Meet Chris Errera, a Schaumburg pianist and composer who seeks to inspire others through his life and music.
“We’ve got time for one more song before break, so how about I play ‘Lullaby?’” Chris Errera asks from the stage.
“Yes, thank you!” comes a response from a fan who’s been anticipating the selection, eliciting applause and shouts of approval from fellow audience members, and a smile from Errera.
“This song is special to me, too,” he explains. “I’m honored and humbled that you like it. I wrote it many years ago, and never intended it as a performance piece. But it ended up being the first release from my first album. So here it is.”
Sitting at the grand piano, Errera adjusts the bench, places his hands on the keys and fills the auditorium with his soulful ballad. For about 45 minutes, he has played alone, performing original instrumental compositions that are a kind of hybrid of George Winston, John Tesh and Aaron Copland. After an intermission, he’s joined by members of his former band, Sine, playing together for the first time in more than a decade, with a set that includes piano, vocals, bass and lead guitars, and bongos.
Errera is performing at Prairie Center for the Arts in his hometown of Schaumburg. Dressed in canvas sneakers and faded jeans, wearing a T-shirt under an unbuttoned, short-sleeved camp shirt, and sporting a day’s growth of beard under a grey pork pie hat, he looks every bit the Bohemian artist – all four feet of him.
Errera, 39, was born with diastrophic dwarfism, a genetic disorder that affects roughly one in every 500,000 births. In addition to short stature, the condition causes abnormal joint and cartilage growth, which can result in cleft palate, clubfeet, short limbs, hip dysplasia and scoliosis.
Errera has undergone more than 20 surgeries – the first at less than a year old – to correct his clubfeet and problems with his legs, knees and hips; even so, he still experiences tingling and numbness. During his performance, he looks down and sometimes adjusts his leg, finally explaining that he’s making certain his foot is on the correct pedal, because he can’t feel it. He can’t bend his fingers – only his thumbs – and his short finger span surely limits the chords he can reach. Yet the sounds he coaxes from the piano – rich and expressive – hit all of the right chords with his listeners.
“I still don’t know how he does it,” admits manager and close friend Dave Slania. “He constantly amazes me with his talent, energy and focus. Nothing slows him down, and he’s always upbeat and positive. He’s a dynamo.”
Playing to His Strengths
Errera has been busy. In 2010, he released Enter the Twilight, his debut CD of original instrumental compositions. Also released in 2010 was Composed, a documentary on Errera – for which he wrote the soundtrack – that’s been screened at several prestigious independent film festivals. His Christmas album is now available on iTunes, and his second CD of original compositions will be out in early 2013.
In February 2012, after posting a YouTube response to talk show host Rosie O’Donnell’s on-air comments about her fear of little people, Errera was invited to appear on “The Rosie Show.” He and O’Donnell talked about her comments, and he played “Lullaby.” Also in 2012, a Milwaukee television station won a Midwest Emmy Award for its news feature about Errera.
These days, he’s riding high, but his journey has been “a bit of a winding path,” he says.
Errera has always had a talent for music, and he’s never limited himself due to his disability. He began piano lessons at age 3, and gave his first public performance at age 5. He credits his parents with never holding him back or telling him he couldn’t do something.
“Yeah, the joints on my fingers are fused, but I never knew any different,” he says with a shrug. “I was classically trained, and I was taught the basic techniques. But I had excellent instructors who let me be me. They helped me to restructure chords and develop my own techniques, allowed me to adapt and grow. ‘Adapt and move forward’ – the story of my life. My disabilities made it unlikely that I could pursue a piano career, but I didn’t care. You play the piano – it doesn’t play you. At the end of the day, it’s all about the music.”
At age 12, Errera performed with the Schaumburg Symphony Orchestra in Germany. In high school, he played in the school band and started writing music. Aside from the piano, he plays all brass and all percussion instruments – 13 total. He won piano and composition competitions in his teens, and studied performance and composition via scholarships at Northern Illinois University and DePaul University. In 2000, during his senior year, he dropped out to go on an international tour with Sine, which included playing for an audience of 33,000 at the Sydney Olympics.
After that tour, for the next 10 years, Errera played at various venues in Chicago and the suburbs. He wrote music for others and occasionally traveled with different bands.
Going For It
Still, music wasn’t what paid the bills; that was being the manager of an import/export company.
“I always had a dream of pursuing music professionally, but I didn’t really focus on it until I was 29 or 30,” Errera says. “It has its ups and downs, and for me, the biggest down was the inconsistency of a paycheck. No matter how far away from music I walked, though, something would happen to lead me back to it. About four or five years ago, I was laid off from my day job, and I received a good severance package, so I decided to go for it. I didn’t want to get old and wonder, ‘What if?’”
He has a definite answer, having achieved a number of significant goals in a fairly short amount of time. Still, given Errera’s talent and background, some might ask why he waited so long to pursue his dream, wonder if he questions any of his choices. As with everything about his life, he says he has no regrets and harbors no resentments about the timing of his music career.
“I’m happy that I’m doing this at this age,” Errera says, pushing his hat back and leaning forward. “I’ve grown and developed into a much better musician over the past eight or nine years. I have a better grasp of what I want to convey with my music, and how to get there. I’m more organized, determined and confident. The knowledge I’ve gained over the years has brought me here. That’s the beautiful thing about music – no age limit.”
