“I thought Thailand would be this quiet, relaxing, unassuming place away from the tourist trail. Clearly I didn’t do my research very well!” says Australian John Garzoli of his first trip to Thailand in 1995.

There are a number of falangs in Bangkok who have created employment niches for themselves, allowing them to pay their rent and further their careers. Garzoli, a classically and jazz- trained guitarist who has played for hotel restaurants on Ko Samui and in Bangkok for over the past three years, is one of these energetic characters.

Garzoli returned to Thailand at the end of 1996, hoping to find work playing guitar if he could get it. He had faxed his curriculum vitae to 70 resorts across Asia before he left Australia.

Within a few weeks of arriving in Thailand, he was offered a job on Ko Samui at Le Royal Meridien, playing with a friend, orchestral violinist Mark Zorz. “That lasted the next few years, during which time I became a scuba diving instructor, and got my introduction to life living and working in Thailand.”

Garzoli and Zorz made the move to Bangkok when they landed a six-month contract in early 1999 to work at the California restaurant of the JW Marriot. “That went really well. We genuinely believed that we were the best at doing what we were doing, individually and as an ensemble,” he says. “It was without a doubt the best musical ensemble that I had ever associated with.”

The two played together for two and a half years, six nights a week. “We developed an acute sense of musical sympathy and understanding with each other. We had a good repertoire, and I learned a lot from him about how to be a better accompanist.”

At the end of the contract, Zorz headed home and Garzoli negotiated a contract to play at Rossini’s, at the Grande Sheraton Sukhumvit, where he now plays twice a week. “They were criticised by a magazine for being let down by the ‘canned music’,” he says. “I’m part of the rehabilitation of that.”

But staying around as a classical guitarist in Bangkok hasn’t been easy. “Between hotels, the competition can be great,” he says. “I’ve been extremely lucky. Food and beverage managers often don’t have a budget for musicians, and they are not always sympathetic to what a musician’s doing. Hotels don’t take a lot of risks. If they see that the hotel down the road has a certain type of band, then they’ll go out and get a similar band.”

He points out that you can walk past a dozen hotels on Sukhumvit that all have the same type of band playing. “If that’s what people really want, that’s fine. But sometimes I wonder if that is exactly what five-star hotels should be offering their guests. There should be something to distinguish a five-star hotel from a three-star.”

And as a musician, does he see more opportunities here than in his homeland?

“There is a different culture here,” he says. “In Australia, hotels needn’t take musicians on for six-night-a-week contracts. All of the work I and my musician friends did in Australia was freelance so we were all out there competing with each other for one-off jobs.”

On the other hand, the discipline of playing nearly every night in the same location, as can happen in Thailand, isn’t for everybody. “It takes a lot of getting used to. In fact, I wouldn’t be able to recommend this life to any of my friends in Australia because I don’t think musicians can ordinarily cope with the discipline of having to show up six nights a week and do the same thing. There’s a big learning curve if you want to do this comfortably and well.”

The advantages are there, however, to be eventually reaped. “You really get to work on your musical skills nightly, and you see a genuine improvement in your own musical development. And ultimately, that’s really what playing music is about.”

He explores this idea further. “You get to a certain level when you’ve put in thousands and thousands of hours of practice in a little room by yourself. You don’t do this for the plaudits of punters or the applause of diners – there has to be a bigger reason. And the reason you do it is for yourself. You’re able to make real progress as a performer.”

The music scene in Bangkok isn’t something he has had a lot of time or money to check out, but he does believe the jazz scene is more developed here than the classical. “It’s easier for me to be part of a jazz environment after work. There are some very fine jazz musicians working here.”

His recommendations include the jazz at the Bamboo Bar at the Oriental, and a band called the Funk Machine, who play at Saxophone late Monday and Tuesday nights. “They have impressed me more than any other band in Thailand. We’ve actually become good friends and they’re probably one of the reasons I’m still here,” he says. “They’re funk, they play a bit of jazz, but they’re essentially a dance outfit. The piano player and the saxophone player are simply outstanding instrumentalists. And I’m not saying this just because I’m friends with them!”

