She began playing piano at age 2 in her native Japan, but Kayoko Dan doesn't consider herself a pianist.
Dan, the new music director and conductor of the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras, played flute in marching band through high school in Houston, Texas — where her family moved when she was 8 — and then in college while pursuing a bachelor's degree in music education at the University of Texas, but she doesn't consider herself a flutist, either.
And she picked up the cello during graduate school at Arizona State University, where she received a master's degree in music education and a doctorate in conducting, but she says, "I'm not that good (at the cello). I can only hack out a few things on it."
What Dan is is a conductor.
It's her passion, and it's the one musical title she'll readily acknowledge.
"If you think about it, the conductor is the only person on the stage who's not making any sound," she said. "So I always tell the young conductors, your technique has to be extremely solid. Because this is how you communicate with your orchestra. ... Our job is to be responsible for elevating the energy of the group."
Dan's dissertation at ASU centered on non-verbal communication cues, including facial expression and eye contact. And her expressiveness and energy have made her a quick hit with the members of the youth orchestra since she took the helm last July.
CKYO currently has 265 members from 16 counties in its preparatory, concert, symphony and jazz orchestras. Dan conducts only the concert and symphony orchestras, which are composed primarily of middle and high school musicians.
"It's nice to have a conductor who's very clear. She's definitely easy to follow," said Jonathan Karp, 17, first violin with the CKYO symphony orchestra. "I know if I miss something, I can always just look up (at her) and know exactly where we are."
"She's great, I think, at working with our age group," said Aaron Karp, 14, Jonathan's brother and fellow CKYO violinist.
Previously the assistant conductor of the Phoenix Symphony, Dan first visited Lexington two years ago as a candidate for the Lexington Philharmonic conductor position.
Several CKYO board members saw her philharmonic audition and invited her to apply for the CKYO conductor spot.
"She's a very talented musician. I know she was seriously considered for the philharmonic position," said Bob Stadelman, president of CKYO's board of directors. "So the fact that we've got that caliber of a musician leading and teaching our students is just a wonderful thing."
As recipient of the Karajan Fellowship for Young Conductors in 2007, Dan traveled to Austria for six weeks, soaking in the sounds of the Vienna Philharmonic and the city of Salzburg, Mozart's home city.
"Just listening to the water flow. Listening to the leaves when the wind blows. Those kind of things. Thinking, this is what he listened to. Maybe this is one of his inspirations in writing these pieces," Dan said. "It was eye-opening."
From an early age, Dan knew she wanted to be a music educator. "A conductor is sort of an educator, in a way, even if they are conducting professionals."
Dan isn't afraid of big composers or big pieces. At their last concert, the CKYO symphony orchestra performed movements by Beethoven, Mahler and Tchaikovsky.
When she introduces a new piece to her orchestras, Dan uses a technique she calls "comprehensive musicianship." She discusses not only the motor skills involved in playing the piece, but its cultural history and the emotional effect it has on the students as they play it.
"If there are 80 people in the orchestra, then there may be 80 different emotional experiences to a piece," she said. "But sometimes it feels as though we're all together. And it's really cool to see."
Simultaneously thoughtful and energetic, Dan has used those attributes to take the group in new directions since arriving at CKYO.
This semester, she plans to hold conducting workshops for the symphony orchestra members, as a way of "planting a seed in their brains" about what the conductor's job entails, she said.
She's also hosting a first-ever composition competition, in which area college students will be invited to submit original scores for a future CKYO concert.
As part of the CKYO's outreach program, Friends in Music — which pairs CKYO musicians as after-school mentors and instructors to underprivileged students — Dan will hold in-class seminars with orchestra teachers at Bryan Station Middle School and Lexington Traditional Magnet School this spring, thanks to funding from LexArts, Stadelman said.
And last fall, CKYO performed in a side-by-side concert with the Lexington Philharmonic — the first time in many years that's happened, Stadelman said.
"She's shown a lot of initiative since she's been here, in just a few months," Stadelman said.
Margie Karp, a violin instructor at UK and with CKYO who served on the selection committee that chose Dan for the position, agreed.
"We wanted somebody who was as professional as possible in working with the kids. Her level of conducting is just wonderful. We felt she would be a terrific fit for the community, and she has been," Karp said.