Throughout her life, Stacy Kovacs has marched to the steady beat of a drum.
Listening to its staccato sound soothes her.
“It’s a physical and emotional release,” says Stacy, who started banging out beats on the instrument when she was 8. “Playing in a marching band is about music and movement, choreography and camaraderie.”
As she’s pondering the power of the percussive, she’s petting her 6-year-old cats, Louie and Libby, rescues who may or may not be brother and sister. Louie, who weighs 23 pounds, launched himself like a missile onto her lap; Libby fearlessly followed his lead and leapt.
As Stacy talks, her funny felines find other things to do – Louie cuddles up to Stacy’s drum, a Brazilian-style repique, and Libby crawls into the C section of her C A T house.
A bit rude, perhaps, but Libby and Louie have heard this story before and know how it plays out.
For them, Stacy’s collections – she has 42 plastic Mr. Potato Head toys, including one dressed as a doctor and one decked out as Indiana Jones, hanging on the living room walls, plus myriad Muppet memorabilia and vast numbers of vintage video games like Pac-Man — are tail-twitching tantalizers.
Although the drum was the first instrument she seriously studied, Stacy discarded it for the trombone when she was in high school.
She didn’t need much incentive – the band teacher told the class there were no trombone players and encouraged everyone to try out.
“He told us that whoever learned to play ‘Georgia on My Mind’ the best would get to perform it as a solo in the show,” she says, adding that this was in Orchard Park, a suburb of Buffalo that is not nearly as exciting as New York City, so this was a pretty big deal. “My brother had played it, so I had the instrument. I taught myself, and yes, I played the solo.”
She became so good at it, in fact, that she enrolled at Michigan State University simply because she wanted to be in its noted marching band.
“I got a partial scholarship,” she says.
While she and her trombone were marching in the band, Stacy majored in physiology as a prelude to entering medical school.
To her surprise, she didn’t follow through and when she graduated, she returned to Orchard Park and worked as a paramedic.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she says.
A couple of years later, she enrolled at Northeastern University in Boston, where she earned two master’s degrees – one in cardiopulmonary perfusion and one in the physician assistant program.
“I wanted to come to New York City,” she says. “I had only been here once, but I knew I wanted to move here.”
Since 2005, when she arrived for a surgical residency at Montefiore Medical Center, she has worked as a physician assistant for several hospitals, including Mount Sinai, Lenox Hill, St. Vincent’s, Methodist and New York University. This year, she took a job with New York-Presbyterian.
Her band schedule was always full. She joined the Lesbian & Gay Big Apple Corps marching band as a trombonist and then learned samba drumming and joined Samba New York! At one point, she was playing in five bands.
“I played trombone in two and drums in three,” she says. “I was rehearsing for hours every night.”
And, she adds, loving every note of it.
She saw a drumming performance by Batala, a global arts project, that got her so fired up that she started a branch of her own in 2011.
“Batala reminded me of my college marching band,” she says. “I believe in the magic of performing as a group.”
She had so much fun leading Batala NYC that in 2016 she founded the all-women Brazilian samba reggae drum line Fogo Azul NYC.
She named it Blue Fire because “blue flames burn the hottest and are the rarest.”
Fogo Azul NYC, which has 100 members, performs at public and private events, including the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island, the Halloween Parade, the Women’s March and St. Pat’s for All Parade.
“There’s no experience necessary,” Stacy says, adding that Fogo Azul’s youngest member is 14 and its oldest is 84. “The music is not written down – it’s in my head and on videos. It’s not reading notes; it’s muscle memory and choreography.”
As conductor and composer, Stacy’s the heartbeat of the group.
Fogo Azul NYC is Stacy’s hobby, one that she takes so seriously that she rehearses several times a week and recently set up a nonprofit to extend the band’s reach.
“I want to do workshops in schools,” she says. “I dream of buying a building or of someone buying us a building that would be a community center for music. Believe it or not, New York doesn’t have a world percussion center – I want to open the first one.”
For Stacy, the beat goes on steady and strong.
After telling Louie and Libby good-bye, Stacy dons her drum majorette’s hat, a tall, white confection with a flamboyant finial that makes her look like a Beefeater on guard at Buckingham Palace, and hangs her faux-flower-festooned repique from her waist.
“The goal is to have fun,” she says as she marches out the door. “Once you put the drum on, you’re hooked.”
Astoria Characters Day: The 10th Anniversary is Sept. 15, 2019. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling