For most musicians, the most challenging part of the pandemic has been waiting: waiting for music venues to open their doors again, waiting for health guidelines to allow concerts to be held again safely, and – perhaps most importantly – waiting for people to feel comfortable enough to support the music scene.
But for some musicians, the road back to the stage is fraught with unforeseen challenges. While most artists take for granted the simplicity of breath, movement, and sound, even the simplest elements of music and its creation have fallen prey to the pandemic.
All of a sudden I couldn't keep a tune or get the breath I need to sing. It was pretty devastating.
No musician knows this more than Brian Bethke, a Chippewa Valley-based musician notable for his decades of solo performances and creative work with the rock group The Broken Eights. A little over a year ago, Bethke’s life revolved around music. He was a full-time musician – singing and performing around the Midwest – but after he and his family contracted coronavirus at the end of last year, everything changed in an instant.
“In the beginning, it was rough,” Bethke said. “It was almost a come-to-Jesus moment. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, but all of a sudden I couldn’t keep a tune or get the breath I need to sing. It was pretty devastating for me, and I’m still struggling with it.”
Prior to catching COVID-19, Bethke battled an infection in his lungs, so his struggle with the coronavirus meant he could no longer breathe properly. Medical professionals were at a loss: On top of being drained daily, Bethke’s subsequent coughing caused damage to his vocal chords, and the typical treatment of steroids offered no relief. The pandemic took more than a creative endeavor from Bethke: It severed one of his family’s sources of income – his voice.
After not receiving any loans or unemployment benefits during the pandemic, Bethke was able to fall back on his wife’s salary and his hemp company, Hawkweed Hemp, to make ends meet.
There was a silver lining to his struggle, the musician said: He could take a step back and see his musical world in a clear light. “Before COVID hit, I never knew just how tired I was,” Bethke said. “I realized how burnt out I was and how stressed out I was through the daily grind of playing music. As it sits right now, I’m kind of OK with music maybe never being a full-time thing for me again. It gives me time to grow as a human and grow as a musician as I regain my strength. I’m OK with whatever way the recovery takes me.”
"Before COVID hit, I never knew just how tired I was. I realized how burnt out I was and how stressed out I was through the daily grind of playing music. And as it sits right now, I'm kind of OK with music maybe never being a full-time thing for me again."
Despite a months-long road to recovery that is still not over for Bethke, he said the key to adapting and surviving is keeping your head up and being grateful. While Bethke may not have the voice he had before, he does have his life. And hundreds of thousands weren’t as lucky.
Learn more about Bethke and listen to his music on Spotify, Apple Music, and Bandcamp.