Oberlin Blogs

Peak Experiences

May 5, 2024

Naci Konar-Steenberg '26

In 1964, psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the term ‘peak experience.’ He defined it as an experience of extreme fulfillment or self-actualization: getting a novel published or climbing Mount Everest, for example. Peak experiences are characterized by the fact that they tend to epitomize a particular struggle or success in a person’s life. They can come from anywhere, but in practice, they often follow a long period of hard work and build-up. Peak experiences usually lead to someone changing or learning more about who they are.

Obviously, peak experiences are rare. You can only have so many transcendent moments of self-realization in one life. And I think this is a state of affairs that becomes evident to anyone who spends enough time working in a creative field. Moments where your work is vindicated are few and far between – and in between those moments, constant daily work fills the gaps. Experiencing the thrill of finishing something, or presenting a completed project to an audience, is necessarily rare.

A little while ago, something unprecedented happened: I got to experience three of those moments of vindication in one short week. It felt like an outrageous coincidence. The thing is, April in Oberlin is the season for these moments of vindication. Choirs and concerteers present what they’ve been practicing all semester; professors invite their students to share their final projects to a wider audience; campus groups save their most compelling events for the precious few free weekends before finals week. And two weeks ago, on Tuesday, I got to present and conduct a choir piece that I wrote for the Now Chorale, a contemporary classical choir here on campus. On Friday, I stayed up all night with a friend, writing a musical for Oberlin’s Quick! Theater event. Finally, on Sunday, I got up early, drove to Toledo, and ran the Glass City Marathon.



At the beginning of this year, I decided to join the Now Chorale, a student-run choir at Oberlin focused on contemporary classical music. In our fall cycle, we performed three pieces written by student composers. When I heard that we would be singing pieces written by students, I instantly knew that I wanted to write a piece as well. I had some composition experience under my belt: in the spring of my freshman year, I took composition lessons taught by a student here, and the following fall, I was lucky enough to take a full class focused on classical music composition (Composition for Non-Majors). So I pestered the choir director to see if I could write a piece.

After getting the go-ahead, I started my work. The concept for our spring concert was that each student composer would write their piece based around one of three poems that the choir director had chosen for us. I chose "The Winds of Fate," by Ella Wheeler Wilcox. I worked all throughout the fall on my piece, and I edited it over Winter Term. When I finished my work, the piece was truly a sight to behold. It was almost seven minutes long, and thirty-two (!) pages of music. The sheet music repeatedly instructed the singers to whistle, imitating the sound of wind. In addition to an eight-part choir, it called for two soloists, including an alto soloist and a baritone soloist, who I occasionally asked to sing falsetto.

I was very excited to start rehearsing. In addition to composing the piece, I was also in charge of conducting it – and this ended up being a steep learning curve for me. If you’ve sung in choirs, or played in an orchestra, you’ve probably looked at your conductor and thought, “I could do that.” I can say now that conducting was a lot harder than I expected it to be. It was a constant process of give and take with the ensemble. I found it very easy to lose focus or forget what I needed to be doing, and then I’d find that I was slowing down or speeding up and that I needed to compensate – which I couldn’t do too suddenly, or it would mess everyone up.

That said, I do clearly remember one rehearsal near the date of the performance, after a week where I had worked with each section of the choir individually. After the final bar of music had faded out, it felt like each individual part of the piece was finally slotting together. It’s really encouraging when that happens, and I found myself getting excited to perform in front of an audience.

The concert was in Fairchild Chapel, a campus concert venue notorious for its echoey acoustics. Choirs and chamber music ensembles often perform in Fairchild to take advantage of this. I was excited to hear how my piece was going to sound there. I was singing in the choir for most of the other pieces, so at concert time, I took to the stage with the other singers. I tried to stay focused on singing, but a part of me was counting down the pieces until mine.

Then I was approaching the conductor’s stand, three-ring binder in hand. I took a moment to calm my nerves and remind myself of a few last-minute notes. And then we were off!

I was very happy with how my piece turned out. There’s a particular luster that choir pieces get when they’re being performed, and the singers and the pianist expressed that luster beautifully. It felt so incredibly rewarding to hear what I had written down on sheet music so long ago finally performed, and I’m enormously, eternally grateful to them for all their hard work. (If you’re reading this and you’re an aspiring Oberlin student, be sure to check out the Now Chorale once you get to campus!)

After the concert, I traipsed like a lunatic through North Quad, back to my dorm room. One event done, two left to go.



Every semester, OMTA (the Oberlin Musical Theater Association) puts on an event called Quick! Theater. The premise is simple: selected student playwrights get 12 hours to write a short play or musical, after which a group of students gets 12 hours to practice and perform the play. This time around, a friend (the incomparable Thorin Finch) and I signed up to write a musical together. We got to work at exactly 9 PM on Friday night. Before we started writing, I made sure to buy a few bottles of caffeinated soda and quite a few bags of candy – it was going to be a long night.

From the get-go, I had an idea for what I wanted to write about: an election for some low-level city government office, contested between two candidates with dramatic, tragic backstories. The audience would vote for which of the candidates would win, but there would be a twist – neither of them filled out the paperwork correctly, so neither could get elected! But the candidates would make up their differences and get an audience member to act as a write-in candidate.

We considered this idea for a while, and eventually Thorin had an idea: what if the election was for the position of supervillain-in-chief? What if the candidates were supervillains with dramatic, tragic backstories, and the reason neither of them could win was because a third supervillain had tricked them into not filling out the paperwork correctly? We liked this idea, and we began writing.

I remember finishing the first song around one in the morning. I was mostly in charge of writing the music, and Thorin came up with each character’s lines. We wrote a song where each supervillain introduced themselves and their slate of policies, and then a song where the third supervillain revealed his evil plan. One of my favorite pieces of the music that we wrote was the music that accompanied the scene where the newest supervillain-in-chief (an audience member) was sworn in: an arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner, in a minor key. We finished the music around 5:30 AM, and then I edited the music while Thorin finished up writing the dialogue between the songs. I ended up going to bed at seven in the morning.

The performance was at nine in the evening, in a lecture hall in King Building. I arrived early for a dress rehearsal (I was responsible for playing the backing tracks on a Bluetooth speaker when it was time for the performance). Along with Thorin and I, five other people had written plays for Quick! Theater. And when the performances began, the lecture hall was brimful of people.

In my opinion, the best part of Quick! Theater is the audience. We were supposed to keep our plays to around ten to fifteen minutes, but the cheering made some plays go longer than half an hour. That’s to say nothing of the plays, which were all exactly the kind of riotous, creative theater left half-unmoored from sense that one might expect to see from playwrights who had stayed up all night. In other words, I was very happy with how the performance went. I have to congratulate our actors, who easily sang songs that ended up being quite a bit more difficult than we expected. It was an experience that I’ll never forget.

Immediately after the performances ended, I headed back to bed to get some good sleep. I was going to need it – I had a marathon to run the next day. This blog post is getting very long, so I’ll have to leave it here for now. But be sure to stay tuned for my next blog post, where I’ll tell you all about my experience running twenty-six miles on four hours of sleep!

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