July 15, 2002 12:00 PM

Want to play the piano like Vanessa Carlton on her Top 5 hit “A Thousand Miles”? Start young. No, younger. Her mother, piano teacher Heidi Lee Carlton, 50, played at least two hours a day when she was pregnant with Vanessa. “A Bach piece, a Mozart sonata, ” says Heidi. “And she heard it.” Adds Vanessa: “My earliest memory is of running around in between the legs of all my mother’s music students. At one time we had 10 pianos in the house.”

The oldest of three kids (dad Edmund, 55, is an aviation consultant), Vanessa, 21, grew up in Milford, Pa., and studied at Manhattan’s School of American Ballet but left in 1998. “You can get called in and asked to lose 15 lbs. when you only weigh 95 lbs. to begin with, ” she says. As for the intensity level? “I couldn’t get out of bed, I was so afraid.”

Writing songs while studying dance and music at Columbia University, Carlton moved into a one-bedroom Hell’s Kitchen apartment and landed gigs at small clubs. Her demos led to a record deal. “She’s got a bit of a Carole King thing to her,” says MTV exec Tom Calderone, who put her piano-on-a-pickup video into heavy rotation. Now if only Carlton could find a boyfriend. No musicians need apply. “When you and your boyfriend have your weekly SoundScan sales conversation, things are a little bit polluted,” she says. “I’ve got to date an architect or something.”

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