Errera explains his process of writing music. “Melodies run through my head all day,” he explains. “Somebody else might look out the window today and think, ‘Boy, it’s wet and gloomy,’ in those words. I look out, and my thoughts come in musical notes that convey that mood.”
Even so, he doesn’t compose every day. “I practice at least one and a half hours a day, shoring up the basics and working on chords,” he says. “I spend maybe 10 or 12 hours a week doodling with tunes, but I can’t write every day. It has to be inspired. I like to say it falls out of my face. Even so, it can take days or weeks to write a song. It just depends.”
He characterizes his music, which is mostly instrumental, as adult contemporary. “There’s no enigma to my music,” he asserts. “In my songs, you can identify the beginning, middle and end. I want to capture your soul, and I want to do it with a melody that I hear after I experience a feeling, to capture that emotion.”
Errera’s biggest lesson was to treat his art like a business. “I went through the B.S. of packing up, traveling, setting up, playing – and not making any money,” he says. “It’s frustrating. I used to take gigs at the spur of the moment, play for three or four hours, and charge way too little. I never looked at industry rates or thought about what others charge. I love music, and it’s an art, but if you want to make money at it, you have to look at it as a biz.”
Errera, who admits a distaste for the logistics that go along with running a business, knew he needed help. That’s when Slania became his manager. “I had been in the music business most of my life, and Chris’s story really hit me,” says Slania. “I started my company, Composed Management, to bring his story to the masses. Meeting him and seeing what he was going through woke me up to real issues, that not only Chris has to deal with, but that we all have to deal with in our lives. His story is our story.”
“I would have a hard time pulling all of this off without Dave,” Errera admits. “It’s very humbling that people like and appreciate my music, because I always write and play from my heart.” He pauses and then grins. “And it’s great knowing that I can support myself doing it!”
Keeping It Real
Following the Schaumburg concert, Errera balances on crutches at the edge of the stage as he greets family and friends, catches up with former teachers, and signs autographs. Through it all, he’s attentive, upbeat and sincere, even self-effacing.
“Did you enjoy it?” he asks one woman, who gives an enthusiastic yes. “Even that clunker in the first song?” he jokes with a grin and a wink. “Hey, I make mistakes. That just means you got a few notes for free!”
Errera doesn’t beat himself up over miscues, and he doesn’t try to reproduce his albums in concert. “I like to keep things fresh and challenge myself,” he says. “My performances will never sound exactly like the album. People can listen to the album at home. My audiences are part of a live experience.”
The pianist isn’t scheduling many appearances, however. “I’m a studio artist – I don’t want to tour,” he says. “I just find the whole performance thing stressful – making play lists, deciding do I play alone or with other musicians – I rack my brains about what to do, and I can never decide. I’m more of an intimate player – people sitting around the piano in a bar. I play one Sunday night a month at Big Shot’s Piano Bar in Arlington Heights, no cover. The dates change, so people should check first.”
Errera has a few gigs lined up: some big events on the West Coast, a Christmas concert in Dixon, Ill. And one very important performance on Dec. 5 – the White House. “Chris will be playing for the public in the grand foyer,” says Slania.
Errera has no aspirations of stardom. “I hate the term ‘star,’” he asserts. “A star is distant, unattainable, untouchable. I hear about performers showing up 30, 45 minutes late for a concert, and it really burns me. All of those people are there to hear them, and they think it’s OK to keep them waiting, because they’re ‘stars’? If I’m supposed to start at a certain time, I’ll be ready to go at that time, because the audience deserves that respect from me. We’re all just people, not any better or worse.”
Errera strives to convey that message, not just through his music and performances, but with motivational programs held at middle and high schools. “I always include some musical aspect, but the message is to go for your dreams,” he says. “So many kids feel like they aren’t smart enough or attractive enough. I didn’t pick this body, but look what I’ve done with it. I tell them, ‘Live. Be happy. Be productive. Have fun. You are plenty enough.’ If I could have one wish, it would be that all of us would stop hating each other, stop judging each other, learn to appreciate one another and get along.”
Among the fans clamoring to speak with him is another little person, and the teen is clearly excited to meet him. After a brief conversation, Errera poses with him for a photo, and the pair bumps knuckles as the young man departs. The musician lends his time and talent to specific charities and causes.
“I’m a member of the Little People’s Association, and in October, I did a PSA for Serve Illinois, for its Disability Inclusion Project,” says Errera. “I do a lot with Shriner’s Hospital, because I was a patient there.” This past summer, he played at a Chicago benefit for Shriner’s, and he’ll play at its annual Christmas Concert for the Kids.
“I take the responsibility of being in the public eye very seriously,” Errera says. “During my motivational programs, I always warn against putting people on pedestals, so I don’t see myself as a role model. At the same time, there’s a sense of decorum that comes with it. I have much more to give than my disability or my piano. I want to be a beacon for others to seek their dreams. If you don’t go after what you want, you have no one to blame but yourself.”
Musician. Composer. Advocate. Spokesman. Media figure. At the end of the day, though, Errera is just Errera.
“I put on a performance, but never an act,” he declares. “I’m the same dude, whether you see me at Starbuck’s or onstage. I’m proud of who I am and excited about what I can become. I’m outspoken but always respectful. I let people be themselves. I don’t stereotype, don’t judge.”
He grins and pulls his hat lower on his forehead. “Hey, I’m too busy orchestrating the little band that plays in my head.”