Almost 10 years ago, when she was 13, Julia Brav attended the summer camp at Appel Farm Arts and Music Center in Elmer, New Jersey, for the first time. It was her first sleep-away camping experience. Exploring musically beyond her classical piano lessons, and delving into the visual arts, she was captivated. For three summers she attended the camp, where non-competitiveness reigns, and perfectionism is shunned.
At 22, a decade after Brav’s first stay at Appel, she is now a Princeton University graduate, Class of 2008, and attempting to establish herself as a jazz pianist. A conversation with her about Appel is in part nostalgia — and in part clear analysis — she looks back wistfully on the time when she was learning what she wanted to do with herself. She traces the connections between the Appel summers in her mid-teens and earning a certificate in musical performance from Princeton with her present pursuit of a full-time jazz career.
Brav’s parents are Princeton residents Peter Brav, a lawyer and a novelist who has also contributed to U.S. 1 newspaper’s summer fiction issues, and Janet Brav, a professor at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Her brother, Greg, a sophomore at Indiana University, has not yet selected a major. The family lived in New York City until moving to Princeton when Julia was nine. For three summers Julia stayed with her grandparents in New York City in order to attend an arts camp in the city. “I was a little kid,” she says. “It was tough.”
Limited to 215 campers, ages 9 to 17, Appel Farm Camp is located on a 176-acre rural site, about an hour south of Princeton. The program has a 3:1 camper to staff ratio, and prides itself on an international staff. The chief areas of concentration are music; theater; dance; visual arts from drawing and painting to ceramics, beading, sculpture, glass, and print-making; and media arts, including photography, video, and journalism. Sports are among the offerings.
Albert Appel and his wife, Clare, founded the camp in 1960. Albert, born in 1923, studied agriculture and was also a professional violinist, violist, and chamber music coach. He still turns up regularly on campus and sometimes plays music with campers. Clare, born in 1924, was a pianist with a degree from Rowan University; she died in 1990. The couple married in 1947 and had four children. In 1959 they incubated the idea of bringing musicians and the children of their friends to the farm to explore the arts. That informal beginning was the origin of the Appel Farm Camp and led eventually to an annual summer festival at the farm.
Albert summed up the philosophy of the camp in a magazine interview some years ago: “As far as I’m concerned, where there is any great amount of competition, there is a stifling of a person’s creativity. Here you can make a mistake….you can learn as much most of the time by screwing up as you can by getting it right every time.”
The camp is ever-evolving. For 16 years, it existed alongside the Appel’s working farm, which raised livestock and grain. This year the camp is building an outdoor classroom in a wooded area, where campers can meet in small groups.
“I went to Appel for the first time in 1999.” Brav says in a phone interview. “I had just finished seventh grade. My last summer there was 2001, just before 9/11, when I was about to enter my sophomore year in high school.
“I look back fondly on Appel. It was memorable. It made me take on music in high school. I had no idea what music meant to me until I was 17 or 18. I always knew I wanted music in my life, but I didn’t know how I wanted it. I didn’t know how I would fit it in. Appel reinforced my interest in music, and gave me a chance to explore.
“Appel had a great effect on me socially,” Brav continues. “Like many middle school kids, I didn’t have the greatest time during the academic year. I felt alienated, even though I had a few close friends. Piano was not the focal point of my life at that time, or I would have devoted myself to practicing. At Appel Farm I felt I could be myself and that people would be interested in getting to know me. I felt comfortable in my own skin.
“The hardest thing for me was probably the sleep-away experience,” Brav says. “It became easier, as I got older and more independent and more involved. My younger brother joined me in the second session the first year. So I was not alone. But it was a shock not to have much communication with my parents. Plenty of little kids could handle sleep-away better than I could. Still, I learned to enjoy camp.”
Julia’s parents tracked down Appel for her. “My parents were always incredibly supportive,” Julia says “They wanted to help me structure my summers. They researched possibilities of arts camps in New Jersey. Appel Farm seemed to be the best fit. My mom and I talked about it. I liked the idea of an arts camp close to home. I read the literature and saw the promotional video. It seemed like Appel fostered a great sense of community, plus an artistic environment.”
She says the program at camp was organized, but there was a healthy amount of free time. “You worked on your majors in the morning; that was the focal point of your being at camp. Then, in the afternoon, you worked on minors and had recreational time. I did a lot of visual art. There were fun things in the evening — concerts and sports. I was not really athletic, but there were pick-up soccer games and swimming. Some of my best memories are hanging out with friends and having impromptu performances in the dining room. I played piano and keyboards and sang.
“The comfort level was just right for me. I had excellent instructors at camp — attentive, understanding young women in their 20s from Croatia and Finland. Their approaches were similar to the instruction I had before.”
Since Brav’s experience at Appel was so rewarding, I ask her if she has advice for others about selecting an arts camp. Cautiously, she responds, “It’s hard to generalize. Everyone has different interests. It’s important to look at the faculty. Teachers and mentors are enormously important. Read about them. Visit the camp, if possible. Read the literature. Look at promotional materials.”
