When Paul Barton moved to Thailand in the 1990s, it was supposed to be for a short time so that he could teach piano at a private school. Instead, he stayed for a long time. When he met his wife, his plans changed. And that short time turned into 22 years. There are many elephant sanctuaries in Thailand that Western tourists can choose from.
Several elephants who have been abused, sick, retired or rescued live at Elephants World. Paul and Khwan like the idea of a retirement home for them. These two and Paul’s Feurich piano became regulars there. Paul played the piano to soothe and calm the older elephants, many of whom had some vision problems.
That’s not what happened. The first elephant he played for was a blind elephant named Plara, and he “suddenly stopped eating, with the grass protruding from his mouth and stayed still all through the music.” But his most memorable performance so far was when he played Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” for Romsai, a bull elephant who was blind and huge. Even his handlers were afraid.
“To be so close to him at the piano under the moon and stars and play music to him was quite special,” Paul says. He’s usually kept away from people because of his size and bad temper. When he looked at the music, he looked like he was listening to it and liked it. Then, “He let me live.”
Many videos of Paul playing music by Beethoven, Bach, and Chopin are on his YouTube channel. Some elephants sway and flail their ears or trunks as the soft music wafts through the early evening air. Video: In the video below, he’s playing Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude” to one of Thailand’s oldest elephants, Nong Mai, 84 years old.
She doesn’t like having people around her very much, putting it mildly. She didn’t listen when I asked her mahout, Yai, to let me play a little piano music for her one day. I was told that if I was in front of her at the piano and she hit me with her trunk, she’d walk away backward. In the end, I still wanted to give it a go.
Look at what happens to the elephants when Paul starts to play.