I go to an intermediate session as we don't seem to have a slow session here in Columbus. As, by far, the least talented musician in my local session I have gained a certain degree of experience in not playing. This is less of a contradiction than it sounds as I've learned a lot this way.
You can do this with a CD, too, but I don't tend to be sitting down and focused on the music so much when I listen to the CDs, and I like live music and Guinness, so I find a session to be an ideal setting for this.
Here's a list of things you can practice while listening actively; none of them require much, if any, musical experience. I'm arranging the list in what I think is roughly the order of difficulty for someone just beginning to learn the whistle, from easiest to hardest:
- Tap your foot to the beat of the tune.
- Learn to distinguish simple and compound meter.
- Count the tune. This just means being aware of the general structure of the tune and following along where you are within the tune. Since Irish tunes mostly have simple structure with two eight bar parts, each of which repeat before the whole tune repeats, you don't need to know the particular tune to follow along with most tunes. You can count beats or measure numbers, whatever works out for you. You'll know you're starting to do it right when you can predict the repeats as they happen.
- Learn to distinguish different types of tunes. Tunes in simple meter will usually be reels, hornpipes, or polkas. Tunes in compound meter will be one of several different types of jigs.
- If there is another whistle or flute player, listen for when they breathe.
- Listen for ornamenets such as cuts, taps, slides, etc.
- Learn the names of the tunes. This seems easy, but I'm putting it in the "harder" end of the list since folks don't always say (or know!) the names of the tunes they play at a session. But it's much easier if you're listening to CDs....
- Listen to the tune and hum along with the repeats (quietly!). This is the first step to ear learning — you have to know what note is coming before you'll be able to play it. This also helps you learn to listen to both yourself and the rest of the session at the same time — an important skill for playing with other musicians.
- Listen for variations in the tune, such as octave changes, ornamental triplets, combining a series of eighth notes into a single longer note, etc.
- Try to figure out what key the tune is in. For those of us without perfect pitch this can be difficult. Look at other whistle or flute players, if there are any. Or quietly play a D or G on the whistle to see how it compares with the tune.
Update: I added additional items to the list based on feedback on the Chiff and Fipple forums.