When Paul Barton moved to Thailand in the 1990s, it only was supposed to be there for a temporary assignment, in order to teach piano at a private school. However, his plans changed when he met his wife. And that short period of time turned into 22 years. Thailand is something of a mecca for Western tourists who want up-close and personal experiences with elephants, and they have their pick from a whole host of sanctuaries.
Paul and his wife, Khwan, were drawn to Elephants World because they like the idea of a retirement community for dozens of sick, abused, retired and rescued elephants. They soon became regulars there, along with Paul’s trusty Feurich piano, which he began playing to help soothe and calm the elderly resident elephants, many of whom suffer eyesight problems of varying degrees.
In fact, a blind elephant named Plara was the first elephant he played for, and he “suddenly stopped eating, with the grass protruding from his mouth and stayed motionless all through the music.” But his most memorable performance to date was the time he played a Beethoven piece, “Moonlight Sonata,” for Romsai, a massive (and blind) bull elephant who made even his handlers nervous.
He’s usually kept away from people because of his size and questionable temperament, so “to be so close to him at the piano under the moon and stars and play music to him was quite special,” Paul recalls. “He seemed to be listening and, from his reaction, liked the music. He let me live.”
Paul’s YouTube channel is filled with short videos of him playing pieces by such composers as Beethoven, Bach and Chopin, some of the elephants swaying and flapping their ears and trunks as the soft music drifts into the early-evening air. In the video below, he’s playing Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” to 84-year-old Nong Mai, one of Thailand’s oldest elephants.
“She’s not fond of human company — to put it mildly. When I suggested to Yai, her mahout, I play a little piano music for her one day, I was told she would certainly not listen, probably hit me with her trunk if I was in front of her at the piano and walk away backwards. I still wanted to try and here’s what happened.”
Check out the elephants reaction when Paul starts playing!