Being head drum major of a college marching band is hard enough. Imagine doing it while being legally blind.
Photo by Shane Epping, University of Missouri
Playing in marching band has been one of the most special things in my life. Growing up I always loved music, and I couldn’t wait to join band in fifth grade. When I got to high school, I took my place in the marching band. My field performances were limited, however, because I was also on the football team. Sports were a large part of my life up until my junior year of high school when my retinas detached.
Typically, retinas detach due to a traumatic accident, but my retinas detached because my vitreous pulled my retina off the back of my eye. Basically, poor genetics and bad luck.
Over the next 12 months, I had more than 15 eye surgeries, and by the time everything was settled, I was left legally blind. Unable to play sports anymore and struggling to cope with my new life, music took over. When I performed, I was able to escape and forget about all the things that were going wrong.
When I chose to go to the University of Missouri, there was no doubt I wanted to be a member of the university’s marching band, Marching Mizzou. The band has provided me with a family and made the transition to college easy. With the band, I have performed at college football games, NFL games and numerous parades—and this past year, we took part in Dublin, Ireland’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. While on our weeklong tour of Ireland, we were also named the International Band Champions at the Limerick International Band Championships. This past season we were also lucky enough to have the Boston Brass perform a halftime show with us, only adding to the wonderful experiences I’ve had at Mizzou.
Becoming a drum major for a marching band is something I have always wanted to do—from the dazzling field entrances and flashy salutes to the added pressure and responsibility of the job. Even though I didn’t audition in high school, I never lost sight of the goal.
I knew the odds were stacked against me, having never been a drum major as well as dealing with my vision impairment, but I wasn’t going to give up. I spent hours meeting with graduate assistants to polish my conducting and spoke with previous drum majors about their experiences and expectations. I made sure that I was fully prepared, so that I could prove I wouldn’t let my disability hold me back. Because of that preparation, our director never doubted my abilities, and at the end of my sophomore year, I was chosen to be a drum major of Marching Mizzou. I was elated but knew a rough road lay ahead.
It’s hard to describe what I can and cannot see. My vision issues lie mostly in seeing details. My right eye is completely blurry, causing me to rely on the left. The peripheral vision in my left eye is quite good, but I have blind spots in my central vision. This causes major distortions and makes it difficult to read and to see people’s faces from more than a few feet away.
For my first two seasons with Marching Mizzou, I put in many hours of work outside of rehearsal. I wasn’t able to use music on the field in rehearsals, instead having to take it home, enlarge it and memorize it. In order to keep from lagging behind, I spent many nights listening to sound files and reading along in my music.
Not only would I continue that trend as drum major, I had to do even more work to be prepared. I did score studies to identify parts that might have needed extra work and studied drill charts to have an understanding of each picture. At rehearsals, I wasn’t able to read coordinate sheets to help people find their spots and instead had to rely on my understanding of the pictures to fix formation problems. I was afraid that members of the band wouldn’t trust me to carry out the duties of my job, so I worked every day to earn their trust and prove myself.
Words of Wisdom
I want people to know that you can overcome any obstacle you face. You just have to want it enough to put in the work and find a way. I was able to overcome my disability to become the head drum major for Marching Mizzou, something that most people thought I’d never be able to do. I did it by working hard, believing in myself and refusing to give up.
Whenever it seems like something can’t be done, I like to think back to something Walt Disney once said, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” Strive to do the “impossible” everyday.
About the Author
Paul Heddings will graduate from the University of Missouri in May with degrees in history and political science. He plans to attend law school and pursue a career in politics. A member of Phi Mu Alpha, he marched four years with the Carrollton (Mo.) High School marching band and four years with Marching Mizzou. Those seasons included one on trumpet, five on drumline, and two as drum major (one as head drum major).