STOKES STATE FOREST-The hills of Sussex County are alive with the sound of music, thanks to some of the most talented young musicians in New Jersey and the Stokes Forest Music Festival. For the past twelve years young musicians have gathered for a summer camp music program held at the New Jersey School of Conservation. Now, the program, which is run by Montclair State University, is throwing its doors open to area residents, offering an open invitation to a series of free concerts. The camp holds a two-week session each summer for talented middle school and high school students. This year, 91 youngsters from the region are attending the camp and enjoying music theory and performances coupled with normal camp activities such as bonfires, rock climbing, and the obligatory dining hall cuisine. The camp is organized by the music preparatory division of Montclair State, which offers programs for all age groups on a year-round basis. The camp is held each summer at the Stokes campus, where tame deer wander the grounds, begging for snacks and human attention. The idyllic setting is part of the program's creative balance, allowing students to focus on their musical training. "Being away from their normal day-to-day life, they are surrounded by music in a beautiful setting," noted Amanda Platte, director of public relations for the camp. She said the absence of television and technological diversions helps campers to focus on improving their skills. Platte said one of the most important aspects of the camp is performing, which leads to the camp's open invitation to its concert series. Five concerts already have been held. The last two begin at 7:30 p.m. tonight and tomorrow, Friday, July 23. The final concert features the faculty and staff combined with the students. "We've really advanced over the past twelve years, so we're ready to give back to the public with these concerts," Platte explained. "In the past, it was mostly the campers and family, but now we're throwing the doors open." Platte said the camp and the chance to perform advances the students musically because they need the experience if they are to advance to college-level programs. Katherine Prestia, the mother of ninth grader Chris Prestia of Wantage, praised the program, which allows students to explore multiple instruments. Chris Prestia also attends a strings instrument camp in Philadelphia each summer, but the program at Stokes gives him the chance to try out different instruments, composing, and conducting, and even vocals and drama. "It's a very broad reaching program, he can try out different things," Prestia said. In addition, Prestia noted that many campers can benefit from networking, as the camp is affiliated with the New Jersey Youth Symphony Orchestra. "If he's going to pursue a career in music, this helps him meet other musicians and network himself," she said. Students have to try their hand at singing even if they are instrumental musicians, as it helps the students develop a trained ear. Violinist and camper Cris Basso, 13, of Linden is attending his third camp. Basso has been playing the violin for five years, and gives credit to the camp for stoking his desire to improve as a musician. "It's a great experience for anyone who wants to play an instrument," Basso said. "It's a great atmosphere, I've been able to learn and improve." Basso said he appreciates the fact that it's also, "just a camp," with the normal mix of fun and games, friendships and camaraderie. Basso also said the food is very good, something the staff has taken into consideration. One of the camp's faculty members is Kimberly Syvertsen of Sparta, a former camper for eight years. Syvertsen, a 2000 graduate of Sparta Township High School, attends the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland, where she is pursuing a career in music education. "I first went away here my freshman year of high school," Syvertsen said. "After being so absorbed by music, I was inspired to go into music." She is a faculty violinist, and also runs an after-school music program for the Baltimore Public Schools. "Music is a very detail oriented activity, and that discipline translates to other studies," She said, adding that many of the campers are outstanding students who excel in other fields as well. The camp is located on Flatbrook Road in Stokes Forest. For more information about the camp or its public performances, call 973-948-2642, extension 37.