Performing Arts

Spotlight On: Academy for the Arts

Karen Sorrells teaches Alex Olszewski piano

By Emma Castleberry

Karen and Clark Sorrells, founders of Academy for the Arts (AFTA) at First Baptist Church of Asheville, didn’t start their music academy on a whim. “We had a dream to do this for a long time,” says Karen, AFTA’s director. Karen and Clark met at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, where both earned masters degrees in church music. The Sorrellses now serve as music ministers at First Baptist Church. After a major remodel in 2006, the church was left with a large, well-appointed basement space that was only being used once weekly. The Sorrellses saw an opportunity.

In 2012, the couple took a two-month sabbatical, studying in-house music programs at churches in Minneapolis, Houston, New York and Atlanta. They opened AFTA in 2014. “We felt like we could fi ll a niche in our community,” says Karen. “While there are other arts and music academies in town, we thought we had something to offer.” This was not only because of the excellent location of First Baptist Church in the heart of downtown Asheville, but also because of the Sorrellses’ commitment to high-quality instructors. The couple carefully selected each teacher at AFTA and most of the instructors have advanced degrees in their disciplines from conservatories like Juilliard, Boston and Oberlin. “Not only are our teachers excellent instructors, but they’re also excellent performers,” says Karen. “They really know their craft.”

AFTA began with about 10 instructors in strings and piano. The school has since expanded to include more than 20 instructors and additional classes in winds, brass and voice. Frances Duff, a cello instructor at AFTA, has been with the school since it opened. “AFTA is a location where teachers can work together and share teaching ideas,” says Duff. “Students of all ages and walks of life see each other and share in their common desire to play music.”

Diversity in student population has always been a central tenet for the Sorrellses and AFTA. “If there is anything our world and country needs right now,” says Clark, “it is for people to be brought together from different demographics, family structures, faiths, socioeconomic statuses and schools.” To encourage diversity, AFTA offers need-based scholarships and partners with schools to increase access to arts education. One of AFTA’s school partners is Francine Delany New School for Children, which provides weekly bus transportation to AFTA. Buffy Fowler, operations manager at Francine Delany, says the transportation, combined with scholarships and the reduced cost of group lessons, have removed barriers for many students. “So often the emphasis is placed on what kids can do academically without acknowledging that extracurricular activities can support and foster academic development,” says Fowler. “We have seen students who struggle with focus in an academic setting make signifi cant academic growth after a semester of music lessons.”

Beyond lessons and school partnerships, another important branch of AFTA is the Asheville Youth Choirs. AYC began with a single choir in 2014 and has grown to offer four choirs with 172 singers. The Asheville Youth Choirs will perform a free holiday concert on Sunday, December 10, at 7 p.m. at First Baptist Church.

Hannah Lim has two daughters involved in the youth choirs and also enrolled in lessons at AFTA. Lim discovered AFTA when her daughters’ private music teachers were hired on to the staff at the school. While waiting in the lounge for her children to fi nish lessons, Lim has observed the school’s diverse student population. “It’s beautiful to see children from different backgrounds come together because they have this one thing in common: music,” she says. “The quality of instruction and structure of the program makes AFTA different. The program teaches music through individual lessons, but it also teaches performance skills through recitals.”

While AFTA is housed in a church, the Sorrellses explain that religion is not part of the curriculum. “AFTA’s focus is on the power of the arts to bring all people together, regardless of faith,” says Clark. “Learning and performing artistic craft offers people the opportunity to know one another on the common ground of aesthetic excellence. We offer such common ground to our community.”

First Baptist Church of Asheville is located at 5 Oak Street. AFTA is open Monday through Friday while lessons are in session. AFTA’s spring term begins on January 2 and auditions for the Asheville Youth Choirs will be held January 4. For more information, visit or email

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