She started piano lessons at three and in her teens was selected to become an organ scholar at one of the UK's most prestigious universities.

At 29, Tiffany Vong is still blazing a trail in classical music by helping beat the gender divide in conducting.

According to recent figures from the Royal Philharmonic Society, there are currently only five female conductors with titled roles amid the several hundred conductors on the staff of professional British orchestras.

Emma Warren, a postgraduate student on the choral conducting course at the Royal Academy of Music in London, wrote in The Guardian about being the only female student and said all her teachers had been men.

She described the gender-balanced profession portrayed by Cate Blanchet in the Bafta award-winning film Tár as a "utopian fantasy."

The Herald:

Ms Vong, who lives in Anniesland in Glasgow, studied at Oxford University where she says the gender divide in conducting was apparent. 

"In the chapel choirs, the music is either run by a student, an organ scholar, or by the director of music. Within the organ scholars when I was there it was mainly mainly male organists, so it was mainly male organists who conducted the choir as a result.

READ MORE: Edinburgh Festival director hopes for 'bravery' as line-up revealed

"So I could see that slight divide, even at that stage in my undergrad.

"There's still a lot of work to be done to re-address that balance. I don't really have the answers.

The Herald:

"I think the more representation that we have on the podium, the more it will affect future generations and hopefully inspire more female conductors to take up the roles.

"I think it starts from the very top. We need more females in charge of things."

At the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland there are currently five students on the postgraduate conducting programme and only one is a woman.

However, it runs a fellowship for conductors  "on the cusp" of their careers and the current recipient is a woman, Emilie Godden.

Previous appointees include Teresa Riveiro Böhm, Welsh National Opera Associate Conductor and Associate Conductor of the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra.

READ MORE: How Scots university is helping close the deprivation gap - for good 

Ms Vong says there is reason for optimism. She has been appointed women's conducting fellow at the National Youth Choir of Scotland where she will work to encourage women to become choral conductors.

"I do feel that it's changing," she said.

"There are more girls taking up the organ and therefore that path to being a conductor is a little bit easier."

The Herald:

Her route to conducting began in school. After the spell of living in Hong Kong her family returned to Scotland and she enrolled at Glenalmond College in Perthshire, a privately run boarding school.

"The conducting thing just sort of happened on the side," she says. 

"As an organist you are kind of expected to do a bit of conducting so I was kind of thrown into it [at school]. It's one of those things where I just had to learn on the job.

She did a bit more at Oxford University where she studied music and was also an organ scholar, accompanying chapel services.

READ MORE: Rosemary Goring: Live classical music under threat as never before

When she returned to Glasgow to focus on performance, completing a postgraduate at the Conservatoire, she began accompanying choirs and applied for a couple of jobs as a conductor.


She now leads a number of choirs including the University of Glasgow Choral Society, the Kelvin Choir in Bearsden and a school choir in Glasgow city centre as well as teaching and giving organ recitals.


The Herald:

"Most people start, learning an instrument first to a high level and then the conducting just sort of grows from that," she says.

"You need to have a very thorough understanding of music to begin with and that comes from being able to perform to a very high standard.

"Choral conducting is something I am used to doing, I've not done a lot of orchestral conducting but it's something I am interested in possibly pursuing in the future."

She is currently busy rehearsing Fauré’s Requiem for a performance in a couple of weeks.

She said: "It's a beautiful work full of harmonic richness and melodic invention, and some lovely solos for baritone and soprano as well."

The Herald:

She says Nicola Benedetti has been "absolutely brilliant" at helping encourage more children to play an instrument and develop a love of music.

"The cuts in funding that we are seeing in arts and music are just tragic," said Ms Vong.

"I completely agree with everything she says about education in schools.

"It needs to start when you are really young and music should be available to everyone, irrespective of your financial background."