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WFAE's Social Distancing series looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work, learn and connect with each other. The series is hosted by reporter Sarah Delia.

Social Distancing: Long-Distance Friendship Leads To Healing Through Music

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Courtesy of Taj Farrant
11-year-old guitarist Taj Farrant

Sixty-one-year-old Patti Fogt loves her job as a nurse at the Salisbury VA Medical Center, but it’s not an easy one.

"I love working with the veterans," Fogt said. "It’s an honor to work with them. We look for different things to do for them to make their stay there as pleasant as possible."

She worked in the COVID-19 unit by choice when the medical center opened one back in April. The unit closed in September. It was a close-knit team and everyone pitched in, she said.

"From feeding them to cleansing them to medication," Fogt said. "Of course we lost some. But they were just tough. Some made it out, and we cheered them on. It was amazing when they recovered and got out."

There were many long nights in the COVID-19 unit, Patti said. Patients were in pain and isolated.

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Courtesy of Taj Farrant
Taj Farrant has placed alongside some of the greats, including Carlos Santana.

"You know, people can’t come to visit," she said. "There’s a lot of loneliness in COVID. A lot."

So, Fogt started thinking: What could she do to help distract these veterans from the discomfort they were in, especially at night when sleep was a struggle for so many? The answer she found was in a different time zone: an 11-year-old guitarist from Australia named Taj Farrant.

Farrant has an impressive resume — especially for his age. He got rave reviews during his performance on "Australia’s Got Talent." Much like the American version, contestants come out on stage and perform for a panel of judges. Judges watched Farrant with mouths open in amazement as he covered Prince's "Purple Rain" note for note.

Farrant looks like he’s in his own world, his hands scaling up and down his guitar, with the control and maturity you’d expect from someone who’s been playing for decades.

He’s performed on Ellen DeGeneres' show and alongside the great Carlos Santana.

But Farrant's live, in-person performances quickly stopped when the pandemic hit. He turned to Facebook and streamed shows from his home. Because of the time difference, when Farrant was playing during the day in Australia, Fogt was at work at night in North Carolina trying to find music for patients.

"A lot of times guys don’t sleep through the night," Fogt said. "So, it was a kind of healing, fun thing to do. It's uplifting, and music is healing."

When she turned on his music, she noticed, something in the unit would change.

"They start dancing in their wheelchairs or they start dancing in the beds," Fogt said with a smile in her voice. "It heals their hearts for a minute, and Taj was a big part of that and we really appreciate it."

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Patti Fogt
Patti Fogt (back row, on the right) and her COVID-19 unit team.

A lot of Fogt's patients are Vietnam War veterans, and she said the classic rock Taj covers means a lot to them. It brings them back to a time when they were young, when they came home from the war and weren’t always accepted and when music was their refuge — similar to the refuge music once again became in the COVID-19 unit.

Fogt wanted the young musician to know his music was keeping her patients going, so she made a post on his Facebook page and included a photo of staff members.
"And (I) thanked him for playing and told him where we were playing it at and (his) grandma named Karin got back in touch with me and we became friends," Fogt said. "It’s been really a joy to watch this young man, and he’s still at it and growing."

That’s right: Farrant's grandmother Karin got back in touch with Fogt, and from there a friendship started.

"You don’t really realize what music can do," Farrant said from his home in New South Wales, Australia. "You can make video and read some of the comments. Most of the time they’ll say that 'Your music helped me get out of dark places in my life.'"

Farrant says it was "cool" of Fogt to reach out and share his music with so many. Now, he says, his family checks in with Fogt on a weekly basis. They share with Fogt what Farrant is working on, ways to promote his music in the states — like contacting a local public radio station — and his newly released single, "Just Can't Sleep."

Farrant credits his music career in part to his dad, who took him to an AC/DC concert when he was around 6 years old. After that show, he said, he knew he wanted to play guitar for the rest of his life in front of large crowds just like AC/DC's Angus Young.

"Dad says not many people get to see what they’re going to do with the rest of their life at 11," Farrant said.

It’s been hard for Farrant to press the pause button on the live shows in front of in-person crowds, but when he hears stories of how his music is making a difference, his face — through Zoom — takes a reflective pause. The 11-year-old guitar prodigy is clearly touched that his music is having an impact, just like those patients in North Carolina were so moved by his music.

Fogt and Farrant still haven’t met in person, and right now, they’re not sure when they will. But once Farrant is able to play in front of a large audience, Fogt wants to be there to thank him for bringing light into such a dark time — for helping heal the wounded and the sick through song.

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