Kirk Clague takes his final bow as inspiring band teacher

34-year band teacher for Exeter High School conducts his final concert for the school and district; he plans to retire to a life of travel and fly fishing

EXETER – One of Kirk Clague’s favorite moments is the few seconds right before he starts conducting, when his baton is in the air waiting to land on that first beat. 

“It’s a silence you won’t find hardly anywhere else,” he said. 

And it’s a silence he’ll experience for the last time at Exeter Union High School this week, as he conducts his final concerts as the school’s music teacher after a highly celebrated 34-year career. 

Clague started out as a bass player, playing in clubs in his hometown of San Diego and occasionally touring. It was around this time that he began to think about his future. 

“I really didn’t want to be doing that at this age,” said Clague, now 65. “I didn’t want to be depending on a $100 a night nightclub job at 65 years old. So I started looking for a career.” 

That search led him to a teaching credential. Having already received a Bachelor’s degree in bass performance from UC San Diego, he figured it’d be the easiest route. 

“Needless to say, with only a year of classwork and a little bit of student teaching, I was unprepared for what was about to happen,” Clague said. 

He took a job teaching core subjects like English at Anacapa Middle School in Santa Barbara. 

“It nearly killed me,” he said. What it also did was show him his knack for forming a connection with his students. 

“They were able to tell me that I did a good job for them with a little plaque,” he said. “And it’s one of my most treasured things because I wasn’t in a good mental place at the time.” 

Clague and his wife, Laura, then began looking to buy a house in the area. Realizing that Santa Barbara’s prices were far too steep, they turned their sights to Three Rivers. Clague said he got a map, used a protractor to draw a semi-circle of a 50-mile radius from the town and began cold-calling and handing out resumes, looking for a job. The only place that hired him was Wilson Middle School in Exeter, where he was chosen as their new band teacher. 

“It’s not what I wanted to do at all,” Clague said. “I mean, my instruments were in storage, and I wasn’t advertising myself as a music teacher.”

But because of the music experience on his resume, he was hired. 

“I didn’t know anything about it. I stayed one lesson ahead of the kids,” he said. “From that to this, considering how well this worked out for my students and for myself–it was just so fated.” 

Those beginnings led to a decades-long career spent fostering a robust music program in Exeter, first at Wilson for eight years and then at EUHS for 25. Not only is Clague gifted at teaching music, but perhaps what he’s most cherished for is creating a loving environment among his students. 

“I will talk to any kid any time, rather than file one piece of paper or turn in one grade or attend one meeting, if any kid comes into my office and just needs to shoot the breeze for no reason whatsoever. That’s what our job is,” Clague said. 

Clague is retiring after this school year. His final performance with the choir was on May 24, and his bands’ final performances are on May 26. 

“I’ll just be crying. I’m super bittersweet about this,” he said. “If I am good at this, it’s because I made it really important in my life. And I put a lot of other things second so that I could be really good at this. And now I won’t have this.”

Clague said he hopes to travel to Italy with his wife after retiring, along with spending lots of time fly fishing. 

“It’s a big change. And I put it off as long as I could. But my wife and I are not getting any younger; I’m 65. And 34 years is a long time to be in the classroom. It’s probably time I re-challenged myself,” he said. “I always wanted to just be an artist. And this has allowed me to do that.”

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