His stubby, unbending nubs of fingers fly across the keys. A lurch from his shoulders propels his wayward thumbs into the piano action. And Chris Errera of Schaumburg — 50 inches of pure energy, musical talent, twisted muscle, frozen joints and unyielding grit — grins.
"I don't have to speak, and I can make you smile, laugh or cry. I can control you," Chris says, manipulating listeners on his piano journey that starts with one of his own compositions, veers off into a majestic Beethoven piece, detours into the theme from "Cats" and morphs into a jaunty Joplin rag before his hands finish on a twisted version of "Chopsticks." "Music's supposed to be fun."
Music is fun. Chris' life is music. So transitive logic insists Chris' life has to be fun, too.
"Am I living a dream? Damn right!" Chris says, his left hand smacking the top of his crutch for emphasis. "Let's do it and do it big."
He composed and performs every song on his new CD and is the star of a new, award-winning documentary title "Composed."
"This is Chris," the documentary about him begins. "A pianist. A philanthropist. And a dwarf."
Born in 1973 before the age of ubiquitous ultrasounds, Chris' club feet were a surprise to his parents, John and Carol, and the first clue that Chris inherited the rare growth disorder known as diastrophic dysplasia. He began a gauntlet of surgeries before his first birthday. Yet, most of his operations came after puberty, and all were attempts to fix his legs and help him walk.
"Did I have 18 surgeries or was it 20?" Chris asks David Slania, his friend, manager and one of the producers of his documentary.
When Chicago surgeries didn't work, Chris's parents drove him to Maryland. His mother lived with him in the hospital as he underwent and recuperated from half-day-long surgeries in which doctors would take apart the bones in his feet and reassemble them. Every Friday night for 13 weeks, Chris's father, sometimes with Chris's little sister Kim in tow, would begin the 3,200-mile round-trip car pilgrimage to visit.
"I respect my parents more than anyone on the planet," says Chris, now 38, who credits his mother and father for never trying to shelter him or hold him back. "My parents never told me I couldn't."
So he went to the water park with friends, ran alongside them the best he could, and started taking piano lessons at age 3. His grade school bent the rules to let him perform as a kindergartner in the school talent show. By high school, he played trumpet in the band ("Yes, I went to band camp," Chris admits), began composing music and showed up smiling in most of his yearbook photos.
"He was one of the most popular kids around," Schaumburg High School band director Greg Tipps says in "Composed" of his former student. "He's probably one of the best keyboard players who's come out of here."
Chris won trophies at piano competitions and was a role model for his younger sister, who, Chris says, has "huge hands for a small chick."
"I'd remember how certain things would be difficult for me and I'd think, 'How does he do it?' He's amazing that way," says Kimberley Gray, 32, now an accountant who lives in Lake in the Hills. She and her husband, Kevin, who plays drums in a band, say Chris is a great uncle to their daughters Deanna, 8, and Kaitlyn, 5.
For a year, Chris donated his time and talent as the volunteer musical director for a program that catered to kids with autism and developmental disabilities. He's always been able to make connections with kids.
In his childhood and teen years, Chris wasn't an object of ridicule, and his gaggle of protective friends wouldn't tolerate even a lingering look or a whispered comment, Chris says. The surgeries and rehab were tough, but Chris has fond memories of his high school years.
"It was no tougher than anyone else," Chris says. "I didn't go to any dances in high school — maybe a little bit because of my condition, but mostly because of me. It's rough dating me. I wake up thinking music. I go to bed thinking music. It's sick."
His recent girlfriends, the shortest of whom was 5-foot-6, generally remain friends after the romance ends and the music continues, says Chris. He's not a typical 9-to-5 suburban worker, admitting he was "living a lie" for more than a decade before he left his regular job as a manager with an import/export company.
"That's not me," Chris says.
He's the guy who dropped out of college his senior year at DePaul University because he couldn't pass up a chance to play keyboards with a band called Sine on an international tour that included the 2000 Olympics in Australia.
He's played clubs in the suburbs and city, composed and recorded his "Enter the Twilight" CD, stars in and scored the soundtrack for "Composed." He vows to keep pushing his music career until he's a role model, not just for people with disabilities, but for everybody who doesn't want to grow old with a "What if?" regret hanging over their lives.
"Even though the movie is about him, it's not really about him. It's about all of us," says "Composed" director Charley Rivkin, a 30-year-old Columbia College graduate who shot between 400 and 500 hours of footage and worked almost a year on the documentary. "The movie is about overcoming obstacles. He wakes up every day and he tries. That is what I found interesting."
Life used to be easier for Chris, before he turned 30 and a surgical attempt to relieve the pain, weakness, numbness and tingling caused by the spinal stenosis that narrowed his spinal column left him paralyzed from the waist down and dependent on crutches to get around.
"When I lost my legs, I was mad, because it took so much time to get them," Chris says, recalling the string of surgeries on everything from his feet to his hips. "There was about 20 minutes when I thought 'Woe is me.'"
But that's not Chris either.
"I don't wake up every day and think I'm short. I don't know any different. I just wake up and think I'm Chris," says the man who still has pain, tingling and numbness every day. The pedals he needs to drive his car, a glass on a top shelf at a party or even a faraway key on the piano are constant reminders of his body's limitations.
"I get a lot of that, which is why I decided bank robbery would not be a good livelihood for me," Chris says, imagining the police hauling him down to the station. "That lineup would suck."
"Composed" (to see a trailer or learn more, visit http://composedthemovie.com) was made by Frontsight Productions, produced by Deb Renner, David Slania and Michael Nehs, won a couple of film festival awards and is looking for a bigger audience.
So is Chris (see www.chriserrera.com to learn more or buy his CD, which is also available on iTunes). He sees himself writing music, playing piano, collaborating with other musicians.
"I'd love to sit down with Seal and his guitar," Chris says. "You could bury me the next day."
Rivkin says he chose "Composed" as the title for Chris' story because "every single meaning of the word 'composed' is what the movie is about."
"I've got beautiful things to contribute," Chris says.
He wants to make a full-time living as a musician and says he's not going to be stopped by pain, the pins-and-needles sensation, fingers that resemble frozen sausage links, short arms, little legs that won't work or whatever obstacle comes at him next.
His soul has to make music whether his body cooperates or not.
"By the end of my life, I'll literally be playing by ear," Chris predicts. "Wouldn't that be cool, being in Las Vegas, at the piano, a pillow under my head, literally playing by ear?
Information from: Daily Herald, http://www.dailyherald.com