performers on darkened stage from 2018 Production of Lucretia

“Stoked” for a Homecoming

Ruth Rendleman, Cali School of Music’s Professor Emerita and Stokes Music Camp founder, cherishes memories of New Jersey School of Conservation, with concerts and bullfrog serenades under serene nights.

Posted in: Cali News

“Gosh, the memories. I think of hearing some of the concerts at the end of the session and remembering what the rehearsals sounded like in the beginning, and I would just be in tears at the remarkable progress. I love Rainbow Bridge, when campers were asleep I’d go with my friends and just listen to the bullfrogs. So peaceful, so special.”

These are the cherished memories Ruth Rendleman, founder of Stokes Music Camp, remembers about her summers starting in 1993 when the camp was founded, spent amongst the idyllic scenery of the New Jersey School of Conservation. For Stokes Music Camp, 2024 marks both a rebirth and a return to tradition. Since its inception the camp has been run at the New Jersey School of Conservation, NJSOC, and after a long pandemic-induced hiatus, the program is returning to its home at the SOC campus in Stokes State Forest. Members of the Stokes community and NJSOC alike are thrilled to continue this nearly thirty year tradition of melding music and nature in the magic that Stokes provides. After four years without Stokes at its original location, artistic director Tatyana Kebuladze delighted to return:

“We are really looking forward to coming back and also continuing our longstanding partnership for many years to come. The pandemic totally displaced us, and it was difficult to restart our camp after we lost our campers list for two years. We kind of had to start from scratch, so for us to continue our program here is so important to us, and I’m excited to continue this long friendship.”

This collaboration began in January of 1992, when Dr. John Kirk, who started his time at NJSOC in 1963, conceived the idea with Ruth to create a camp rooted in the appreciation of nature that also was a place to grow as a musician. That first summer they had a mere thirty-two campers and five counselors, but it was the beginning of a tradition that would grow into the successful program it is today. 

“That first year, we did everything for about $10,000. The reason we were able to do that was because John Kirk really wanted us there, he gave us a huge break on meals, the cabins, he basically did it for cost and I’m sure he made no money. Around that time we put up those practice cabins on Melody Lane, and started the tradition of taking the camp photo there. That’s part of what makes Stokes so special, when you have traditions that campers look forward to. We established a routine by the third or fourth year that we’ve basically kept since then, and it was for me one of the highlights of my career, being at Stokes and just enjoying what was going on and building on that every year. I’m just thrilled we’re gonna be back”

Stokes Camp Photo, 1993

Unlike other music festivals, Stokes became unique because while students were practicing and making music, the graduate students who resided on the SOC campus took on the role of leading the children through different environmental activities throughout the summer. It was a way to introduce the graduate students to music, and also to expose the young musicians to the beauty of nature around them in an interactive manner. Since then, this cross-section between music and nature has remained an integral part of the Stokes experience. Ruth talked about how Stokes has always been a place of connection, especially since for many campers, this was their first truly immersive experience in the outdoors. 

“The really nice thing about Stokes was that a lot of these kids, especially the first few summers, were from Linden and had never really been outside of an urban area, so this was an opportunity for them to have this outdoors experience. I still get letters and emails from some of those kids, and while a lot of them did not go into music, they really remember these experiences and how it affected their lives. I think that’s the unique thing about Stokes, it’s always been a special place for kids who were interested in music and not necessarily going to be the next Hiefitz or Rubenstien, but they could come still enjoy making great music in the summer in nature”

Stokes, 1997

More than ever before, time spent in the outdoors became important in light of the pandemic, something the current Artistic Director at Stokes Music Camp, Tatyana Kebuladze, really prioritizes in the program. Her first summer at Stokes dates back to her time in undergrad at Montclair State University in the year 2000 as a counselor, and returned as a piano and chamber music faculty in 2015, later becoming artistic director in 2018. Tatyana’s passion for the program revolves around a commitment to weaving nature and music together, especially in a time increasingly reliant on digital media and technology. 

