The piano had no use.

Someone hauled the beat-up piano into a big trash bin parked at a nursing home in Germantown, then took off.

The woman had no memory.

Sometimes, her son had to remind her to change her clothes or turn off the gas stove after cooking.

But when the piano came into the life of the 79-year-old mother, magic happened, not only for her, but for all the seniors at the NewCourtland LIFE Center in North Philadelphia.

The story begins two years ago with R. Max Kent. He works as an assistant vice president for NewCourtland Inc., a nonprofit developer of nursing homes and daytime senior centers. His job is finding money for projects and keeping on top of new developments.

It was during renovation work at the nonprofit's Germantown Home that he found the spinet, made a half-century ago by the Winter Piano Co.

"Overnight, this piano materialized," Kent said.

Instead of sending it to the dump, he took the small piano home. "I thought, 'What the heck,' and threw it in the back of my truck," he said.

Kent does not restore pianos. He plays the trumpet and is musical enough to "find middle C with my ear," he said.

But he is a tinkerer. He spent 21 years in the Army, taking care of tanks and other armored vehicles. "I have the right gene for taking things apart and putting them together," he said.

In his spare time, he went to work on the piano, going online for tips. He replaced broken wood and warped panels. He changed brass wheels. He repaired hammers and reattached strings. He used toothpaste to polish keys.

Four months later, the piano was tuned and ready, but with nowhere to go.

"What am I going to do now with this piano?" Kent wondered.

He kept it in his garage in Downingtown.

In North Philadelphia, meanwhile, NewCourtland was putting the finishing touches on a new center at 1900 W. Allegheny Ave.

The nonprofit operates what it calls LIFE centers - a federally funded model that is short for Living Independently for Elders. The center has daytime activities for seniors, as well as on-site medical staff, and physical and occupational therapists.

On the eve of the center's opening last December, it occurred to Silvia Boswell, the director, that it would be nice to have a piano. Music, she knew from years of working with older people, had a calming, comforting effect. She mentioned this to Kent.

His piano found a home - and Janie Walker, who lives in Germantown, found her place at NewCourtland.

Every day, she is picked up and driven to the North Philadelphia center, and since her arrival last winter, her hands have rarely left the piano.

"There are many things she doesn't recall, like when certain family members died," said son Richard. And yet put her at a piano, "and she can play like it was yesterday."

Richard Walker remembers that when he was young, the whole family - parents, uncles, cousins - would jam on weekends in the living room. His mother played an electronic keyboard, with relatives on the guitar, drums, cello, and bass.

"And those who didn't play an instrument, we'd give them a tambourine, shaker, or bongos," he said.

On Wednesday morning at NewCourtland, piano music spilled from a common room, filling hallways with strains of "God Bless America," which blended seamlessly into "When the Saints Go Marching In" before picking up with "Amazing Grace."

"I've been doing this since I was a child in school and church," Janie Walker said.

She didn't have lessons.

"I just banged on the keys until I learned how to play," she said.

Her grandfather was a pastor and to this day, she said, she prefers church music.

Staff at the center say that even when clients lose their short-term memory, they can somehow cut through the fog of dementia to recall lyrics and music.

"It takes them back to the good old days," said Aginah Shaw, a therapeutic recreational coordinator for NewCourtland.

Walker is not the only one to find comfort in the old piano. Sylvia Kent, also 79 (no relation to Max Kent), shares the piano with Walker.

Her style is more blues with a hint of gospel - or, as she calls it, "a little South . . . with everything mixed in."

"I'm addicted to this," Kent said of her piano playing. "I'm so happy."

With the constant music at NewCourtland, it was only natural to start a choir. About a dozen singers plus Walker and Kent were rehearsing Wednesday before a performance later that day at the company's nursing home in Germantown.

"They're going on tour," Shaw joked.

Wearing a Sunday hat with a big white tulle bow, plus big clip-on pearl earrings, Walker led the choir through "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Her gnarled fingers knew just where to go. No sheet music required.

Watching, Shaw commented, "It gives her purpose. She feels like she's giving back."

215-854-5659 @j_linq