Paul Barton sits at his Feurich piano and lightly places his fingers on the keys.
He takes a deep breath and begins Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”
With each note played, a tranquil stillness sets in. The only movement comes from a light breeze… and two giant ears flapping happily in accompaniment.
Barton is a concert pianist who performs for an audience like no other, elephants.
After moving to Thailand over 20 years ago to teach piano, the native Englishman fell in love with two things: his wife and elephants. Both led to a new life in the far east.
When the couple heard of Elephants World, a conservation organization that cares for domestic elephants, they knew they had to visit. Barton said he loved the idea of a retirement sanctuary for elderly, injured and handicapped logging and trekking elephants and wanted to contribute.
“I wondered if these old rescue elephants might like to listen to some slow, classical music,” said Barton.
With a desire to give the elephants the gift of music, Barton worked with the organization to bring in his piano. They set up his piano in the middle of an open area where the elephants are free to roam. Barton notes that his piano keys are also not made of ivory.
No one was sure what the gentle giants’ reactions would be, until Barton began his performance of Beethoven.
Coincidentally, the closest elephant to Barton’s piano was one that may have appreciated the performance more than most. Plara was a blind elephant who relied heavily on sound to navigate the world. He was enjoying a meal of grass when Barton’s rendition of Beethoven overtook his senses.
“When he heard Beethoven for the first time, he stopped eating, stood still and listened to the music with grass protruding from his mouth,” recalled Barton.
Taken with the elephant’s reactions, Barton began playing for them regularly. Plara seemed to have a special appreciation for Barton’s performances. Every time Barton played, Plara would curl his trunk, hold it into his mouth, trembling, until the song finished.
Music provided Plara with both pleasure and a way to escape pain. The elephant’s previous owner had removed and sold Plara’s tusks causing infection to set in.
“Plara was often in pain and I liked to think that soothing music gave him some comfort in the darkness,” said Barton.
Plara eventually passed away due to complications of his infection. The loss of his friend and fan was heartbreaking to Barton, but also motivating in him continuing to perform for the creatures.
Over the years, Barton has gotten to know each elephant’s personality and bases his arrangement off what he believes each elephant would like. Some are so curious and eager by Barton, they use their trunks to give playing the piano a try.
While Barton knows the elephants are ultimately wild creatures, he hopes his music can help improve their lives during their time in captivity.
“I hope the music will be a part of rehabilitating the elephants who have had stressful lives,” said Barton.
Playing for his one-of-a-kind audience has also garnered Barton a following on social media. Over 17,000 follow Barton’s Facebook page to see the affect his music has on the majestic creatures.