“Being in nature in the summer is so important, especially since students are locked in buildings all the time and at home, just on computers. Walking all the time, seeing beautiful lakes and trees, it’s a very therapeutic experience, plus with music, you can’t get any better than that! The combo of music and nature is just perfect, especially it being an immersive non-competitive musical experience. That sort of non-competitive nature is hard to find these days, there’s so much pressure on everything kids do in their lives and I want to emphasize that there’s a way to grow as an individual and a musician without being competitive or anxious about your results, without questioning if you’re good enough.”

Stokes Camp Photo, 2019

While the pandemic forced people into quarantines, NJSOC closed its doors to majorly invest into the campus bringing it to a state of good repair, bringing modern amenities, updating bathroom facilities, and strengthening structures. Kerry Kirk Pflugh, current executive director of NJSOC and daughter of the aforementioned Dr. John Kirk, remembers this long history of Stokes firsthand, and is now at the forefront of continuing this partnership and friendship.

“I think from the SOC point of view, we have always wanted to offer young musicians the idea that nature is something that can inspire creativity and art, and I think we were all really devastated when we couldn’t have the camp here during the pandemic. We are now so excited to have people here, have my own personal memories walking outside Kittatinny hall and see kids practicing as my father did. I just love seeing young people happy and communing with nature. We have such a long history with the music camp, and I can’t wait to hear the voices of the people who will be here and hear their music, and learn about what they’re studying and what their goals are for themselves. I really look forward to the energy that they’re going to bring and we can complement that with all of the programming we have to offer in addition their musical studies”

Boating at Stokes, 2019

The campus itself is a historic area of New Jersey, which is part of what makes Stokes so magical. The area dates back to human use 11,000 years ago, and later the Lenape living and raising families there, hunting and fishing. There is a rich history that somewhat intrinsically inspires folks who are artistics and musical, but Stokes also provides opportunities to really explore nature, learn how to tell what the health of a stream is, see all sorts of critters in the nature center, and even take classes on blacksmithing! When asked what her favorite part of the 240-acre campus is, Kerry responded:

“I love all of it, but I think the place where I feel closest to all of the people who came before me and I feel the spirit of the place is Piney Point, at the fire ring. Each time I walk there, there’s just sort of something there”

Piney Point, Stokes 2018

The beautiful campus has been majorly upgraded and ready to receive new students, with an increased focus on reaching communities of color and low income families to provide the opportunity of the outdoors experience, recognizing that access to the outdoors has racial and socio-economic barriers. Now, Kerry is building on the philosophy that learning in the outdoors via an experiential approach must now include an element of diversity and accessibility. 

“We are really working hard to reach our communities of color, particularly the environmental justice communities which may not have opportunities to come to a beautiful place like this and learn in this setting. So, our motto stands as: Environmental Education for Everyone Everywhere. We are working to partner with organizations that work to address barriers and show that spending time outdoors is for everyone.”

Providing more people with this access to the outdoors and music education has also been a priority in the mission of Stokes, which is why it remains a non-audition camp. Stokes welcomes musicians of any and all levels to come learn new things, participate in amazing ensembles, and grow as musicians without relying on competition. This also allows Stokes to reach communities of musicians who may not have had the same privileges of lessons and training from a young age, providing the opportunity of exposure and instruction at a low cost in comparison to other music festivals.

With the beautiful updates to the campus and a reinvigorated mission, Stokes Music Camp is ready for its homecoming at NJSOC. Students can come to Stokes excited for an immersive, non-competitive musical experience, making new friends, enjoying boating, archery, rock climbing, forestry, learning a new instrument, experiencing campfires and smores, great music by faculty and honored guests, and of course, being surrounded by all of the beauty Stokes State Forest has to offer. 

To become part of this historic and beautiful Stokes tradition, click here to register for a summer of fun and music at Stokes, and click here for more information on NJSOC programming.