She is enthusiastic about attending an arts camp for those tempted by the prospect. “If you’re interested in an arts camp,” she says, “go for it! It could be a life-changing experience. If you have a burgeoning interest in art or music, it’s important to develop it or see it through.
“The years I went to Appel were an experimental period for me,” she continues. “I always wanted to try new things. I tried classical piano, rock bands, and improvisation. Before Appel I had not done much ensemble playing, but I did a lot at Appel. It helped me understand what it’s like to create music alongside other people.
“I grew a lot at Appel. After my three years there, I began refining my interests, studying jazz in high school, and developing myself musically.
Anthony Biancosino, the beloved Princeton High School band director known affectionately as “Dr. B” became a mentor for Brav. He died the year Brav graduated from high school. She met him when she was a high school freshman, after her second summer at Appel. “He gave me motivational advice and was the first person who encouraged me to study privately, to learn about jazz on a deeper level, and to develop as a jazz pianist.” Brav studied with Laurie Altman, now retired from Westminster Choir College of Rider University. “Classical didn’t feel like home to me. I loved improvising jazz with its structural freedom. Even before jazz, I was able to improvise — not in a jazz style, but I was able to make up music on the spot. Jazz was the sensible thing for me to study.” Through Biancosino, Brav met Tony Branker, director of the Princeton University Jazz Ensemble, with whom she played from the time she was a junior in high school.
Biancosino also connected Brav with her next mentor, Joanne Brackeen. The California-born Brackeen is a professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, which specializes in jazz, rock, and other contemporary music not available at other music schools.
Her career, which exploded in the late 1950s, places her as a pioneer woman jazz performer. “She was the first jazz pianist I saw (perform) live,” Brav says. “It was at the annual Princeton Jazz Festival in Palmer Square in 2001. I connected with her music. I almost hyperventilated. I was dazzled. It never occurred to me that I could study privately with her or could E-mail or call her. Dr. B. gave me her E-mail address.”
Brav entered Princeton University as a member of the class of ‘08 and took monthly private lessons with Brackeen for two years while she was an undergraduate. “At my first lesson I was overwhelmed,” she says. “We played a couple of tunes together. She was complimentary. To hear her say positive things about my playing was unfathomable. After every lesson I, walked away inspired, I wanted to sit down and start practicing. I felt that I was starting fresh each time.
“Then I discovered that I could talk to her as a friend. When you idolize somebody, it’s hard to realize that they’re human. That dynamic shifted over the years I studied with her. It’s not just a teacher-pupil relationship. We stay in touch.”
In 2006, still an undergraduate, Brav traveled to Estonia for a series of concerts sponsored by the U.S. State Department, the U. S. Embassy in Estonia, and the Estonian Academy of Music and Theater. The tour included the playing of Brav’s compositions.
During her senior year at Princeton Brav was selected by the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) for the Sisters in Jazz Collegiate All-Star Quintet, which performed first in January, 2008, in Toronto for one of the world’s largest jazz gatherings, with more than 7,000 listeners, and then in May for the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival in Washington, D.C.
Brav says performing in the quintet “was the highlight of my life as musician so far. The biggest challenge was connecting quickly with women I had never met or played with before. We got to perform in front of jazz luminaries. It was daunting and inspiring. I couldn’t even think about who was listening. It was a matter of just playing and not being nervous. By the time we played in Washington we were familiar with each other and we had time to grow. It made a remarkable difference in how we played.”
With her eye on a full-time jazz career, Brav now lives in Jersey City and has a day job as an administrative assistant at a small company in Newark. “Jersey City’s incredibly close to Manhattan,” she says. “It’s great to be near downtown clubs in New York, and to have an opportunity to meet great musicians. I’ve been going to jam sessions in the city. It’s a very competitive atmosphere. Sometimes the atmosphere is more forgiving, but it can get fairly aggressive. You have to be sensitive to other people wanting to play and take advantage of the networking opportunities.”
Brav is also preparing to apply to graduate schools. “I want to pursue a master’s degree in performance,” she says. “Getting admitted depends mostly on auditions. They’re coming up in next month. I’m alternately excited and scared. You have to play jazz standards and improvise over them. You have to show your grasp of jazz literature. I’ll probably spend the next few years at grad school and playing gigs.
“Right now it’s hard to allot enough time for daily practice,” Brav says. “You have to find enough time to work on music every day. It’s a matter of self-discipline. The pressure is a temporary thing. In grad school I’ll have more time.”
It has been eight years since her last summer at Appel Camp. But the camp is an ongoing force in Julia Brav’s life. Her eventual decision to concentrate on jazz piano was born there. Her self-knowledge and growing confidence were nurtured there. Without Appel, she would have been a different person.
Indeed, the camp is a part of Brav’s present scene. “I’ve been reconnecting recently with old friends from Appel,” she says, “meeting up with them in the city. They’re all fresh out of college. It reminded me how cool people there were.”