Music student flees Europe days ahead of COVID

Imagine having the opportunity of a lifetime to travel from the Sunshine Coast to pursue a world-class education in Europe, only to have the COVID-19 pandemic strike in the midst of it all.

That was Gibsons classical guitarist Josh Searles’ experience last winter after arriving on the Mediterranean coast of Spain in early January. Searles had successfully auditioned for the University of Alicante’s exclusive Masters Interpretation of Classical Guitar program, which accepts only about a dozen students from around the world each year. Little did any of them know as the year began that they’d be bolting for home before their studies were complete.

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Searles, who performed a concert with Coast virtuoso guitarist Celso Machado at the Heritage Playhouse in Gibsons Oct. 24, told Coast Reporter he was a few months into the intense and demanding Masters program when he initially heard about coronavirus.

“I remember reading the first article that came out about COVID in China, and I had a feeling, like, ‘that doesn’t sound so good,’” said Searles. “I just kept my eye on it the whole time.”

The situation soon became dire. “I think it was March 7th or 8th when everything went into lockdown in Italy. Because we were so close [to Italy], it was looking really serious,” said Searles.

With uncertainty at the school about shutting down, he took matters into his own hands and within days flew to London, then to Toronto. But the drama was not over.

“Something happened on the plane, somebody was sick,” Searles recalled. “After we landed in Toronto, we were boarded by Health Canada. They were in the full PP (personal protection), they had all the gear on, and they took this person out who they thought might have COVID. It was like a scene from a sci-fi movie.” Searles said it was quickly determined the sick traveller did not have the illness and all passengers were allowed off the plane.

“I got on the next flight to Vancouver,” he said. “It was the day before lockdown and it was a ghost town. I was really, really happy to see the Sunshine Coast.”

Searles and his partner, textile artist Ocean Wilson, have set up home in lower Gibsons where he has started teaching guitar. He plays occasional private recitals and concerts like last Saturday’s at the Playhouse. On Nov. 14, he will join Machado and other performers in an online celebration of Brazilian music from the Orpheum in Vancouver.

Searles said he still plans to return to Spain, if conditions allow, as soon as next May to complete his studies and graduate from the University of Alicante program.

“I think we’re going have a lot of fun next year,” Searles said.

“I have a much better idea of what to expect. I’m quite excited to go back.”

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