Drum major leads M2 despite visual impairment

Paul Heddings, who is legally blind, became a drum major for Marching Mizzou.
Drum Major Paul Heddings directs Marching Mizzou on Wednesday behind the Hearnes Center. Heddings keeps the band in sync during performances.

As junior Paul Heddings stands atop a podium in the Marching Mizzou practice field, he conducts the band with confidence.

He raises his arms and the 350-person band crescendos. As he lowers them, the music grows quieter. At the end of the fight song, he signals for the band to stop and it obeys. What the musicians on the ground don’t realize is that he is legally blind.

Heddings' visual impairment is not due to just one medical issue. It is the result of retina detachments and cataracts, both primarily in his right eye.

His left eye is his “good eye,” though he still experiences distortions in his central vision.

“There really isn’t much more they can do for my right eye,” he said. “The problem with cataract surgeries is that they can lead to retina detachments. So, if you’ve already had them, it just makes it worse.”

As he describes it, the thin layer of tissue in the back of his eye is coming apart, creating a series of blind spots in his vision. Normally, such a blind spot would appear as a little black dot. Heddings’ brain overcompensates and brings the edges of the spot together, creating bumps and distortions in his vision and making reading of any kind more difficult.

Heddings also has a scleral buckle around his right eye to prevent it from pulling apart, leaving it completely blind.

“I’ve had around 13 invasive surgeries, and I don’t even know how many laser surgeries and treatments, all within the span of a year and a half,” he said. “To make a really bad joke, it really blindsided me.”

Although more interested in sports than music, Heddings started band in fifth grade. He played football and baseball until his junior year of high school, when his eye problems forced him out of contact sports.

“Sports were a big part of my life, so I had to find something to do with myself,” Heddings said. “That’s where music came in.”

Once he got to college, it was a “no-brainer” to join Marching Mizzou. During his first two years in the band, he played on the drumline.

Despite his visual impairment, Heddings auditioned for and received the position of drum major for Marching Mizzou, prompting more than a few “blind leading the blind” jokes from those who know him.

“It’s a pretty interesting idea, having somebody legally blind conducting a marching band,” fellow drum major Jeff Panhorst said.

Even though Heddings is in his third year with Marching Mizzou, band director Brad Snow said he never recognized Heddings had issues with his vision.

“Until he brought it up, that he was legally blind, I didn’t even know that he was,” Snow said. “It’s not like he views it as a handicap. He views it as the hand he was dealt and he’s just making it work.”

It has taken quite a bit of time to make it work, too. Drum majors are expected to read the scores, mark certain movements and critique individuals in the band. As a cymbal player in the drumline, Heddings would have to take the music home and memorize it in one night, as he’d be unable to read it during rehearsal the next day.

Heddings takes pride in his ability to function without calling attention to his sight loss.

“I don’t want to hide, but I don’t tell people at first so they don’t act a certain way about it,” he said.

Despite his personal obstacles, Heddings’ fellow marchers obey him without question.

“A lot of being a drum major is just being a leader,” Panhorst said. “You just need to be a role model, stay informed and solve problems. You don’t need 20/20 vision for that.”

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