Variation is a time-honored method of musical creativity – it simultaneously acknowledges the existence of something recognizable, yet attempts to vary it in some way, hinting at the possibility toward progress. Variations can often be a quick and easy introduction into the act of improvisation, as one finds that the ability to transform motifs and themes lead into possibilities of endless varieties. At the same time, variation is often one of the most difficult skills to develop within improvisational idioms, as it requires the performer to remember, recall, and alter thematic material in interesting ways, in real time, without it becoming redundant.
One method of getting started in the activity would be to play a favorite “lick” from memory, and attempt to vary it in some manner. The types of variations used can be simple and specific as to hear the result in clear terms – louder, softer, faster, slower, transposed up or down, rhythmic alterations, etc. The general rule of thumb in altering motifs is to play the same thing, but in a different way. Alterations are often done through logical reasoning or processes (augmentations, diminutions, transpositions) but this is by no means a requirement – the changes applied can also be done in an intuitive or spontaneous manner as well.
Some musicians found it helpful to record or notate some of the variations that they’ve come up for themselves – this allowed them to develop a palette of figurations that they could use as their disposal. The act of varying themes and motifs in itself is relatively simple, and given enough tries it should become very clear that coming up with original material is actually not that difficult. By thinking in the manner of a composer, the performer gains a sense of empowerment that allows them to gain a deeper understanding of how a musical work comes into being.
Group variations can also be a fairly interesting exercise as well – a motif can be given by a person, then each performer would be asked to vary it in their own way, one at a time. This can serve as a simple exercise for people to demonstrate their interpretive abilities as well as highlight their personality to the rest of their peers. As a derivative of this idea, performers can also play a game of “telephone” where the task is to vary the motif of the person sitting next to them then pass it along in a chained fashion. This requires greater amount of listening on behalf of the individual, since it requires them to respond directly to another person's playing.
If the game turns out to be like any other game of telephone, usually what comes out at the end turns out to be something totally different than what was initially said. Sometimes change happens, even if there's no intention involved.