all percussion instruments!
R!S: Where did you grow up, and what’s one interesting thing about your childhood (musically or otherwise)?
PM: I grew up in the Rocky Mountains in Idaho. I spent a lot of time in the woods and mountains growing up, and that’s had a profound influence on my creative work and outlook on life. The best way to explain that is to encourage people to see my film Sonic Divide, where you can see me pedaling my mountain bike 2,500 miles from Mexico to Canada, on the Continental Divide, while premiering 30 new pieces of music in the wilderness and making a film (www.sonicdivide.com/the-film). I explain in more depth in that film how growing up out West has shaped me as an artist.