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Talented Fort Mill teen singer vies for national arts award

From the beginning, music teacher Janet Hendley noticed something special in Rachel Tripp, one of the third-graders in her class at Gold Hill Elementary.

"Just raw talent," Hendley said. "Rachel just has that sense - things you don't have to teach. It's just in your genes.

"The kids knew it too."

In the decade since, Tripp has indulged her passion for singing and sharpened her skills, accumulating a bevy of awards and performance credits. With a semester of school left, the 17-year-old Fort Mill High senior hopes she's on the verge of a career as a recording artist.

She might be.

Tripp is among 150 finalists from more than 5,000 applicants across the nation chosen for YoungArts, the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts' core program, which seeks to nurture talent from nine disciplines in the visual, literary and performing arts.

Alumni, including violinist Jennifer Koh and singer-songwriter Josh Groban, have gone on to music careers.

Tripp and 17 others were chosen for voice.

This month, YoungArts will send Tripp to Miami for a week of training with accomplished artists. She will get an award of at least $1,000 and a chance to move ahead in the program and become a Presidential Scholar in the Arts.

"These students have been judged by our panels as the best amongst their very talented peers," NFAA President and CEO Christina DePaul said. "They have proven themselves through a strenuous application and adjudication process consisting of audition pieces and evaluation from expert judges."

It could be a pivotal moment for Tripp, who plans to attend USC to study broadcast journalism.

"My dream would be to go to Nashville and be a singer-songwriter," she said. "Music truly moves people. It changes lives."

While she's been performing and recording music for some time, Tripp wrote her first song last year, a pop country anthem about her future called "Wait and See."

She sings: "Gonna chase that dream of the big spotlight. Working so hard, my future's bright. Things are going to be so special for me. Just you wait and see."

It is indicative of her pop, country and soul influences, said Tripp, whose favorite musician is John Mayer.

She recorded "Wait and See" at home. Her dad, Freddy, who plays keyboard in the beach music group Fantastic Shakers, built a professional home studio where he and Rachel spend evenings recording.

"Number one, I want her to do whatever she wants to do," Freddy Tripp said. "I'll try to support her in whatever she does."

Rachel balances studies and recording with theater. She stars in her school's twice annual choral shows, elaborate high school musicals that have earned a reputation for their professional quality.

"As a performer, Rachel lights up the stage," Fort Mill High choral director Michael Dove wrote in a letter of recommendation. "She has a passion for the arts that is obvious to everyone who sees her perform. ... She has one of the finest soprano voices I have heard and constantly works to improve her skills."

Busy career

Rachel started singing when she was 3.

Her first solo performance was in a daycare Christmas show, where she sang "Amazing Grace." She has since performed in 20 stage shows, including 11 under Dove's direction.

She sang with the Charlotte Children's Choir, performed solos at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and St. Paul's Cathedral in London and won the York County Idol competition.

For a while, she performed with iCande (eye candy), a Nashville pop group whose songs target top 40 charts. iCande's song "Rush of the Crush," on which Rachel sings, is catchy and brings to mind Miley Cyrus's "The Climb."

But the group's demands clashed with school, and Rachel left.

"It was just kind of crazy," Freddy Tripp said. "We want her to have a life."

If the experience affected Rachel, it doesn't show. She keeps working toward a career in music.

"She'll leave rehearsal here at six o'clock and go to Gastonia for a voice lesson," Dove said.

Last month, Rachel and Freddy finished a Christmas album for friends and family, some of which she posted to her MySpace page.

She's also working on two songs she wrote with an artist she met at a Muzak music camp last year.

"Of course those songs are about boys," Rachel said.

For a while Rachel wanted to work on Broadway, but working in a studio got her hooked on recording.

"Just getting one finished is probably one of the best feelings," she said. "It's always weird to hear myself. You're constantly critiquing. But there are times where I'm like, 'Dang, that's me!'"

Rachel continues networking and building her portfolio.

"It's a lot like fishing," Freddy Tripp said. "Every once in a while you get a nibble. You're trying to get that big fish."

Dove has no doubt her moment will come.

"Rachel really could do anything she wants," he said. "It's all about being in the right place at the right time," he said. "Who knows? This thing in Miami could ignite something for her."

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