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Like any high schooler, 14-year-old Courtney Rau struggles to manage her time.

“It’s hard because I’m at school from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” said Courtney, a freshman at the Bullis School in Potomac. “It’s hard to balance everything; homework and practicing.”

Unlike most high schoolers though, Courtney, who lives in Gaithersburg with her parents and younger sisters, Kylie, 12, and Maddison, 10, also has to find time for her budding music career.

Since last winter, Courtney has been pursuing a professional career in country/pop music, and just returned from her third trip to Nashville earlier this month.

“It just sort of happened last Christmas,” said Julie Rau, Courtney’s mother. “It was ... not really planned.”

While her professional career may have gotten off the ground just last year, Courtney has been playing music nearly all her life.

“From the time she was 4, all she ever did was dress up and do the karaoke machine in front of the mirror,” Rau said. “When she was about 6, she would start [singing] songs off the radio.”

By age 7, Courtney was taking piano lessons. Her mother said she first noticed her daughter may have something special when she realized Courtney didn’t need sheet music to play the piano.

“She hates to read music because she can hear [the notes] without it,” Rau said.

The summer before Courtney started seventh grade, Rau started reaching out to any and every connection she had in the music industry in an effort to give Courtney her big break.

“When a kid’s passionate, you sort of have to go with that ...” Rau said.

Courtney’s first taste of the country music world came with her first trip to Nashville last December. There, she recorded with music producer and the co-founder of Midas records, Keith Follese. Courtney also had the opportunity to work on her songwriting with Christian music writers in the area.

Following a second trip in August, Courtney returned to Nashville during her winter break. She played a benefit concert at Opry Mills, the largest shopping mall in Tennessee, and recorded her newest song, “After the Storm,” with Jessica Harp, formerly of the country music duo “The Wreckers.”

“It was unreal,” Courtney said.

“She kept pinching herself, looking at me like, ‘Really, really?’” added Rau.

The local country music scene also is starting to take notice. On Dec. 16, Courtney, who has learned to play guitar, was interviewed on WMZQ and played a live acoustic set which aired on DJ Jenni Chase’s show.

Courtney writes most of her own music and says her style is a combination of country and pop — a genre made popular by another young star not too long ago.

“I’ve always loved country and when Taylor [Swift] came out, I started loving it more,” Courtney said. “Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Adele; listening to their songs kind of inspires me and my own songs.”

Three of Courtney’s songs, “What’s a Girl Gotta Do,” “New Pair of Shoes,” and “Thanks But No Thanks,” are available on iTunes. A self-titled, debut album also is planned for release within the next few weeks featuring 12 of Courtney’s songs. But for now, Courtney said she’s just focused on what she’s always enjoyed doing: playing music.

“It’s my passion,” Courtney said. “I hope to sing and perform more and wherever I get will be a blessing.”

But like any high schooler’s parents, Rau says her daughter’s academics come first.

“Obviously her schoolwork is No. 1,” said Rau, who adds the family always tries to coordinate Courtney’s travels with her time off from school. “If she can keep her grades where they need to be [we’ll] keep supporting her [music].”

chedgepeth@gazette.net