John is also teaching individual students guitar and music theory privately, as well as giving advice on where they would be happiest studying in Australia, should they wish to head abroad.

But is there a future for Thais who study western classical music? “I think that with so many western people coming here, and more Thais going to study abroad, we’ll continue to see the development of the classical music scene in Thailand.”

This is despite the fact that it’s not supported by the government in the way it is in some other countries. “This sometimes makes it difficult for good students to get ahead. There are lots of private schools out there, but I don’t know what sort of level of tuition they’re offering – it could be fantastic, I’m not sure. I would say that I teach at the top end of music education – I would say that in whatever country I’m in – because I have had the benefit of good training, not because I’m special!”

But the Garzoli story is not just of coming to Thailand for a working holiday and succeeding; it’s also a story of working hard to develop a passion for music when most people would probably have thrown up their hands and given up.

Garzoli grew up in a small country town in Australia’s New South Wales, and the path which led him to play classical guitar professionally was a long one. He left school aged 16 and became a mechanic – hardly indicative of the true career path that would lie ahead.

He played guitar for a few bands while in his teens. “I was a typical young rock guitar hack,” he says. “I had some tuition from fairly ordinary guitar players, but I was largely able to teach myself. The guitar is not difficult to learn at a very basic level.”

After he completed his apprenticeship, he worked in America driving prototype agricultural machinery, then driving trucks from Texas to North Dakota. “When I got back home, I was very dissatisfied,” he says. “I headed to Melbourne and studied audio engineering for a year.”

At the age of 23 he auditioned to study music at Box Hill TAFE, the Australian-equivalent of M5 and 6. “I played very badly because I was a bad player. I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “I missed a first round offer but somebody dropped out and I had been badgering them out of desperation. So they offered me a place, and I tried to vindicate their decision and prove something to myself by working extremely hard for that one year.”

Garzoli was 24 by the time he started the course, and had his first proper guitar lesson. “For most people, you would forget about a career in music by that age,” he says.

He practised for eight hours a day that year, and after he graduated, he auditioned at several university-level musical institutions. “Although I had worked hard, I still wasn’t at the standard you really should be to get in,” he admits – not surprising considering most classical musicians are practising for hours a day by the time they are eight or nine years old.

Eventually Garzoli was accepted by the prestigious Victorian College of the Arts were he studied and received his bachelor of arts, majoring in jazz and guitar. He then started an MA in analytical theory, but discontinued after six months when his health deteriorated. “A nightmare period in my life started which lasted for five years,” he says. “I was totally overworked, privately teaching up to 50 students a week. I taught at the most expensive girls’ school in Melbourne, the singular most well-resourced music school in Melbourne, and another private school. I was gigging twice a week. And going to a clinic twice a week to be put on a drip for 40 minutes. ”

Garzoli suffered the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. “I hauled myself from doctors to Alexander Technique practitioners to acupuncturists to physiotherapists. In the end I was referred to see shrinks. In hindsight I was suffering from stress, and some strange illness that has since lifted and something which the medical community was unable to diagnose: a broken neck.”

Garzoli was diagnosed with this after being in Thailand for more than a year when he went to Switzerland for a holiday. He consulted a Swiss doctor who took an x-ray and discovered a vertebrae which had chipped off. “Previously I had had all types of musculo-skeletal problems but these had just been explained as being old football or motorbike injuries.”

Garzoli says he will seek further information when he eventually gets back to Australia, in the mean time, he is practising yoga and concentrating on his guitar practice. “Now that I’m here, I’m in no rush to leave. I’m so attached and fascinated by the Thai way of life that this is where I want to stay for a while now.”

John Garzoli can be contacted by emailing [email protected] or phoning 01 334 7344.

/ People