When you think of a concert pianist, you may imagine them playing on stage to theater patrons. What you may not imagine is a concert pianist playing the piano for rescue elephants– completely free!
Meet Paul Barton, originally from the UK, and now living in Thailand. Paul plays the piano for elephants at Elephants World on his YouTube channel. The channel has nearly 700 thousand subscribers who tune in to watch the pianist play classical music to the gentle giants. His most watched video has garnered 11 million views, and features a nearly-blind elephant named Ampan calmly listening to Debussy’s Clair de Lune.
Ampan is 80 years old, and one of the elephants that live at Elephants World outside of the city of Kanchanaburi, west Thailand. The sanctuary is home to over 30 elephants that were rescued from situations where they were mistreated. Many elephants in Thailand are being used logging and tourism. Elephants World is one of several sanctuaries that have opened in Thailand that give these beautiful animals the chance to live the rest of their lives in peace and security.
It was Paul’s wife, Khwan, that introduced Paul to the sanctuary. Khwan, who is an artist, started visiting the sanctuary initially to create sculptures of the elephants that reside there. For Paul’s 50th birthday Khwan persuaded the manager of Elephants World to allow them to bring a piano into the sanctuary. However, it was not an easy feat. The sanctuary, set on the banks of the River Kwai, has extremely uneven terrain. A pickup truck had to be brought in to take the piano deep into the wilderness. Even so, it was important for Paul to take the heavy piano and take it the middle of the elephants’ habitat:
‘These elephants have worked for humans all their life and many are blind or disabled from being treated badly, so I wanted to make the effort to carry something heavy myself,’ Paul wrote in The Guardian.
Paul described how as soon as he started to play one particular elephant, who was blind, stopped eating and went over to listen:
“Elephants are almost always hungry – if they get the opportunity, they’ll eat and they won’t stop. But as soon as I started playing, one elephant, who was blind, stopped eating and listened. We realised that this elephant, trapped in a world of darkness, loved music.”
Experiments with elephants and music
The first experiment to test elephants’ love of music dates back to 1798 and featured two Ceylonese elephants and the Conservatoire de Musique in Paris. The elephants swayed rhythmically in response to music the orchestra played.
In Thailand an orchestra exists called The Thai Elephant Orchestra, which consists of up to 14 elephants playing a variety of instruments! The instruments are heavy duty and made to withstand the elephants’ strength and size. The elephants were then left to improvise their own tune, and have been studied by conservationist Richard Lair.
Queen’s University in Belfast made recommendations to a zoo about keeping their elephants entertained. When elephants are restless, zoo workers play Elgar, Beethoven, and Puccini to calm down the captive elephants. It has reduced abnormal behaviours that are associated with captivity and boredom.